The Indian Aerospace Industry will have to go in for extensive collaboration with the competent and reputed global OEMs until then India’s own 5th Gen Fighter will remain a dream unfulfilled.
In a briefing to the media on October 5 this year just ahead of the 87th anniversary of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the newly appointed Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) Air Chief Marshal R.K.S. Bhadauria, stated that the IAF had no plans to procure a fifth-generation combat aircraft from abroad and that the service would depend totally on and fully support the programme initiated by the Indian aerospace industry to indigenously develop the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), a fifth-generation platform with stealth features. This will enable the IAF to foray into the next generation of combat capability and significantly enhance its operational status. This will also help the IAF in the attainment of its objective of achieving a clear operational edge over the Pakistan Air Force as also to be able to match the capability at least partially, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. This is particularly relevant as the strength of the combat fleet of the IAF has been depleting rapidly over the last ten years and currently is down to 30 squadrons as against a strength of 42 authorised by the Government of India. With the retirement from service of the ageing MiG-21 Bison fleet as also the remaining MiG-27 fighter jets, the strength is only going to reduce further to alarming levels with serious consequences for the operational status of the IAF. To compound the problem, efforts by the IAF to procure 126 Rafale jets to equip six squadrons failed eight years after the issue of the tender to the global aerospace majors. The procurement of 36 Rafale jets on an emergency basis through a direct deal with the Government of France, will provide only partial relief to the distressful situation the IAF has descended into.
While the statement about the AMCA that has emanated from the highest echelons of the IAF is undoubtedly inspiring, there will be a need to make a comprehensive assessment of the capability of the Indian aerospace industry to fulfil the aspirations of the IAF as enunciated by the CAS. While the Indian aerospace industry has performed reasonably well in the regime of rotary-wing platforms, the same cannot be said about its efforts to develop a fourth-generation fighter jet, the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas for the IAF and the Indian Navy. The project for the LCA Tejas was launched in 1983 with the responsibility of design being assigned to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) created specifically for this purpose. The responsibility of production of the aircraft was assigned to Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. Unfortunately, the involvement of the IAF in the LCA Tejas project was restricted to defining the capabilities expected of the platform by spelling out the Air Staff Requirements and keeping an eye on the progress of the project through an officer of a fairly senior rank attached to ADA. Unlike the Indian Navy that is far more intimately involved at the management level in the building of warships and submarines by the different shipyards in the country, the involvement of the IAF in the LCA Tejas project has been peripheral. This clearly is an organisational weakness that needs to be addressed and corrected.
Despite all assurances from the Indian aerospace industry, it has been a long wait for the IAF for the LCA Tejas as it took the Indian aerospace industry more than 32 years to hand over the first aircraft to the IAF. HAL claims to have the capability to produce eight LCA Tejas Mk I aircraft per year; but this capability is yet to be demonstrated. In the meantime, the government has indicated that the rate of production of the LCA Mk I and IA will be doubled to 16 aircraft per year to complete delivery in the committed time frame of the 123 aircraft ordered by the IAF so far. As to when this enhanced rate of production capability of 16 aircraft per year will be a reality, cannot be stated with any degree of certainty.
Moving further ahead, the Indian aerospace industry has plans to develop the more powerful and capable Mark II version of the LCA. Given the rate of progress of the LCA Tejas Mk I project, even the LCA Mk II at present appears to be a distant dream. By all reckoning, the development of the AMCA is going to be far more complex technologically in respect of airframe design, engine technology, avionics and weapons systems. Development and production of this futuristic combat platform will undoubtedly be a formidable challenge for the Indian aerospace industry. The experience with the LCA Tejas programme does not generate the level of confidence in the capability of the industry to live up to the expectations enunciated by the CAS.
Unless the Indian aerospace industry goes in for extensive collaboration with competent and reputed global original equipment manufacturers as also enhances the involvement of the IAF in the management of the project, there is little chance of the dreams of the IAF of entry into the fifth-generation, being fulfilled in a respectable time frame.