By 2030, an assertive China will probably have around 200 fifth-generation fighters and Pakistan may well be a grateful recipient of Chinese largesse. The IAF’s need for a fifth-generation fighter will grow ever more urgent.
Within the next five years or so, if all goes well, India will become only the fourth country in the world to test-fly its own stealth fifth-generation jet fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). And around the end of this decade, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will start inducting these highly-prized force multipliers that can penetrate even advanced air defences undetected. This at least is what the IAF hopes. But can it happen?
Only four fifth-generation fighters are currently operational across the world – the American F-22 Raptor, the American F-35A Lightning II, the Chinese J-20 and the Russian Su-57. And analysts believe that the J-20 and Su-57 may in truth be somewhat undeserving of the fifth-generation designation. The development of the Indian AMCA is being led by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) under the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) with the initial cost estimated to be around 15,000 crore.
FROM FGFA TO AMCA
From 2007 onwards, even as the AMCA was under preliminary design, India pursued the joint Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) programme to develop a stealth fighter based on Russia’s Su-57. However, over the years, disenchantment with the project mounted. The main sticking points were the IAF’s scepticism about the Su-57’s stealth qualities as well as uncertainty about its proposed Saturn izdeliye 30 turbofan engine. India’s leaders also preferred to boost the country’s domestic defence industry through the 2014 ‘Make in India’ initiative. The inevitable demise of the FGFA programme happened in 2018.
The ambitious AMCA project officially began in 2011. Although the concept has evolved considerably over the years, the core requirement is for a stealth, single-seat, twin-engine multi-role fighter. A proposal for full-scale development of the 25-tonne AMCA is with the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) and approval is expected in the near future. It is planned to be produced under a Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) structure that will be led by the ADA and include Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and a number of private sector aerospace and defence majors. In March 2022, the commencement of the manufacturing process of the first AMCA prototype was announced.
DESIGN FOR STEALTH
The basic design of the AMCA features serpentine air intakes, extensive use of radar dampening materials, a conformal antenna and an internal weapons bay to provide very low radar cross-section. It will have a maximum speed of around 2,600 kmph (Mach 2.15) and a combat range of 1,620 km. Balancing manoeuvrability and low-observability will be a major challenge. The aircraft will be produced in two variants. The AMCA Mark 1, a pure fifth-generation jet, will be powered by two General Electric F414-GE-INS6 turbofans. However, this engine will not permit supercruise, the ability to maintain supersonic cruise speeds without afterburners.
Hence, the AMCA Mark 2 is planned with a more powerful engine to enable supercruise and thrust-vectoring capability for superior manoeuvrability. It will greatly expand the AMCA’s performance envelope. The Mark 2 may also have certain sixthgeneration fighter characteristics. As the then Chief of the Air Staff stated in February 2021, “There is a possibility of equipping the AMCA with directed energy weapons (DEW), superior anti-missile systems, advanced missile approach warning systems and teaming it with unmanned systems.” Other likely features of this variant are AI-based systems, data fusion, multisensor integration with active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and advanced electronic warfare systems. It may have optionally manned capability.
The AMCA will be able to carry weaponry internally (for maximum stealth) as well as externally. It will definitely have advanced beyond-visual-range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) and standoff missiles as well as laser-guided bombs to attack ground targets, all housed within the internal weapons bay. DEW systems are also on the cards provided these can be developed in time.
GIVE ME AN ENGINE!
The most daunting hurdle the ADA faces in developing the AMCA as a true fifth-generation fighter is the lack of a suitable engine. India does not yet have the competence to design and build advanced jet engines. That is why the AMCA Mark 1 will fly with imported 98 kN GE F414-INS6 engines. However, the Mark 2 is planned to be powered by a new and more powerful 110 kN engine, that currently exists only on paper. It is to be developed indigenously with a foreign collaborator due to be selected shortly. The main contenders are the British Rolls-Royce, French Safran Engines and American General Electric. Safran is in the lead but is reportedly driving a hard deal. Hence either of the other two companies could perhaps outmanoeuvre it. Once the deal is signed the new engine should be ready in seven or eight years.
Without an adequately powerful engine a combat jet cannot achieve its desired performance parameters. For instance, developing an indigenous engine for the LCA Tejas was one of the programme’s key goals. However, as this aim could not be achieved despite years of effort, it was decided to make do with the 85 kN General Electric F404-GE-IN20 engine which fell well short of the requirement. In fact, the inadequate thrust-toweight ratio of the naval variant of the LCA Tejas was an important reason why the Indian Navy abandoned the programme.
Reports from China also indicate that its engineers have not succeeded in producing engines powerful enough to allow the J-20 to match the American F-22 and F-35. The J-20’s engines may also limit the aircraft’s ability to use DEW including lasers and sound waves. Similarly, unless India indigenously produces or imports suitable engines in a timely manner, all hopes of developing a genuine fifth-generation fighter are bound to fail.
The other pitfall is delay. Looking at the Tejas experience again, since the jet took so long to materialise, the IAF was repeatedly forced to upgrade its specifications to remain abreast of the operational requirement. This led to further delays. Ironically, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) later said that changing specifications mid-way through the design and development process, was itself responsible for the delay!
However, this time around, a Project Monitoring Team (PMT) comprising at least 25 IAF officers has been formed to look after all aspects the AMCA project. It participates in all ADA meetings and expedites approvals. Further, most key fifth-generation technologies and processes have already been developed by the ADA or are in an advanced stage of readiness. Therefore, it is mainly a matter of putting it all together.
HOPING AGAINST HOPE
By 2030, an assertive China will probably have around 200 fifth-generation fighters and Pakistan may well be a grateful recipient of Chinese largesse. The IAF’s need for a fifth-generation fighter will grow ever more urgent. But the F-22 has ceased production and the F-35 is not on offer and, even if it were, it has years of production backlog. The J-20 is not an option and the IAF has had enough of the Su-57. The Su-57’s successor, also by the Sukhoi design bureau, is called the Su-75 Checkmate. The first flight of this single-engine stealth fighter is expected in 2024. However, current economic sanctions against Russia could delay production by many years. Besides, an imported fighter would militate against the government’s strong focus on ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’. That leaves only the AMCA. The IAF which is firmly backing the AMCA, aims to induct around 120 of these jets – 40 Mark 1 aircraft and 80 of the Mark 2 variant – equipping up to seven combat squadrons.
Design and production of fifth-generation fighters is fiendishly complicated and prohibitively expensive. That is why the United Kingdom and France, although proficient in fighter design and production, did not attempt to develop stealth fighters. Unlike the US and Russia that have decades of experience with combat aircraft and have produced scores of advanced fighters (China too has considerable expertise), the AMCA is only the third jet fighter India is attempting, besides the failed HF-24 Marut and the Tejas. Since the AMCA project is far more complex than Tejas, delays can be expected and success is by no means assured. However, the enthusiastic ADA team is optimistic about meeting the development schedule and confident of eventual success. The IAF will be eagerly hoping that this confidence is not misplaced.