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Navy eyes high-tech options for future aircraft carriers

General Atomics briefs navy on magnetic catapult that launches unmanned fighters

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

This article has been modified; please see the correction at the end

The Indian Navy — one of just nine navies that operate aircraft carriers — is thinking high-tech in planning its second indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vishal. The admirals are deciding whether INS Vishal, still only a concept, should launch aircraft from its deck using a technology so advanced that it is not yet in service anywhere: the Electro-Magnetic Aircraft Launch System (EMALS).

Getting a fully loaded combat aircraft airborne off a short, 200-metre-long deck is a key challenge in aircraft carrier operations. The INS Viraat, currently India’s only aircraft carrier, uses Short Take Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) since its Harrier “jump-jets” take off and land almost like helicopters. INS Vikramaditya, which Russia will deliver this year, uses Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR). The Vikramaditya’s MiG-29K fighters will fly off an inclined ramp called a “ski-jump”; and land with the help of arrester wires laid across the deck, which snag on a hook on the fighter’s tail, literally dragging it to a halt. This system will also be used on the first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, which Cochin Shipyard plans to deliver by 2017.

But INS Vishal, which will follow the Vikrant, might employ a third technique — Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery, or CATOBAR. Perfected by the US Navy since World War II, this has a steam-driven piston system along the flight deck “catapulting” the aircraft to 200 kilometres per hour, fast enough to get airborne. With greater steam pressure, significantly heavier aircraft can be launched. US Navy carriers launch the E-2D Hawkeye, a lumbering Airborne Early Warning (AEW) aircraft that scans airspace over hundreds of kilometres.

EMALS, the new-generation catapult that the Indian Navy is evaluating, uses a powerful electro-magnetic field instead of steam. Developed by General Atomics, America’s largest privately held defence contractor, EMALS has been chosen by the US Department of Defence for its new-generation aircraft carriers. The first EMALS-equipped carrier, the USS Gerald R Ford, will enter service by 2016. In Delhi Last Thursday, General Atomics briefed thirty Indian Navy captains and admirals on EMALS. Scott Forney III, the senior General Atomics official who conducted the briefing, told Business Standard that tight US controls over this guarded technology required special permission from Washington for sharing technical details of EMALS with India.

Senior Indian naval planners tell Business Standard that INS Vikrant, India’s next 40,000 tonne aircraft carrier, will use STOBAR to operate its complement of MiG-29K and Tejas light fighters. But Vikrant’s successor, the 65,000 tonne INS Vishal, could well be a CATOBAR carrier that launches larger and more diverse aircraft.

“While current fighters like the MiG-29K can operate with STOBAR systems, our options will increase with CATOBAR. We could operate heavier fighters, AEW aircraft and, crucially, UCAVs (unmanned combat air vehicles). A UCAV would require a CATOBAR system for launch,” says one admiral.

The navy is closely following UCAV development in India and abroad. On May 14, the X-47B UCAV that Northrop Grumman is developing for the US Navy became the first UCAV to be catapulted off an aircraft carrier, the USS George HW Bush.

Naval planners believe that, with INS Vishal likely to enter service in the early 2020s, they should plan on operating UCAVs from that carrier, as well as an AEW aircraft, and medium and light fighters.

“We could greatly expand our mission envelope with UCAVs, using the pilotless aircraft for high risk reconnaissance and SEAD (suppression of enemy air defences). Mid-air refueling would let us keep UCAVs on mission for 24-36 hours continuously, since pilot fatigue would not be a factor,” says a naval planner.

General Atomics has emphasized the EMALS’ ability to launch multiple aircraft. It has told the navy that EMALS causes less wear and tear on carrier-launched aircraft since electric power can be delivered more accurately than steam. It also launches aircraft quicker; requires less personnel to operate; and its high acceleration allows launches in still conditions, when STOBAR aircraft carriers must sail at 20-30 knots to generate “wind-over-deck,” needed to create the lift required for take off.

“We have completed 134 test launches across five classes of aircraft, including the F-35C Joint Strike Fighter; the F/A-18E Super Hornet; the C-2A Greyhound (delivery aircraft); the T-45 Goshawk trainer; and the E-2D Advanced Hawkeye,” Forney briefed the navy.

While the navy is impressed by the EMALS’ capabilities, there is apprehension that buying it may prove difficult. It would be a “single-vendor” procurement of a system that is untested in operational service, making it hard to validate General Atomics’ claim of being cheaper in the long term. But industry watchers point out that cutting-edge equipment like EMALS is what New Delhi wants from US-India defense relations. “The EMALS enhances India’s strategic capability. If New Delhi deems this a priority for collaboration, the US might well sanction the release of this technology,” says Manohar Thyagaraj, of the Observer Research Foundation.

This article had mentioned that India has never used Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery, or CATOBAR, which was incorrect and has been corrected. The error is regretted.

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First Published: Fri, May 31 2013. 00:48 IST