Besides, there seem to be serious design issues, especially with the stealth engineering. The Russians claim the Su-57’s RCS will be less than 0.5 square metres against the F-35’s RCS of 0.2 square metres, but the IAF is unimpressed. Indeed, anyone who has operated Russian aircraft learns to take such claims with a pinch of salt. The reliability of the crucial AESA radar is also in doubt. In addition, the engine is a worry. As mentioned, the Su-57’s current turbofan does not permit supercruise. Although the Izdeliye 30 engine is expected to be ready soon, the IAF’s experience with Russian engines in general and the NPO Saturn AL-31FP turbofan fitted on the Su-30MKI in particular, has been anything but happy. They have been plagued by failure in the air, poor operational serviceability and shortage of spares.
In order to continue the FGFA project, India and Russia next need to sign a development contract each committing to spend over $3 billion…
In order to continue the FGFA project, India and Russia next need to sign a development contract each committing to spend over $3 billion. The IAF must also place a firm order for the jets that might enter production eight to ten years after signing of the contract. An expert committee appointed by India’s Ministry of Defence submitted its report in July 2017, and was ostensibly in favour of proceeding with the project, opining that the FGFA would be a useful springboard for India to develop its own fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). However, the IAF is now deeply sceptical, believing that if the base model T-50 is of doubtful worth, it is unlikely that the India-specific features will improve it. Rather than risk being stuck with a white elephant, the IAF apparently prefers to terminate the project and wait for the indigenous AMCA to materialise.
The HAL AMCA is a single-seat, twin-jet, super-manoeuverable multi-role fifth-generation fighter under development. While its design is the responsibility of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), manufacture will be undertaken by HAL. Preliminary design work on the AMCA began in 2008, but it officially started only in 2011. For the AMCA to be a truly indigenous effort, India’s aerospace technologists need to develop stealth technology comparable with the US F-35, a thrust vectoring engine capable of super-cruise and its planned AESA radar. The AMCA’s RCS is low thanks to serpentine air-intakes, an internal weapons bay and extensive use of composites and other radar-absorbent materials. It features relaxed static stability with a quadruplex digital fly-by-optics flight control system.
The AMCA requires two 110-125 kN class turbofans for its planned maximum takeoff weight and for supercruise capability. The engine expected to power it is either the Gas Turbine Research Establishment’s (GTRE) K9 or the K10, which have succeeded the GTRE Kaveri engine. GTRE and French multinational Safran are working together to fix all issues and make the AMCA engine ready by 2019. A possible fall-back option if this approach fails is the trusted General Electric F414 that is slated to power the Tejas Mark 2. The AMCA project can really take-off only after its engine is firmed up. According to ADA estimates, the maiden flight by 2030 followed by low-rate production by 2035 is likely.
Rather than risk being stuck with a white elephant, the IAF apparently prefers to terminate the project and wait for the indigenous AMCA to materialise…
Fifth Generation – A Mixed Blessing
Are fifth-generation fighters like the AMCA worth the price? By virtue of their low-observable characteristics, these jets can safely transit through some of the most fearsome air defences of the kind China has. Therefore, they would give the IAF a huge advantage. They can also be paired with vulnerable fourth-generation aircraft such as the Tejas to make the combined formation better able to defend itself against airborne attackers or to penetrate strong defences. Thus they would serve as a force multiplier to compensate for the IAF’s missing squadrons.
However, developing a genuine fifth-generation fighter is a fiendishly difficult enterprise. It must be a clean-sheet design with numerous performance trade-offs incorporated right from the start. This could take decades. Even a technological giant like the US needed billions of dollars and immense effort to develop the F-22 Raptor’s integrated avionics and control suite. And despite the F-22’s success, the F-35 Lightning II was stuck for years over the software required to achieve data fusion across its advanced sensors. In view of the huge sums involved it seems unlikely that India’s government would sanction two full-fledged fifth-generation fighter programmes – the FGFA and the AMCA.
Besides, with several nations now attempting to jump onto the stealth bandwagon, a counter is inevitable and it is fairly likely that advances in sensors and computing power will triumph over stealth within a decade. A stealthy aircraft is easier to render invisible to radar if it employs electronic jamming as well. That is why futuristic sixth-generation fighter interceptors like the USAF’s Penetrating Counter Air programme will be stealthy, but will also lay great emphasis on advanced EW systems that can be constantly improved to match the emerging threat.
Meanwhile, fourth-generation aircraft manufacturers are fighting back against attempts to devalue their offerings. They have a point. Aircraft like the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon have high standards of sensor fusion, thrust vectoring, supercruise capability, AESA radars and the like – in fact everything that goes into a fifth-generation fighter, except stealth. And they come with much lower cost and ease of maintenance. Even in the USAF, that pioneered stealth, fourth-generation aircraft will form the bulk of the combat fleet for decades to come, with fifth-generation jets available in much smaller numbers.
Developing a genuine fifth-generation fighter is a fiendishly difficult enterprise as it must be a clean-sheet design with numerous performance trade-offs incorporated right from the start…
However, in military planning, it is essential to keep abreast of the potential adversary’s capabilities. The main reason the IAF needs a fifth-generation fighter is to maintain approximate parity if not superiority over the PLAAF and to a lesser extent the 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 doesn’t want the FGFA what are its options?
For obvious reasons the Chinese J-20A and J-31 may be ruled out. Although some other fifth-generation fighters are under development, including Turkey’s TAI TFX, South Korea’s KAI KF-X and Japan’s Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin. None of these are viable for the IAF. What about the Lockheed Martin F-35A Lightning II? The Indo-US military relationship has grown more cordial in recent times and the IAF is already inducting several modern military aircraft from the US. These include the Boeing C-17 Globemaster III large transport, the Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules transport, the Boeing AH-64E Apache attack helicopter and the Boeing CH-47 Chinook helicopter. There is a good chance that the Lockheed Martin F-16 will soon be selected to bolster the IAF’s combat fleet, so the F-35A might also be a possibility. It may not be too expensive. According to Lockheed Martin, the cost of each F-35 is already below $95 million and it hopes to reduce that to $85 million in a few years.
However, the IAF would need to judiciously evaluate the F-35A before opting for it. The aircraft has been roundly criticised mainly because of huge time and cost overruns and because it is allegedly plagued with design flaws. Besides, Lockheed Martin already has a large order book. The IAF would be a late customer and might not get the desired jets for at least 10 to 12 years. And US military supplies usually come with negligible ToT and with strings attached – neither of which appeal to this country.
That is why the IAF appears to be of the view that the best option in the current circumstances is to forget the FGFA mirage and back the indigenous AMCA to the hilt, making it a strong prospect. At the same time, it could spend the money saved on the FGFA deal to boost its shrinking fourth-generation fleet. In fact, the quickest way for the IAF to induct a sizeable fleet with all fifth-generation features, except stealth, would be for its Rafale order to be doubled or even tripled. The Su-30MKI, which will remain the backbone of the IAF’s combat fleet for decades, also needs to be comprehensively upgraded. These two measures would give the IAF enough breathing space till the HAL AMCA becomes its prized fifth-generation fighter.