Naval Air: Indian Carriers Forced To Go Naked

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February 13, 2017: In early 2017 the Indian Navy issued a request for foreign suppliers to bid on a $15 billion contract to supply 57 jet fighter-bombers capable of operating from an aircraft carrier. This comes after a late 2016 announcement by the navy that India’s locally designed and built LCA (Light Combat Aircraft or "Tejas") jet fighter was unsuitable for use on Indian aircraft carriers. The navy mentioned the LCA being overweight and, well, simply not suitable. With some encouragement from the government the navy amended its decision to include the possibility that 46 of the LCA Mk2 (due in 2025) might be ordered if the empty weight could be reduced 15 percent (from 6.6 tons to 5.6 tons). Currently the max weight is 13.5 tons and armament is one twin barrel 23mm autocannon and up to 3.5 tons of missiles and bombs. Internal fuel is 2.5 tons and that can be increased by at least 40 percent via drop tanks. Many in the navy don’t believe LCA will survive until 2025 and the government seems to concur and authorized the navy to seek a suitable carrier aircraft abroad.

Actually the Indian navy already has a foreign built carrier jet but is seeking other suppliers. The Indian Navy bought Russian 16 MiG-29K jets for their new aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya (a rebuilt Russian Cold War era carrier.) The Indians were not happy with the performance of the Russian work on the Vikramaditya or the MiG-29K although technically the MiG-29K could compete for the new contract. India ordered the MiG-29Ks a decade ago, received them by 2009 and began using them on the Vikramaditya in 2012. There have been problems and disappointments.

The same could be said with the way India buys foreign weapons. What is going on here? It is all about the infamous Indian procurement bureaucracy. That includes the problem with the procurement bureaucracy being so inefficient that even when the military gets the money to buy some foreign system it can take a decade of more for the bureaucrats to make it happen.

With Indian made weapons there is also corruption and inefficiency in state owned firms. That was the main reason the Indian Air Force and Navy went public with their pleas for the government not to force them to accept and operate the LCA. Air force commanders point out that the LCA development has been a long list of failures. Moreover the current LCA design is very expensive to maintain and performs poorly in the air. Indian developers and manufacturers have been working on the LCA since the 1980s. The LCA was supposed to be ready for flight testing by 1990. A long list of technical delays put off that first flight until 2001. Corners had to be cut to make this happen. LCA technically entered service in 2015 with the air force, which had less demanding requirements than the navy. The first LCA squadron (20 aircraft) was ordered into service despite the need for essential upgrades that are forthcoming. The air force was not impressed and this first LCA squadron was to be based in the southern tip of India (near Sri Lanka) and far from any likelihood of combat. It will be years, if ever, before India is confident enough in LCA to station any of them on the Pakistani or Chinese border. For all this, by 2012 India only planned to buy 200-300 LCAs, mainly to replace its aging MiG-21s. Now those plans have been cut because of growing resistance from military pilots. Export prospects are dim, given all the competition out there (especially for cheap, second-hand F-16s). The delays have led the air force to look around for a hundred or so new aircraft (or even used F-16s) to fill the gap between elderly MiG-21s falling apart and the arrival of the new LCAs.

Many foreign suppliers dread the prospect of competing for Indian contracts because if you win you face years of incompetence, delays and the risk of being tainted by the world-class corruption found throughout the Indian government. There is also a monumental indifference among the procurement bureaucrats who seem unconcerned if the military is ill-equipped or, in this case, putting future carriers into service with no aircraft.

 


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