LCA Tejas already has many variants, Mk1, Mk1 Navy, Mk1A & the planned Mk2 (MWF). Now HAL is developing another variant of the Tejas with the intent of being used as a trainer aircraft for pilots graduating from advanced jet training. This was formerly known as SpORT (Supersonic Omni-Role Trainer) but now following the international aviation conventions, is renamed as LCA Tejas “LIFT” (Lead-in Fighter Trainer).
What is Tejas LIFT & what is its role?
To understand what the role of the LCA-LIFT is, let’s understand how the pilot training in the IAF works. If you join the Flying branch of IAF, training is divided into Stage I, II and III. Each stage gradually takes you from fundamental to more complex levels of aviation. Trainees other than NDA cadets are first sent for Pre-Flying Training at Air Force Academy (AFA) for six months before commencing Stage–I training where they get to develop psychomotor skills & learn the basic flying manoeuvres.
Currently this stage utilises the PC-7 MkII trainer & will be using the HAL HTT-40 basic trainer in future. After completion of Stage–I training of 24 weeks at Air force Academy, pilot trainees are trifurcated into Fighter, Transport and Helicopter streams. Fighter trainees start their training pertaining to fighter flying at this point.
Since the HJT-16 Kiran is ageing, the PC-7MkII is being used for Stage-II training too but in future, IJT Sitara will be used in this stage. After Stage-II training, the successful pilot trainees are commissioned as Officers and undergo Stage-III training.
In Stage-III training, Advanced Jet Trainer is used & currently this role is fulfilled by Hawk Mk. 132. On completion of Stage–III training, they begin operational flying at actual combat aircraft at the squadrons/units assigned to them. It takes time for a pilot to gain enough training & skill on the combat aircraft to be actually deployed during a combat scenario. Hence at this point new pilots need to undergo consistent training on real combat aircraft in the squadron. They get gradual exposure to modern technologies that they didn’t have access to while training in AJT Hawk. Only on the actual combat aircraft they get introduced to Helmet mounted displays, operating BVR missile & cruise missiles, operating an AESA radar, performing in-flight refuelling, making use of IRST, night weapons deployment, electronic warfare etc. Certifying on all these takes a long time in a fighter pilot’s career as he/she gets exposure to these gradually in his/her service.
This also puts additional burden on the life of the aircraft as every aircraft has a limited in flight service life of 4,000-6,000 hours. Finally, this is economically stressing as high performance twin engine fighters like Su-30MKI, Rafale & MiG-29 consume a lot of fuel during a single sortie.
This gap is what LCA-LIFT aims to fulfil. The LCA-LIFT will train pilots after they graduate on the AJT Hawk. It aims to provide the pilots with all the skills mentioned above quite early in his/her career. Also the LCA-LIFT will offer this training in a much more cost effective way as the single engine platform is much cheaper to operate.
The LCA-LIFT will be able to replicate the avionics suite & systems of all other fighters like Su-30MKI, Rafale, MiG-29, Mirage-2000 & Tejas. Thus, pilots training in the LCA-LIFT will be exposed to the entire bandwidth of equipment, weapons & sensors before getting their hands on the actual fighters.
HAL’s Deputy Chief Test Pilot Group Capt. HV Thakur said in an interview that the LCA-LIFT will have the “entire wish-list of a fighter pilot that is ever communicated with us (HAL)”. Gp. Capt. Thakur has been with the air force for 24 years & is a highly acclaimed pilot. He said in the same interview that the real & practical inputs of veteran pilots has been incorporated into the design of LCA-LIFT.
The design of LCA-LIFT is based on the LCA twin seat airframe & engine. The aircraft will be upgraded & improved to have the ability to replicate the software & avionics of other fighters in the inventory of IAF. The weapon & fuel payload remains the same as the LCA. All weapons cleared to be integrated & fired from the Tejas will be used by the LCA-LIFT as well. It’ll not only be used for training but LCA-LIFT will be fully combat capable too & can be used as a twin seat 4.5+ generation fighter aircraft. In combat roles, the second cockpit can house a Weapons Systems Operator (WSO) just like the Su-30MKI. The rear cockpit will also have the capability to control & interact with unmanned combat aerial vehicles like the CATS Warrior as well as swarm drones.
The cockpit was revealed in Aero India 2019. It’ll have a wide area touch enabled multi-functional display & side mounted control stick like few western fighters. The same cockpit concept will fly to MWF, TEDBF as well as AMCA programs.
LCA-LIFT is going to be one of its kind of fighter-trainer which can provide advanced flight training, lead-in flight training as well as can do all combat roles as effectively as any other fighter jet that the IAF has. In words of HAL CMD R. Madhavan, we don’t have any such platform which has all these capabilities. The first prototype of LCA-LIFT is scheduled to fly in 2023, post which we can see actual capability demonstration & then orders from IAF.
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