Hello defence lovers! In Aero India 2023, Hindustan aeronautics limited unveiled the mock-up of its new lead-in fighter trainer HLFT-42. In this article, we will perform an in-depth analysis of HLFT-42 and understand why we need it and where it fits in the spectrum of the requirement of the Indian air force.
In late 2022, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), responded to the United States Navy’s Request For Proposal (RFP) to acquire lead-in fighter trainers to replace its ageing T-45C Goshawk fleet with its LCA Tejas. In that process, the Americans requested various changes in the airframe of the Tejas. Perhaps after this event, HAL began the development of its new LIFT aircraft keeping the export market in mind. Before Aero India 2023, this concept was unveiled and called HLFT-42 which stands for Hindustan Lead-in Fighter Trainer. The computer-generated images and the physical mockup of the aircraft show that the airframe has been borrowed from HF-24 Marut, India’s first indigenous fighter Bomber.
HF-24 Marut’s Resurrection
HF-24 Marut was India’s first indigenous jet fighter. It was also the first non-soviet Asian fighter to move into the production phase from the testing phase. It made its maiden flight on 17 June 1961. Six years later it was inducted into active service. Soon enough Marut got the chance to prove its worth in the 1971 Bangladesh liberation war. It was used significantly during the battle of Longewala. After the war, during the late 1980s, it was slowly phased out of service as its underpowered engines weren’t enough for the IAF’s requirements.
HLF-42 resembles HF-24 Marut to a great extent. We can call it Murut’s resurrection with modern avionics, weapon packages, and of course with a more powerful and capable engine.
What is Lead in Fighter Trainer?
A Lead-in fighter trainer is a stop-gap between a fighter aircraft and an advanced trainer. Unlike an advanced trainer, the LIFT can mimic the flight characteristics of various fighter aircraft to provide realistic training to the pilot, before he/she advances to fly the actual fighter aircraft. A LIFT generally features a large area display that is capable of replicating the cockpit set-up of various fighters. A LIFT is often designed as a dual-role platform. In peacetime it can be used as a trainer and during the war it can be used as combat aircraft.
Why The IAF Needs a LIFT Platform?
So now we have understood what a LIFT platform is, let us discuss why the Indian airforce requires a LIFT platform. In the Indian airforce, five-stage training is provided to its fighter pilots. The first stage introduces the pilot to the basics of flying. Ulta light aircraft and gliders like Pipistrel Virus are used in this stage. This stage is conducted at the National Defence Academy. The next stage is basic flight training, where the pilot is introduced to complex flying equipment and flight physics through propeller-powered aircraft. Pilatus PC-7 is currently being used for this purpose. HAL’s HTT-42 will complement PC-7s in the future. The next stage is intermediate jet training where a pilot is introduced to jet flight physics. HAL Kiran is used for this stage. The next stage is advanced jet training, where various weapon systems and tactics are introduced to the pilot. BAE Hawk is currently used in this stage. Then comes the final stage where the pilot learns how to fly and fight in the actual aircraft. There are trainer versions of all combat aircraft that have twin-seat configurations. This training occurs at the fighter squadrons.
Lead-in fighter trainers can be used to bridge the gap between subsonic training in the advanced jet training phase and supersonic training in trainer versions of actual fighter aircraft. The per-hour flight cost of fighter jets is much higher compared to trainers as those are highly complex maintenance-hungry machines. Since a LIFT is primarily a trainer, it is generally safer for trainee pilots. Thus LIFTs are excellent for cost-cutting and enhancing the safety of trainee pilots. Moreover, LIFTs can be used as combat platforms during any conflict since they are armed with the same weapon systems and equipment as their fighter counterparts.
Technical Specifications of HLFT-42
HLFT-42 follows a conventional swept-wing design. It will have a length of 16 meters, a wing span of 9 meters, and an overall height of 4.6 meters. It will have an internal fuel capacity of 3,500 kilograms and a payload capacity of 4,500 kilograms. The maximum takeoff weight will be around 16,500 kilograms.
The primary aspect of HLFT-42 is to offer a cheaper option for LIFT aircraft. Thus cost cutting is a prime objective. The fuselage is expected to have significant portions of metallic components along with some composite material components. The aircraft might not have a complete digital fly-by-wire system. Instead, it can have power-assisted controls.
As the mock-up suggests HLFT-42 will have a bubble canopy design. It will have a full glass cockpit with a large area display similar to Tejas Mk-II. It will have the same Uttam AESA radar which will power Tejas Mk-1A. However, if Galium Nitride version of Uttam might be used depending on its development timeline. It will also have an InfraRed-Search-and-Track (IRST) sensor for guiding the infrared missile.
The HLFT mock-up at Aero India 2023 had 11 hardpoints, each wing having 3 hardpoints, 3 under the fuselage, and one on each wing tip. In the CGIs, it was shown carrying a massive load of 12 Air-to-Air-Missiles.
At Aero India 2023, during the initial days, the mockup of HLFT-42 had a very unique and interesting tail art. It portrayed “Lord Hanuman” with the text “the storm is coming”. However, the Lord Hanuman artwork was removed later on.
“There used to be a HAL aircraft called HF-24 Marut. HLFT-42 was derived from HF-24 Marut. There is nothing specific to derive from the image,” HAL Chairman and Managing Director CB Anathakrishnan said. “After internal discussion, we decided to remove the image of Hanuman as it is not appropriate to put it now,” he added.
Potential Roles in IAF
As discussed earlier, LIFT platforms are ideal for dual-purpose applications where they can serve as both trainers and light fighters. Considering IAF’s current fighter procurement plan, even if all the programs are executed timely, it will be very difficult to achieve and maintain 42 squadrons. By the time Tejas MK-II will be inducted the Mirage 2000 and Mig 29 fleet will reach retirement age. And by the time AMCA becomes ready for induction in mass numbers the Su-30 MKIs will have a very short tenure left. Thus IAF needs cost-effective fighters to fill up the gap.
The IAF will have better choices for front-line fighters in form of Tejas Mk 1A and Tejas Mk-II. However, HLFT-42 can be used as a workhorse to conduct various less sophisticated tasks. Since it will have sensor and avionics commonality with Tejas and other platforms with indigenous avionics, a very strong seamless indigenous data link can be developed. This will allow HLFT-42 to act as a ‘missile truck’ where it can carry a large number of air-to-air missiles which can be fired at targets acquired and locked by other friendly aircraft.
A full combat-capable trainer like HLFT-42 will provide our budding fighter pilots with more realistic training. It can also be used to replace the BAE Hawk in the future.
As of now, HAL has only presented the initial concept of HLFT-42. Since there are other high-priority projects for which the IAF has pledged its support we can safely assume that we might see the first prototype flying within the next three to five years. As most of the critical technologies have been already been developed for Tejas and the airframe is a borrowed one, the developmental phase is expected to be short.
The potential timeline significantly depends upon the interest of the Indian Airforce and the Indian government as funding for the project is a very important aspect. Depending on IAF’s interest the timeline can be reduced or stretched.
Owning and maintaining a full-fledged fighter aircraft is a very costly affair. Not all countries are blessed with enough resources to sustain an air force consisting of large numbers of modern fighters. Thus dual purpose trainer cum fighter becomes a cost-effective choice. Thus LIFT platforms have tremendous export potential.
According to the current scenario, LIFT aircraft are in great demand. Egypt is a potential market for Indian fighters. Southeast Asian countries could be a potential market too. However, the Korean FA 50 is a great challenge in this region.
The concept of HLFT-42 is very promising. However, it entirely depends upon the Indian air force whether it wants to induct a dual-role trainer or simply wants to go with additional numbers of a ready-to-induct fighters. Adding a new product to the lineup can be beneficial for HAL in tapping both the domestic and international markets. If the IAF chooses HLFT-42, it will definitely make its fleet more versatile.