iRead, iLearn, iWrite. Hence, iBlog.

For Indian Military, Nuclear & Space matters, visit:

Monday, July 08, 2013

Naval T-50 PAK-FA For Russian Navy's Future Aircraft Carrier

What could India's position be, vis-à-vis this development?

At the International Maritime Defence Show currently underway in St. Petersburg, Russia unveiled a model [below] of its proposed future Aircraft Carrier. Designed by the Krylov Shipbuilding Research Institute, this Queen Elizabeth-class inspired Carrier would be powered by a Non-nuclear propulsion system &, as it would appear from the picture, have both catapult & ski-jump launch facilities - a throwback to its Ulyanovsk-class Supercarrier. This, however, is one of three designs it has proposed. Details or visuals of the other two aren't yet available on the "Interwebs".


What was interesting, though, was the sight of its flight deck lined with airframes bearing distinct resemblance to the conventional T-50 PAK-FA 5th Gen fighter, under current development. The accompanying article corroborated this. An article claiming that work on Naval-T-50-PAK-FA-Aircraft-Carrier-02-Rdeveloping a Carrier-capable version of the PAK-FA was on the cards, had been floating for some time, though it also claimed it would operate off Russia's present Carrier, the Admiral Kuznetsov - an unlikely proposition. This model & the article does give more credence to the possibility of such a programme being undertaken. One could, perhaps, see it gaining momentum once the current programme attains a level of maturity, indicated by commencement of its serial production, or its thereabout.

Curiously though, all the PAK-FA's are lined along the ski-jump, and what one assumed earlier was a catapult-launch path, actually has a small upward inclination [circled], like a mini ski-jump - uncharacteristic for a catapult-assisted launch. Could they both be ski-jumps with no catapults on this one? If so, the use of a ski-jump, instead of catapults for take-off operations, calls into question the ability of the aircraft to carry any meaningful payload of armaments. In its current form, the empty weight of the PAK-FA equals the Maximum Take-Off Weight [MTOW] of the MiG-29K, that itself stretches the upper weight limits of a ski-jump launched aircraft. Added weight would appear in terms of the delivery payload the aircraft needs to carry. With structural strengthening, that could be required to make the existing airframe carrier-capable, it is only natural for the Naval PAK-FA to gain even more weight. Frankly, a ski-jump launched T-50 makes no sense.

Would India opt into this project, if it 'gets off the ground'? Unlikely. The weight-class this aircraft belongs to would preclude its Advanced-Medium-Combat-Aircraft-AMCA-India-Roperation from any of the Indian Navy's [IN] planned Aircraft Carriers. The ski-jump equipped 40&45,000 tonne class of vessels - IAC-1 & Vikramaditya respectively - it would operate would be much more suited to play host to the indigenous LCA Navy fighter & the heavier  Russian MiG-29K types of aircraft. A successful execution of the LCA Navy project, forked from the original land-based LCA programme, could encourage developers to attempt the same with the heavier indigenous AMCA programme to meet subsequent requirements. In fact, such considerations could be factored into the design process at its current, nascent stage itself. From all available accounts, it appears that the second indigenous Carrier, the IAC-2, could be a much bigger & a more capable platform, possibly even equipped with EMALS [no official confirmation of specifications, so far - all speculations]. Even if it were to be the case, flying the PAK-FA off them would make for a bad choice, not least because of the dissimilar nature of aircrafts that would then be flying off each Indian Carrier - a salad bowl of fighter aircrafts sporting the Indian Navy roundel! The added economic burden of maintaining such a diverse fleet would only reiterate how bad an idea it could be. A much avoidable scenario.



The idea of a landlubber aircraft, which has a variant that is capable of operating from the high seas, could be very appealing to decision-makers. Economies of scale & commonality in major systems, leading to shared supply chain & maintenance regimes are actually compelling, legitimate factors that go in its favour. However, Engineering considerations have shown that such duality are hard to achieve without compromising on certain aspects, that ultimately rob the project of its original goals. Take, for example, the F-111 "Aardvark". Initially began as a common platform for the US Air Force & Navy, the latter eventually rejected it, instead preferring to go with the F-14 Tomcat. Even the current F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme underway has witnessed increasing dissimilarity in systems between 3 variants - 'A' [Air Force], 'B' [STOVL] & 'C' [Navy] - as the programme has progressed, than originally envisaged. The primary reason for such mismatch in intention-outcome could be attributed to the significant difference in operating characteristics, particularly during take-offs & landings, between land-based & carrier-based aircrafts. They are much more punishing in the latter's case. Therefore, as mentioned above, the need to modify the aircraft for carrier ops, primarily involving structural strengthening, result in increase in weight, causing reduced payload & range performance of the eventual aircraft. With improving computer-based tools for design, testing & optimisation along with the development of new light-weight, high strength materials, we could one day, soon be able to attain the Holy Grail of an ideal balance between duality & performance. But, perhaps, not today. The opposite path, on the other hand, has seen greater success, evident by Air Force versions of the Hornet, the McDonnell Douglas F-4 Phantom II, as also the French Rafale, to an extent. It is not hard to see why. Originally built for the more challenging Naval use, it was easier, thus, to adapt it for the relatively less stressful Air Force application. The Russians, with the years of neglect to their defence R&D setup, following the collapse of the Soviet Union, could face a bigger challenge in ensuring this conversion process actually leads to an as capable platform as its Air force counterpart is projected to be.

On the one hand, with a displacement of 80,000 tonnes, it would be joining the fraternity of Supercarriers, the kind the U.S Navy moves around in. Yet, on the other hand, the designers seem to be sticking with a conventionally fired power plant to move this proposed behemoth. Given the fact that the Russian Navy today operates Nuclear-powered Cruisers, this aversion to go nuclear on this surface vessel leaves one quite flummoxed. Then again, there are two more designs, of which we no nothing. One is hoping that those designs are easier to explain. This particular model could, perhaps, be a case of providing an option for the sake of providing options, making up the numbers.


On a tangent, if you're wondering why the Russians have a not too outstanding a legacy of building Aircraft Carriers, this write-up is a fine primer - What Soviet Naval History Can Tell Us About China's New Carrier


At this moment in time, all understandings about Navalising the PAK-FA reside in the realms of non-pivoted speculations. The release of this poorly shot photograph of a model has only buttressed this thought-process. Needles to say, one would have to wait for the availability of some amount of authoritative information to be in a position to draw more calculated inferences. All said & done, an interesting development, to say the least.


Also Read: Stealth version of India's Light Combat Aircraft [LCA] Tejas, Mk. 3 on the cards