The naval prototype of India’s Tejas light combat aircraft (LCA) made its first test flight on April 27. Already delayed by four years, the program still faces design concerns, including weight. Strengthening of the rear airframe for carrier operations, and the addition of an arrestor hook, has made the aircraft about 1,000 pounds overweight.
“The naval variant of the LCA will require the F414 Enhanced Performance Engine [EPE] providing up to 26,500 pounds of thrust, a 20-percent boost,” an Indian Navy official told AIN. General Electric and Boeing have proposed the EPE for future versions of the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, with a new fan, compressor and turbine, but it is still in development. India has ordered 99 F414-INS6 engines to power Mk2 versions of the Tejas, but they are believed to offer the standard 22,000 pounds of thrust. The prototype and limited series production Tejas Mk1s–including the naval prototype–are powered by GE F404-IN20 engines that produce 17,700 pounds. India ordered 41 of these after development problems with the indigenous Kaveri engine that was supposed to power the LCA.
Indian Defense Minister A.K. Anthony attributes delays to the naval LCA to “technical complexities, non-availability of infrastructure and critical components and technology denial regimes, extended user trials and the failure of some of the components during testing.” EADS has been providing technical assistance. The naval LCA schedule is supposed to align with construction of India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, due to be completed in 2014. To facilitate proving the aircraft for carrier operations, a shore-based test facility is being set up at Naval Air Station Goa replicating an aircraft carrier with a ski jump for launch and arresting gear for deck recovery. The takeoff area is ready, and completion of the landing area is scheduled for year-end. The cost of developing the naval LCA has escalated from the initially sanctioned $186 million to $336 million.
Over the next decade the Indian Air Force (IAF) plans to form six Tejas squadrons, four of them flying the Mk2 version. The first squadron is slated to deploy by July next year, to Sulur airbase in Tamil Nadu, but this date appears likely to slip to the end of next year. The preliminary design of the Mk2 powered by the F414 has been completed. The first flight is expected by 2014, around the time the Tejas Mk1 is declared fully operational. The IAF has said it will buy at least 83 Mk2s if the variant meets performance requirements.
Meanwhile, development of the Kaveri engine continues with Snecma, which has been providing technical assistance. The Kaveri is still considered an alternative engine for the LCA, and a spin-off version could power India’s proposed Unmanned Strike Air Vehicle. The ninth Kaveri engine prototype was integrated with an Il-76 testbed aircraft at the Gromov Flight Research Institute in Russia last year.