In military planning, it is essential to keep abreast of the potential adversary’s capabilities. The main reason the Indian Air Force (IAF) needs a fifth-generation fighter is to maintain approximate parity if not superiority over the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and to a lesser extent the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). Yet, most analysts believe it will take time for the PLAAF to build a large fleet of fifth-generation fighters, overcoming the problems of incorporating true stealth and sensor fusion-enabled situational awareness. Meanwhile, it will continue to operate mainly fourth-generation fighters. And that goes for the PAF too. If the IAF wants a fifth-generation fighter but does not want the FGFA, what are its options?
There is a firm plan to acquire 114 new multi-role single-engine jets for which the US Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72 Fighting Falcon and Sweden’s Saab JAS 39E Gripen are strong contenders…
The Indian Air Force (IAF) faces a grim problem of numbers – it simply does not have enough combat squadrons. Its strength of 33 squadrons today is not just the lowest in a decade, but is likely to drop further as 11 squadrons of vintage Mikoyan MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters inevitably make their exit within the next five years. That is not all. About ten years from now, it will be the turn of the twin-jets; eight squadrons of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) built Jaguar strike aircraft and Mikoyan MiG-29 interceptor aircraft must be withdrawn from service.
In October 2017, the Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, stated that by 2032, the IAF’s squadron strength would reach its authorised levels. In the absence of details, however, this appears to be something of a fond hope for the IAF’s centenary year instead of a realistic forecast. While there is a long lead time for any new fighter to be inducted, their rate of retirement is currently much faster than the pace of replacement. Hence the numbers will continue to fall – perhaps as low as 25 squadrons by 2022, against the 42 necessary to tackle a two-front collusive threat from Pakistan and China.
Replace or Repent
This parlous situation has not developed overnight and the Indian government has been taking steps to provide replacements. However, conflicting considerations need to be reconciled, crucial contracts need to be signed and huge financial outlays are necessary for the jets to materialise. And the pace of official decision making is sluggish to say the least.
In September 2016, India signed a €7.87 billion (approximately Rs 59,000 crore) deal with France for the purchase of 36 Dassault Rafale twinjet multirole fighter aircraft. These will be delivered from September 2019 onwards. Also by 2019-20, 42 more Sukhoi Su-30MKI twinjet air superiority fighters, built under licence by HAL, are scheduled to complete deliveries to make up the IAF’s planned 272-strong Su-30MKI fleet. In addition, 123 HAL Tejas Mark 1/1A multi-role light fighters are expected in the next few years. However, HAL is yet to succeed in ramping up production from eight Tejas a year to the desired sixteen.
Lastly, there is a firm plan to acquire 114 new multi-role single-engine jets for which the US Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72 Fighting Falcon and Sweden’s Saab JAS 39E Gripen are strong contenders. If all goes well, this contract should be signed in less than 18 months and the first batch of aircraft in fly-away condition may arrive in about five years. This may be followed by production of the remaining jets within the country in pursuance of the government’s ‘Make in India’ initiative.
In 2005, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF), becoming the world’s first combat-ready fifth-generation fighter…
Most of these aircraft planned for induction are capable combat jets. However, they belong to the fourth generation – an informal but convenient measure of technological superiority. Although most fourth-generation fighters have impressive strike and interception capability, they are rather vulnerable to the lethal air defences that the world’s leading nations have deployed. That is why many advanced air forces, including the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China, are inexorably converting at least a portion of their fleet to the fifth generation. In fact, the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) is set to become the first entirely fifth-generation force by 2025. With the IAF’s combat strength already plunging, can it afford to be left behind in this emerging key metric of modern air power?
Generations in Evolution
It was in the 1990s that jet fighters first began to be classified by generation. Although the practice quickly gained popularity, most categorisation is rather vague. This is partly because there can be no clear dividing line between generations. Fighter aircraft are usually continuously upgraded in their airframes, engines, avionics and armament carriage. This is an evolutionary rather than revolutionary process and several modern fourth-generation fighters have elements that otherwise fall naturally into the fifth generation.
A fifth-generation multi-role fighter is a highly coveted asset. Its features are generally taken to include all-aspect stealth even when armed, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), high-performance airframe, high-performance engine capable of supercruise (supersonic cruise without afterburner), advanced avionics with long-range sensors and networked data fusion providing full battle-space situational awareness.
In 2005, the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor entered service with the United States Air Force (USAF), becoming the world’s first combat-ready fifth-generation fighter. The F-35B Lightning II became operational with the US Marine Corps in July 2015 and the F-35A was declared combat-ready by the USAF in August 2016. The only non-US fifth-generation fighter to enter fully operational military service is China’s Chengdu J-20A and it achieved this distinction with the PLAAF in September 2017.
The world’s leading fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is a single-seat, twin-engine super-manoeuvrable aircraft that extensively employs stealth technology…
The Long US Lead
The world’s leading fifth-generation fighter, the F-22 Raptor, is a single-seat, twin-engine super-manoeuvrable aircraft that extensively employs stealth technology. It was initially designed and developed as an air superiority fighter. When armed and ready to operate in this role, it has an incredibly tiny Radar Cross Section (RCS) of .0001 square metre, about the size of a marble. The lower the RCS, the less visible the aircraft is to air defence radar, making it harder to detect, track and fire at. And this is a massive platform of maximum take-off weight of 38 tonne, which would otherwise have been a sitting duck for any modern missile.
The F-22 has additional capabilities including ground attack, Electronic Warfare (EW) and signals intelligence, albeit with some loss of stealth qualities. However, its high cost led to the closure of the F-22 production line in 2012 after only 187 aircraft out of the initially planned 750 had been delivered to the USAF. By this time, the estimated cost, including development and testing, was $412 million per aircraft.
The F-22 was followed by the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, a family of single-seat, single-engine, fifth-generation multi-role fighters designed for ground attack and air superiority missions. The F-35 has three models: the F-35A Conventional Take-Off and Landing (CTOL) variant, the F-35B Short Take-Off and Vertical Landing (STOVL) variant, and the F-35C carrier-based Catapult Assisted Take-Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) variant. The F-35 is billed as the most expensive military weapons system in history. With the US now boasting of two fifth-generation fighters, other countries are trying to close the gap.
The Chengdu J-20A ’Black Eagle’ is Asia’s first fifth-generation fighter. This single-seat twin-jet gives the war-fighting capabilities of the PLAAF a major boost and may pose a significant threat to Indian forward bases due to its radar evading properties, long range and significant weapons load. It is currently powered by two Russian NPO Saturn AL-31F engines but is planned to be upgraded with new, more powerful turbofans. China is developing the Xian WS-15 Emei engine, which is expected to be more fuel efficient than the AL-31F and would enable the J-20A to super cruise.
As is well known, China is pouring vast sums of money into military modernisation…
As is well known, China is pouring vast sums of money into military modernisation. Convinced of the utility of stealth technology, it is not content with a single stealth programme. The Shenyang J-31 ‘Gyrfalcon’ or Falcon Hawk is another Chinese fifth-generation fighter under development. It is a single-seat twinjet intended to provide advanced capabilities in close air support, aerial bombing and air interdiction roles. It can also be used as a carrier-based fighter. It is apparently intended mainly for export, in which case the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) may get some aircraft. Initial operational capability is expected by 2020.
Brothers in Arms: the Su-57 and the FGFA
Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57 fifth-generation fighter is a single-seat, twinjet multirole aircraft under development. It is designed for air superiority and strike missions and intended to counter the US F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II. Its first flight was in January 2010 and it is scheduled for delivery to the Russian Air Force (RAF) from 2019 onwards. However, like the Chinese J-20A, the Su-57 is underpowered. Its NPO Saturn 117 engine does not permit supercruise, but a more powerful truly fifth-generation engine, the Izdeliye 30 (Product 30), is currently under testing. With the new engine, the Su-57 should be able to cruise without afterburner at speeds of over Mach 1.5.
The Su-57’s progress has been of particular interest for the IAF, because the IAF’s hopes of getting its own fifth-generation fighter are intimately linked to it. It was a decade ago that India and Russia began exploring the possibility of a joint stealth fighter programme. In 2010, both sides signed a $295 million design contract for the co-development of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF), based on the Su-57 prototype – the Sukhoi T-50 or PAK FA. Since then there have been many twists and turns, rising costs, prolonged delay, and much heartburn over the project.
It was agreed that the FGFA would have 43 improvements over the T-50, including stealth, supercruise, advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics. The IAF was initially keen on the FGFA, seeing it as the only viable fifth-generation option. It wanted as many as 214 FGFA but the number was progressively whittled down. It hoped to get its first lot of fighters by 2017, but that has turned out to be a mirage. More recently, there have been serious doubts over how the Su-57 would turn out because Russia itself wanted just a dozen aircraft, preferring to procure more Su-35 and Su-30SM jets instead.
As the years passed and the T-50 began to look increasingly uninspiring, the IAF made no secret of its dissatisfaction. One grouse is that despite its low work share in the joint development project, India has to pay 50 per cent of the development cost. Another is that unless the Russians agree to substantial Transfer of Technology (ToT), the IAF will be perpetually dependent on it for components, spares and even minor modifications. And not only does the FGFA come at a high price, it will be expensive to maintain as well.