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J C Menon

India has decided to design and develop a twin-engine fighter aircraft capable of operating from the decks of the country’s aircraft carriers. The Indian Government’s approval for the Twin Engined Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) project comes almost five months after the naval version of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) TEJAS Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) conducted its first-ever take off and arrested landing from the Indian Navy’s aircraft carrier, the INS VIKRAMADITYA,  on 12th January. The effort to build an indigenious fighter aircraft for the Indian Navy is part of the country’s aim to cut down on its defence imports.

“With the successful completion of the TEJAS-Naval’s maiden flight, the indigenously developed niche technologies specific to deck based fighter operations have been proven, which will now pave the way to develop and manufacture the TEDBF for the Indian Navy, which is expected to proudly fly from the aircraft carriers by the year 2026,” an official of the Ministry of Defence informs.

The Indian Navy has been clear that it needed a twin-engine aircraft and has ruled out the operational deployment of the TEJAS-Naval due to several technical shortcomings including its single engine, as well as excessive weight, which would prevent the fighter jet from carrying an adequate payload when operating from a carrier.

An expanded fleet

The project designers of the new fighter say the twin engine aircraft can be easily developed, based on the experience gained in testing the naval prototype of the TEJAS fighter. The TEDBF would be the size of the MiG-29K currently being operated by the Indian Navy on its aircraft carrier and carry a weapons payload of nine tonnes with a top speed in the range of Mach 1.6 in addition to folding wings to save space on the deck of aircraft carriers. Compared to the TEJAS-Naval prototype, which is powered by a single US-built General Electric F404-GE-IN20 turbofan engine, the proposed fighter could be powered by two more powerful General Electric F414 engines and would have a significantly higher weapons payload and range.

The TEDBF will host several indigenous sensors and avionics which are now at an advanced stage of development including an Active Electronically Scanned Radar (AESA) which can simultaneously track targets in the air and out at sea or over land with great precision. All the fighters would be built with Indian data links and communication systems which would enable the jets to securely exchange critical sensor information during a mission.

The proposed aircraft requires a short take-off but arrested recovery (STOBAR) configured carrier which INS VIKRAMADITYA, and the soon to be inducted INS VIKRANT, are both fitted with. By contrast, the second carrier of the VIKRANT class, the INS VISHAL, will likely use a catapult assisted take-off but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) aircraft launch system, possibly incorporating new electromagnetic aircraft launch system (EMALS) technology. India has decided to ramp up its naval arsenal to balance China’s growing influence and has laid down ambitious long-term plans to match the Chinese naval presence in the region.

US or France?

Separately, the Indian Navy had recently filed a Request for Information (RFI) for 57 multi-role combat aircraft to go onboard the aircraft carriers with Boeing’s F-18 SUPER HORNET competing with Dassault Aviation’s RAFALE (Marine) for the deal. The navy is looking for complete support from whichever aircraft supplier it chooses, including maintenance, training, and logistical solutions with the navy said to be willing to pay US$15 billion for the 57 aircraft, which would be a massive deal for any company.