India is embarked on a plan to develop its own fifth-generation combat platform known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)
The Indian Air Force (IAF) will need about 220 new combat jets over the next few years to meet its current shortfall and cover the anticipated deficit due to the phased retirement of 14 squadrons of obsolescent aircraft by 2024. This figure of 220 is apart from 36 India-specific Dassault Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that the IAF will receive between 2019 and 2022 and 123 Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas jets expected by 2025. Various options are under consideration to meet this huge requirement, including the F-16 Fighting Falcon and the JAS-39E Gripen, besides another batch of 36 Rafale jets. There are also ambitious plans for fifth generation fighters.
While there is no consensus about what exactly “fifth generation” means, it is usually taken to imply all-aspect stealth (low-observable characteristics) which make it hard to detect by radar, high-performance airframe and power-plant for super-cruise (supersonic flight without afterburner), excellent manoeuvrability with thrust-vectoring and advanced avionics. The Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II Joint Strike Fighter are the world’s only combat-worthy fifth generation combat jets. India is following a twin-track approach to obtain such aircraft for the IAF.
The Russian Connection
In 2007, India and Russia signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for an Indian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) to be based on the Sukhoi PAK-FA T-50 which later morphed into the Sukhoi Su-57. The T-50 first flew in January 2010 and in December 2010, both countries agreed to spend $295 million each on the preliminary design of the new fighter. Though the Su-57 is claimed to be an awe-inspiring fighter, the Russian Air Force itself has ordered only 12 aircraft – not quite a vote of confidence. Indeed, by 2025, the bulk of the Russian Air Force will probably be Su-35 and Su-30SM jets with only a miniscule complement of fifth-generation fighters.
The FGFA project too has had a rough ride and was on the verge of collapse over issues such as costs, work share, adequacy of technology and total number of aircraft. While the IAF sees the FGFA as the only fifth-generation fighter available to it in the near future, the underpowered engine is a major concern. The Saturn AL-41FI turbofan does not permit super-cruise, but a more powerful truly fifth-generation engine, the Izdeliye 30 (Product 30), has recently been test flown for the first time. The IAF is also not impressed with the stealth characteristics of the T-50 and has pointed out 43 critical shortcomings it wishes to see rectified before making a firm commitment. Following hard bargaining, the two parties need to sign a draft contract committing each to spend $3.05 billion for development. The IAF may also place an order for 108 FGFA which would need about ten years after signing the contract for production to begin.
However, India is embarked on a plan to develop its own fifthgeneration combat platform known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Stung by its experience with the Sukhoi Su-30MKI that has been plagued by poor serviceability, shortage of spares and numerous teething troubles, with negligible technology benefit, India wants firm guarantees from Russia of substantial transfer of technology – especially that it will be able to upgrade the FGFA if required, without Russian involvement. For this, the Russian original equipment manufacturer (OEM) would need to part with sensitive computer source codes that control various critical aircraft systems. The FGFA project could then directly feed into the AMCA project.
AMCA – A Mirage or A Winner?
Recently an expert committee of the Ministry of Defence (MoD) reportedly ruled that there is no conflict between the FGFA and the AMCA; rather the expertise Indian designers and engineers gain from working on the FGFA would help them with the AMCA project. The AMCA project began in 2008 under the aegis of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as a multi-role fighter with stealth characteristics to be produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Currently in the preliminary design stage, it will probably be a medium jet of maximum takeoff weight of 24.2 tonnes and combat radius of around 1,000 km.
SINCE THE IAF HAS TO WAIT A DECADE OR MORE FOR THE FGFA, IT COULD WELL WAIT A LITTLE LONGER AND CONCENTRATE ON THE AMCA INSTEAD
In comparison with the mammoth AMCA project even the Tejas experience pales into insignificance. It will take great determination and resources to successfully build the first AMCA prototype within ten years as envisaged. Can Indian technologists produce lightweight carbon fibre and titanium alloys and other radar-absorbent materials and manufacture and assemble the airframe to micron accuracy? An even more difficult proposition is the engine which needs to be powerful enough to permit super-cruise. The AMCA theoretically will be powered by the GTX-35VS Kaveri engine developed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE). The project to develop this engine was abandoned in 2014; but later revived. GTRE is now working with French aerospace giant Safran to fix all issues and make the Kaveri a functional 110-125kN thrust class engine by 2019. Only then can the AMCA project really takeoff. The Electronics and Radar Development Establishment (LRDE) is also supposed to develop its X-band Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar.
Does the IAF Need the Fifth Generation?
Fifth generation jets are extremely difficult to build and can be twice or thrice as expensive as conventional fighters of similar capability on account of their lengthy design process, copious testing and exotic materials required. And with stealth programmes worldwide in trouble, success is by no means assured. Lockheed Martin is struggling with its F-35 fighter, despite spending $406.5 billion to date and having gained extensive experience from the F-22 development programme. Even operating and maintaining fifth-generation platforms is far more costly than jets of previous generation. So India would be ill-advised to commit to two fifthgeneration programmes simultaneously.
Indeed, in view of the uncertainties dogging the two projects, the IAF seems to be veering round to the view that it should first focus on building its strength of conventional fighters. It will soon have 272 Su-30MKIs on its inventory and 40 more are on order. Inducting another 108 FGFA would make the force top-heavy. Since the IAF has to wait a decade or more for the FGFA, it could well wait a little longer and concentrate on the AMCA instead. A delay in inducting a fifth-generation fighter will permit the technology to mature and a better aircraft to emerge.
The huge sums saved by dumping the FGFA could buy a large number of much cheaper conventional fighters in a much shorter timeframe. The IAF’s immediate need is another 36 Rafale jet fighters, with their deadly MBDA Meteor beyond-visual-range missiles and Scalp air-to-ground cruise missiles. The infrastructure being erected at Hasimara and Ambala airbases is adequate for two Rafale squadrons each and such a follow-on deal may cost just 60 per cent of the initial amount. But isn’t it risky for the IAF to wait perhaps 20 years for the AMCA in view of the Chinese threat? It may be a risk worth taking. China itself has not succeeded in producing fifth-generation engines and it seems to lack confidence in its Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 stealth fighter programmes, else why is it so keen to purchase conventional Su-35 jets from Russia?