Indigenous Fifth-Gen Combat Aircraft

The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which had conceived and designed the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, has set the ball rolling for building the next-generation combat platform, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). It has extended invitation to private players in Coimbatore to build a technology demonstrator. The proposal is not only the first time an indigenous military aircraft programme is seeking the involvement of private players, but it is also the first time a defence plane development project is proposed to be executed outside Bengaluru. The project that is proposed to be implemented in Sulur in Coimbatore district, marks Tamil Nadu’s first major defence aircraft project. The Indian Air Force (IAF) base in Sulur has been earmarked to be the first permanent base of the LCA Tejas squadron.

Issue: 6 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By SPSC

The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a project that has been on the anvil for some time, is planned to be a twin-engine, multi-role, fifth-generation fighter aircraft for the IAF. The aircraft will have stealth characteristics and allweather capability. It is being developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and is proposed to be manufactured by a consortium of aerospace companies from both the public and private sector of the Indian aerospace industry. However, the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will be the lead integrator. So far, feasibility study on AMCA and the preliminary design stage have been completed and government approval for the project is awaited. Work on further design, development and manufacture of the platform will be undertaken after approval by the government.

As for indigenous capability for production of combat aircraft, track record of the Indian aerospace industry has been less than impressive. Established in 1940 as a private venture, HAL, in 1956, with assistance from Dr Kurt Tank, a reputed German aircraft designer, undertook the design & development of the first indigenous combat aircraft, the HF-24 Marut. The project made good progress and the Marut entered service with the IAF in April 1967, just 11 years after its launch. Unfortunately, the aircraft suffered from a major deficiency as it was equipped with an underpowered engine and was withdrawn from service by 1990.

In 1984, ADA embarked on the second project for the development of an indigenous fighter aircraft dubbed LCA Tejas. But the project moved forward at an excruciatingly slow pace. I It took the Indian aerospace industry 32 years to hand over the first LCA Tejas to the IAF for squadron service. Two years have passed since then, but the LCA Tejas is yet to receive Final Operational Clearance. As the LCA Tejas equipped with the GE F-404 engine turned out to be underpowered and as evaluated by the IAF, had a number of inadequacies, the Indian aerospace industry came up with a proposal to develop the Mk II version of the aircraft that would be equipped with the more powerful GE F-414 engine, would have better avionics and much improved operational capability. As this is likely to take years if not decades and the requirement of the IAF to induct combat aircraft was urgent, the Ministry of Defence (MOD) asked HAL to address the deficiencies pointed out by the IAF and offer an updated version dubbed Mk IA before the LCA Tejas Mk II became a reality. Meanwhile, if the AMCA project proposed to be located at Sulur, is given the green light, it will proceed in parallel with the development of the LCA Tejas Mk II at Bengaluru.

As the AMCA is envisaged to be a fifth-generation platform, its design, development and manufacture will involve a quantum jump in technology and industrial capability, way beyond what is required for the LCA Tejas Mk II. Manufacture of the AMCA will require expertise in handling not only aerospace grade alloys with aluminium, steel, titanium, but more importantly, composites. In fact, the entire external surface will have to be manufactured using carbon fibre composites. The platform will require an engine that will be capable of delivering much higher thrust than any of the engines on the different versions of the LCA Tejas or the Su-30 MKI. The power plant will need to have capability of thrust vectoring and will have to be integrated with the airframe in a manner so as not to compromise the stealth characteristics of the platform. The AMCA will require the latest and most advanced radar, a complete range of modern avionics and potent weapon systems including in the nuclear regime as also the BrahMos supersonic cruise missile.

Given the capabilities envisaged for the new platform, it is clearly beyond the capability that the Indian aerospace industry can boast of at present. While the move to break away from the confines of the public sector and involve the budding Indian aerospace industry in the private sector for the AMCA project, is indeed a progressive one and laudable, it is highly unlikely that the private sector will be able fill the huge gap in technology and capability in relation to the AMCA project that currently afflicts the Indian aerospace industry in the public sector. It goes without saying that for the AMCA project to be successful, a collaboration with a reputed original equipment manufacturer is an inescapable necessity. Without this, the AMCA may remain a distant dream for the IAF with the Indian aerospace industry engaged in a fruitless pursuit.