The Balakot air strike in February 2019 and the air combat thereafter in which a MiG-21 Bison of Indian Air Force (IAF) had to engage a much more modern F-16 of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), once again brought IAF modernisation back into focus. Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, the then Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) had said in many forums that the IAF had hit an all-time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorised figure of 42. He had highlighted the convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernising air forces. The IAF, on the other hand, has slowly been losing the combat edge that it had enjoyed over Pakistan in 1971, both in terms quality and numbers. Aerospace is the domain of the future and the one who controls it, will control the planet.
Developing indigenous aircraft is critical for India to become a global power…
It is clear that the IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. While the IAF has a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if forced into conflict, numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front war scenario. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide the IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted with. It is imperative that the IAF quickly rebuild the squadron strength and acquire modern fighters that are as good as or better than those of the adversaries. Developing indigenous aircraft is critical for India to become a global power. China has already moved way ahead. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) are the main two aircraft projects of the Indian aerospace industry. It is important to continuously monitor their progress.
India’s Struggle in Fighter Aircraft Building
HF-24 ‘Marut’ was the first attempt by India to build a fighter aircraft. An excellent airframe design under the leadership of German designer Kurt Tank, but could not get a matching engine. Ironically, many years later, the LCA Tejas Mk 1 remains under-powered for its weight and operational specifications. Even the indigenous ‘Kaveri’ engine programme could not succeed and India is being forced to seek foreign help to retrieve it. India also needs help in Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars and areas of stealth, Electronic Warfare (EW) systems. For India to remain a significant player in aircraft manufacture, the LCA has to succeed and it must establish the framework for the leap ahead to AMCA.
Fourth and Fifth Generation Fighters
The LCA Tejas was envisaged to be a fourth generation fighter and the AMCA is meant to be a fifth generation fighter. Fourth generation fighters are mostly multi-role; use ‘Energy-Manoeuverability’ concept for performing fast transients – quick changes in speed, altitude, and direction – as opposed to just high speed; lightweight aircraft with higher thrust-weight ratio and use digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight controls which allow relaxed static stability flight and in turn, agility. They have electronically-managed power-plants. Pulse-Doppler fire-control-radars give look-down/shoot-down capability. Head-Up Displays (HUD), Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls and Multi-Function Displays (MFD) allow better situational awareness and quicker reactions. Composite materials help reduce aircraft weight. Improved maintenance design and procedures reduce aircraft turnaround time between missions and generated more sorties. The F-16, F-18, MiG-29, SU-30 MKI and Mirage-2000 are all in this category.
Desperately short of fighters, the IAF is considering buying additional 21 MiG-29 aircraft from Russia…
A sub-generation called the 4.5 generation fighters evolved in the last decade, which saw advanced digital avionics, newer aerospace materials, modest signature reduction and highly integrated systems and weapons. These fighters operated in network-centric environment. Key technologies introduced include multi-function AESA radars; longer range BVR AAMs; GPS-guided weapons, solid-state phased-array radars, Helmet-Mounted Display Sight (HMDS) and improved secure, jamming-resistant data-links. A degree of super-cruise ability (supersonic without afterburner), was introduced. Stealth characteristics focused on front-aspect Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction through limited shaping techniques. The Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen were in this category. Several fourth generation aircraft were also upgraded with new technologies. Su-30MKI and Su-35 featured thrust vectoring engine nozzles to enhance manoeuvering capability.
The fifth generation was ushered in by the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor in late 2005. These aircraft are designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques. AESA radars are with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept. IRST and other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft. Advanced avionics, glass cockpit and improved secure, jamming-resistant data-links are other features. Avionics suites rely on extensive use of Very High-Speed Integrated Circuit (VHSIC) technology and high-speed data buses.
Fifth-generation fighters target “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability”. In addition to high resistance to ECM, they can function as a ‘mini-AWACS’. Integrated electronic warfare system, integrated Communications, Navigation, and Identification (CNI), centralised “vehicle health monitoring”, fibre-optic data-transmission and stealth are important features. Manoeuver performance is enhanced by thrust-vectoring, which also helps reduce take-off and landing distances. Super-cruise capability is inbuilt. To maintain low radar signature, primary weapons are carried in internal weapon bays. The current fifth-generation fighter projects include Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Russia’s Sukhoi PAK FA (SU-57), China’s Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31 and India’s AMCA. Japan is also exploring technical feasibility to produce fifth-generation fighters.
IAF’s Fighter Inductions and Upgrades
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has delivered only 16 of the 20 LCA Mk1 ordered in the Initial Operation Clearance (IOC) configuration in the last three years. 36 Dassault Rafale jets will be inducted from early 2020 onwards and the full complement of aircraft will be delivered by 2022. The IAF’s MiG 29, Mirage 2000 and Jaguar fleets are undergoing avionics and weapons upgrade to make them closer to fourth-plus generation. The process is on and should be completed by 2021. The IAF will upgrade 40 Su-30 MKI with the new AESA radar, onboard computers, a new electronic warfare suite and the ability to carry the BrahMos cruise missile possibly by 2020. It may also integrate the nuclear capable Nirbhay missile.
Beyond the LCA programme, the AMCA, India’s fifth-generation fighter, can only move forward once the LCA Mk II design is frozen…
Desperately short of fighters, the IAF is considering buying additional 21 MiG-29 aircraft from Russia. The airframes are ready and Russia has promised to deliver all 21 upgraded fighters within 18 months. The IAF has initiated the process of inducting 114 new medium multi-role fighters. Response to Request For Information (RFI) has already been received, and it is hoped that the Request for Proposal (RFP) will be issued by end 2019.
The Struggling LCA Mk1 Aircraft
The ‘Long Term Re-Equipment Plan 1981’ had noted that the MiG-21 fleet would be approaching the end of its service life by the mid-1990s and that by 1995, the IAF will require replacements. The LCA Tejas was to meet with this requirement. The IAF’s Air Staff Qualification Requirement (ASQR) for the LCA was finalised in October 1985.
The LCA Tejas is a multi-role fighter designed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and produced by HAL. It undertook its maiden flight in January 2001. The Tejas has a tail-less compound delta-wing configuration with a single dorsal fin. It has FBW controls and integrates relaxed stability, multi-mode radar, digital avionics system, composite material structures and a flat rated engine. It is supposedly the smallest and lightest in its class of contemporary supersonic combat aircraft.
A close look at the biggest aviation indigenous project unfortunately shows a poor picture. After 20 LCA Mk1 (IOC) fighters, 20 LCA Mk1 are ordered in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) status. The production go-ahead has been given for the FOC aircraft. Authorities handed over the FOC certificate and the Release-to-Service Document (RSD) to the CAS, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa at the 2019 Aero India Air Show in Bengaluru. HAL has already received the FOC standard aircraft drawings to commence production.
The FOC requirements are integration of the Derby and Python BVR missiles and the GSh-23 gun; air-to-air refueling capability; the angle of attack increase from 24 to 28 degrees; enhancement of the braking system and the existing nose cone radome made of composites to be replaced by a quartz model so as to increase the current radar range of 45–50km to more than 80km. The Cobham Quartz radome with higher permittivity increases the detection range of the multi-mode radar.
The AMCA is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL…
Tests have reportedly shown promising results. In order to expand the flight envelope to meet service requirements, the programme received assistance from EADS. The FOC status actions were initiated in December 2013, even though Tejas received its final IOC clearance in January 2015. Meanwhile, in December 2016, the Indian Navy announced that the LCA was overweight for carrier operations and it would look for alternatives. They could, at best, induct a few for shore-based use. The arrestor hook landing has been done on a shore-based runway.
New capabilities include beyond visual range missile capabilities, air-to-air refueling, air-to-ground FOC-earmarked weapons and general flight envelope expansion. The drop tank (external fuel tanks) and some other weapon configurations in the aircraft are yet to be cleared and the airframe fatigue test is still underway. There are a total of ten concessions reportedly been granted for Mk 1 FOC. Meanwhile, HAL has been asked to ramp up production capacity from current eight to 16 a year. Around 12 are expected in the current financial year. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) has set a production target of 16 per year by 2020. This target is difficult to meet. In July 2018, Minister of State for Defence, Subhash Bhamre told the parliament that the indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7 percent by value and 75.5 percent by number of line replaceable units.
LCA Mk 1A
In a report of May 2015, the LCA Mk 1 was criticized by the Comptroller and Auditor General of India (CAG) for not meeting many of the IAF’s critical requirements. In view of delays, in October 2015 itself, the IAF gave a go-ahead for an interim version called the LCA Mk 1A. The IAF needs 83 LCA Mk1A which will have a few advanced features that include the AESA radar, additional electronic warfare suite, special data-link packages, self-protection jammer, satellite navigation systems, improved flight control, electrical and electronics system among others, to increase the operational capability. The interim variant would have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 AESA radar, and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite developed by IAI subsidiary ELTA. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier servicing and maintainability and have a mid-air refueling probe. The Mk 1A was planned to begin induction in 2020, but HAL had sought additional funds and time for its development.
In anticipation, most vendors have set up joint ventures with Indian defence majors for research and manufacturing with the required facilities…
The first flight is now been planned only in 2021-2022, but to compensate for loss of time, HAL plans to use its under-utilised Nashik facility to further augment its production capacity. Ideally, the IAF should have started getting the Mk1A the moment LCA Mk1 production gets completed by 2021, but at the current development rate, they may enter service by 2023. Would that mean forcing more LCA Mk1 on the IAF?
In 2017, the IAF had issued an RFP stipulating that the Tejas Mark 1A must have the Meteor and the ASRAAM. The Meteor missile with 200-250km range is coming with the Rafale jets. MBDA currently has a condition that the Meteor missile can be integrated only with European or Indian AESA radars. This complication would have to be resolved. The Mk-IA will one day have an indigenous AESA Radar jointly developed by BEL and Israel’s ELTA. The MoD sanctioned the purchase of 83 new Tejas Mark 1A fighters for Rs 330 billion or Rs 400 crore per aircraft. The Design and Development had begun some time ago.
LCA Mk II
Not too long ago, former CAS Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa had announced the need for 200 LCA Mk II aircraft, taking the total requirement of the LCA to over 300. The LCA Mk II was originally planned to retain basic aircraft shape and incorporate the larger and more powerful 98 kN thrust GE F414 engine, which was more likely to meet the LCA’s originally agreed specifications. This would have meant significant change to the air inlets and also, the dimensions of the fuselage and weight would have to increase. At Aero India 2019, the ADA unveiled a new model of the Tejas’s Mk II and called it a Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). This aircraft was expected to fit into the IAF’s requirement for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). This enhanced version of LCA, the Tejas Mk-2 MWF would be 14.6m long with a wingspan of 8.5m (compared with 13m and 8.2m respectively for the LCA and 14.36m and 9.13m for Mirage 2000).
The aircraft will have a compound delta wing with close-coupled canards. This was to reduce drag in all angles of attack. The longer fuselage would allow for more fuel behind the cockpit. The Mk II design also shows that it could carry more drop tanks. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tonne (compared to Mk 1’s 13.5 tonne). Its external stores carrying capacity will increase from 5.3 to 6.5 tonne. It will be equipped with a higher thrust GE-F414-INS6 engine that features a Full Authority Digital Electronics Control (FADEC) system.
Additional features of the Tejas Mk II include an Infra-Red Search-and-Track (IRST) sensor, a Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS), and modern AESA radar. It is said to be designed for swing role, with BVR and close-combat capability and precision strike. Beyond the LCA programme, the AMCA, India’s fifth-generation fighter, can only move forward once the LCA Mk II design is frozen. The realistic first flight time-line would be 2027. The aircraft may be inducted in 2032. In any case, HAL will require at least seven to eight years to deliver the 123 LCA Tejas Mk1 and Mk 1A aircraft.
The AMCA is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, all-weather, multi-role fighter. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super manoeuverability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy. On April 04, 2018, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the parliament that the feasibility study of the programme had already been completed and the programme has already been given the go-ahead by the IAF to initiate AMCA Technology Demonstration phase before launching the full-scale engineering development phase.
The AMCA is intended to be a test case for fundamental Indian research in the unfamiliar field of cutting edge aviation technology and yet is poised to be anything but that…
Earlier, in October 2008, the IAF had asked ADA to prepare a detailed project report for a next-generation medium combat aircraft. In April 2010, the IAF issued the ASQR for the AMCA, which placed the aircraft in the 25-tonne class. The first flight test of the prototype aircraft was originally scheduled to take place by 2017. DRDO proposed to power the aircraft with two GTX Kaveri engines. In October 2010, the government released Rs 100 crore to prepare feasibility studies. Meanwhile, in November 2010 itself, the ADA sought Rs 9,000 crore to fund the development which would include two technology demonstrators and seven prototypes.
ADA unveiled a 1:8 scale model at Aero India 2013. The AMCA design has shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings, and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with a large fuselage mounted tail-wing. It will be equipped with a quadruple digital fly-by-optics control system using fibre-optic cables. The reduced Radar Cross-Section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and use of Radar-Absorbent Materials (RAM). The AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealth version with external pylons is also planned.
Low-speed and supersonic wind tunnel testing and Radar Cross Section (RCS) testing was reportedly completed by 2014 and the project definition phase by February 2014. The Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase was started in January 2014, after LCA Tejas Mk I attained IOC and it was announced that the AMCA will have its first flight by 2018. At Aero India 2015, the ADA confirmed that work on major technological issues, thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology was going on in full swing. Russia was to provide support for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), AESA Radar and stealth technology. Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also offered to help in key technologies. The AMCA will initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually, it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K9 or K10 engines which are successors to the troubled Kaveri engine.
France had offered full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies, and United States offered full collaboration in the engine development with access to the GE F-414 and F-135 engines. Two technology demonstrators and four prototypes were scheduled to go under various types of testing and analysis in 2019. The ground reality is that they are far from it. The AMCA is intended to be a test case for fundamental Indian research in the unfamiliar field of cutting edge aviation technology and yet is poised to be anything but that, says defence analyst Shiv Aroor of Live Fist. The ADA had earlier announced the targeted first flight of the AMCA by 2020 and production by 2025; this has now been revised – the AMCA will have its first flight only in 2025.
The Indian Navy first got involved in the AMCA project in March 2013, when it formally asked ADA if they were planning a naval version of the programme. They were looking at it in relation to the indigenous aircraft carriers IAC-2. The Navy has already sought 57 aircraft of MMRCA2 class. Naval AMCA (NAMCA) timeframes will match IAC-2, they feel. The Navy’s requirements were sent to DRDO on September 07, 2015, and they have suggested a separate team for NAMCA development. Unsure of indigenous capability, India has informed foreign vendors of the MMRCA 2 programme that India’s quest for fighters would need commitments towards the AMCA. In anticipation, most vendors have set up joint ventures with Indian defence majors for research and manufacturing with the required facilities.
The IAF is ‘fully supporting’ the project, but hopes the timelines stated are realistic otherwise this would upset its procurement cycles. In any case, the IAF’s 114 Make-in-India fighters will partially act as cushion for delays. Meanwhile, DRDO has been discussing with Indian defence companies in the private sector including Tata, Mahindra Defence, Larsen & Toubro and many smaller specialised firms for work share for AMCA. Part of private Indian industry is already doing major fabrication work for defence majors such as Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Airbus, BAE Systems and others. Flight Global’s Stephen Trimble says “AMCA is clearly India’s best option for preserving sovereignty and flexibility over the long-term, but it is the highest risk”. Technologically, the AMCA is a project that runs concurrent to India’s Ghatak stealth unmanned combat aircraft. Many laboratories are researching common technologies for both platforms, including shape, stealth, network-centricity, sensors and materials.
The Way Ahead
The LCA and AMCA are flagship programmes of Indian defence manufacturing. Aviation technologies are much more complex and expensive than building ships and tanks. The fact that India is still struggling to get FOC for the base LCA model, indicates that there is need for external help. The variables and anxieties will continue to hit the AMCA. Joint ventures or technology transfers are essential for the engine, AESA radar and EW systems. Also, help is required to handle complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA. Considering the slow progress in the LCA programme, the AMCA is going to be an uphill task. Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles says, “A first flight in 2025 (if achieved) plus ten or twenty years of development to get it operational sees it reaching squadrons in the 2035-2045 period. At best, you have an F-35 twenty years too late.”
The indigenous fifth generation fighter would require more concerted energies and professional administrative attention. There is a need to pause, reflect, and accept reality, and then carry on with the ‘hits and trials’ and seek help lest we end up in serious delays and cost overruns. The time to act is now.