The Indian Air Force (IAF) air strike across the international border to target a Jaish-e-Muhammad (JeM) camp 60 kilometres deep in Balakot, well beyond Pakistan occupied Kashmir (PoK) and the air combat next day in which an IAF MiG-21 Bison reportedly shot down a Pakistan Air Force (PAF) F-16 has again brought the debate of IAF modernisation back in focus. The IAF is down to an all-time low of 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the authorised 42. The 36 Rafale aircraft on order are of fourth generation plus. The US Air Force (USAF) has had a fifth generation aircraft in the F-22 Raptor since it formally entered service in December 2005. The USAF and many of their friendly air forces across the world have inducted the variants of the latest fifth generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II. Homegrown fifth generation fighters have also been inducted by Russia and China. There are others who are already developing the next generation fighters. In fact, sixth generation fighters are on the drawing boards of leading aerospace countries and individual technologies are being developed and tested in laboratories. The IAF has initiated the process of acquiring 114 new fighters which will still be of the fourth generation plus class. The logical next step for the world’s fourth largest air force, the IAF is to procure a fifth generation fighter. India’s venture to develop its Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) jointly with Russia ran aground because of cost and technical differences. The question that therefore arises is…where must India go from here?
Air Dominance and Air Superiority Aircraft
The nation that controls air and space dominates the planet. Aerospace craft will aim to seize control establishing dominance/supremacy over enemy assets. Even if aerospace supremacy cannot be established, a ‘degree of dominance’ in the air-space bubble in a given area and time-space, without prohibitive interference by opposing air forces, will be desired. Air superiority fighter aircraft are meant for entering and seizing control of enemy airspace. They operate under the control/co-ordination of Early Warning and Control satellites and aircraft with increased Artificial Intelligence (AI). Aircraft such as the US Navy’s F-14 and USAF’s F-15 were built to achieve air superiority from the design and development stage. Both later had multi-role variants. Soviets/Russians developed MiG-29 and Su-27 around the same time. The Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale are multi-role fighters, but both have air-superiority missions. The F-22 Raptor, Su-30 variants, Su-35, Chinese J-11 and J-15, are also air-superiority aircraft.
Most modern air forces possess fourth-generation fighters which strengthened the trend towards multi-role configurations…
4.5 Generation Fighters
For some time, the world has been classifying fighter aircraft on the basis of capabilities and technologies. Most modern air forces possess fourth-generation fighters which strengthened the trend towards multi-role configurations. The concept of ‘Energy-Manoeuverability’ impacted aircraft designs that required performing ‘fast transients’ – quick changes in speed, altitude, and direction – as opposed to relying mainly on high speeds. It called for small lightweight aircraft with higher thrust-weight ratio. The F-16, MiG-29 and Mirage-evolved. Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight controls became possible due advancements in computers and system integration, and this allowed relaxed static stability flight and in turn, agility. Analog systems began to be replaced by digital flight control systems in the late 1980s.
Likewise, Full Authority Digital Engine Controls (FADEC) to electronically manage power-plant performance was introduced. Both allowed carefree maneuvering by the pilot. Pulse-Doppler fire-control-radars added “Look-down/shoot-down” capability. Head-up Displays (HUD), Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls, and Multi-Function Displays (MFD) allowed better situational awareness and quicker reactions. Composite materials such as bonded aluminum honeycomb structures and graphite epoxy laminate skins helped reduce aircraft weight. Improved maintenance design and procedures reduced aircraft turnaround time between missions and generated more sorties.
Another novel technology was stealth using special “low-observable” materials and aircraft design techniques to reduce detect-ability by enemy sensors, particularly radars. The first real stealth designs were Lockheed’s F-117 Nighthawk attack aircraft in 1983, and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit in 1989. Military budget cuts after the Cold War, and high funding requirements of the fifth-generation fighter, resulted in a term called the 4.5 generation fighters from the 1990s to 2005. This sub-generation saw advanced digital avionics, newer aerospace materials, modest signature reduction and highly integrated systems and weapons. These fighters operated in a network-centric environment. Key technologies introduced included BVR Air-to-Air Missiles (AAM); 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. Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen were in this category. Many fourth-generation aircraft were also upgraded with new technologies. The Su-30MKI and Su-35 featured thrust vectoring engine nozzles to enhance manoeuvering. Most of them are still being produced and evolving. It is quite possible that they may continue in production alongside fifth-generation fighters due to the expense of developing the advanced levels of technology. 4.5 generation fighter aircraft are now expected to have AESA radar, high capacity data-link, enhanced avionics, and the ability to deploy advanced armaments.
Technologies today are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics…
Fifth-generation fighter aircraft are the latest jet fighters encompassing the most advanced features. 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. They have multi-function AESA radars with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept. Infrared Search and Track (IRST) and other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft 360 degree bubble. Avionics suites rely on extensive use of Very High-Speed Integrated Circuit (VHSIC) technology and high-speed data buses. Integration of all the elements could provide fifth-generation fighters with a ‘first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability’. In addition to its high resistance to ECM, they can function as ‘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 is inbuilt. Layout and internal structures minimise RCS over a broad bandwidth of frequencies. To maintain low signature primary weapons are carried in internal weapon bays. Stealth technology is advanced to where it can be employed without a trade-off with aerodynamics performance. Signature-reduction techniques include special shaping approaches, thermoplastic materials, extensive structural use of advanced composites, conformal sensors, heat-resistant coatings, low-observable wire meshes to cover intake and cooling vents, heat ablating tiles on the exhaust troughs and coating internal and external metal areas with radar-absorbent materials and paints. These aircraft are very expensive. An F-22 costs around $150 million. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II fighters will cost on an average $90 million due to large scale production.
Other fifth generation fighter development projects include Russia’s Sukhoi PAK FA; a variant of the same was to have been India’s Fifth-Generation Fighter-Aircraft (FGFA). India is also developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). China’s fifth generation fighter Chengdu J-20 has been flying since January 2011, and may be deployed by 2019. The Shenyang J-31 first flew in October 2012. Japan is also exploring the technical feasibility to produce fifth-generation fighters. Turkish TAI TFX is being developed with BAE Systems. These aircraft will operate in a ‘Combat Cloud’ along with future UAVs. Japanese next-generation fighter would be based on concept of aircraft informed, intelligent and instantaneous. Japan has already conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft for this project.
The Mikoyan MiG-41 is another next-generation jet fighter interceptor under development. France and Germany announced that they would jointly develop a new combat aircraft to replace the Eurofighter, Tornado and the Rafale. It is likely be a twin-seat ‘system of systems’ aircraft acting as a combat platform as well as controlling UCAVs. The UK is committing to a next generation fighter programme to potentially replace the Eurofighter Typhoon post-2030. However, the Eurofighter Typhoon has had its intended service life extended to around 2040. Some Chinese publications are talking of a sixth-generation aircraft, referred to as Huolong (Fire Dragon). But as on date, China is facing serious limitations in radar, avionics, and engine technologies.
Other Evolving Technologies
Technologies today are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems. Mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing onboard the aircraft is essential. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semi-conductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Any system must be designed with the aim of maintaining a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment.
The F-35 is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, fifth-generation, stealth multi-role fighters designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions…
The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximise structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory, are under development. Things will be built faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacturing creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics and customised weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions and significantly reduce weight while creating stronger structures for air and spacecraft, and yet drive down costs.
Next Generation American Fighter
The US is already working on the sixth-generation aircraft which would have enhanced capabilities in reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, sustained awareness, human-system integration and weapon effects. Boeing’s Phantom Works and Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works are already having work-in-progress. The projects are currently limited to concept images. The USAF is pursuing the sixth-generation fighter through the F-X programme to replace its existing aircraft such as McDonnell Douglas F-15 Eagle and complement existing platforms such as Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor. The US Navy has a programme called the ‘Next Generation Air Dominance’ to complement the smaller Lockheed F-35 and replace the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet.
In April 2013, DARPA started a study to try to bridge the USAF and USN concepts. Next-generation fighter efforts will initially be led by DARPA under the ‘Air Dominance Initiative’ to develop prototype X-planes. The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti-access/area-denial environment that will exist in the 2030 to 2050 timeframe. In the USAF’s new budget request for fiscal 2019, the service asked for $504 million for its next-generation air dominance research, development, test and evaluation programme.
The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL…
New proposals call for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures; developments that will require new breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapons technology. Self-healing structures in particular would pose a significant advantage over modern-day aircraft, remaining airborne despite taking heavy fire. The avionics are supposed to withstand next generation electronic attack and cyber-attack, have passive detection, and integrated self-protection. The tailless flying wing, “cranked kite” design concept currently appears the way forward for future fighter aircraft. New generation of engines will allow ultra-high altitude super-cruise. The sixth-generation fighters are expected to use advanced engines such as ‘Adaptive Versatile Engine’ technology to allow longer ranges and higher performance, where the ratios of bypass and compression airflow can be made variable to improve efficiency.
Future weaponry would utilise scramjets for the production of faster missiles. Despite failing its recent tests, Boeing’s X-51A wave-rider scramjet remains in development as it hopes to reach hypersonic speeds approaching Mach 6, a speed at which a missile could not be stopped by conventional air defence technology. Continued experiments with directed energy weapons and lasers, used for defensive as well as offensive measures, are also likely to shape precisely what sixth-generation fighters are equipped with. Sixth-generation fighters are expected to enter the USAF and US Navy around 2025 to 2030 timeframe.
The Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) or Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) was a 50:50 (funding, engineering, and intellectual property rights) joint ve nture between India and Russia. It was a derivative project of the Russian Sukhoi Su 50 (later Su-57) for the Russian Air Force. The completed FGFA was to include a total of 43 improvements over the Su-57, including stealth, super-cruise, advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics. The Indian version would have been a two-seater with pilot and co-pilot or Weapon Systems Operator (WSO). Though India withdrew from the FGFA programme in 2018, it also hinted that the project could be resumed at a later date, when the Su-57 is fully operational in the Russian Air Force. Russia also claimed in August 2018, that the FGFA programme was not cancelled and India was still in dialogue with Russia.
The FGFA is a stealth multi-role air superiority fighter. The joint development deal would have each country invest $6 billion and develop over eight to ten years. The preliminary design cost was $295 million and was to be completed within 18 months. The Russian version will be a single-pilot fighter. The single-seat fighters were to be assembled in Russia, and HAL was to assemble the two-seaters. The FGFA was to be fitted with the next generation air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons, have the NO79 AESA radar, use 2 Saturn 117 engines (about 147.1 kN thrust each). The Saturn 117 is an advanced version of the AL-31F. There were to be six external (on the wing) hard points and six internal. HAL’s work share was to include critical software including the mission computer, navigation systems, most of the cockpit displays, the Counter Measure Dispensing (CMD) systems and modifying the Sukhoi’s prototype into a fighter as per the IAF requirement.
The Russian government has been trying to put pressure at the highest levels to induct India back into the Russian FGFA programme or to buy a few squadrons of Su-57…
The FGFA was scheduled to be certified by 2019, following which the series production was to start. But there was apprehension that the FGFA would significantly exceed its $6 billion budget, as the crucial avionics systems would cost extra. The cost was estimated at $100 million per fighter in addition to the development costs. By October 2012, India had cut its total purchase size to 144 aircraft. Russia also admitted to huge delays and cost overruns. There were also accusations that HAL had contributed only 15 percent of the Research and Development work, but provided half the cost. There were also questions about maintenance issues, the engine, stealth features, weapon carriage system, safety and reliability. By 2016, Indian interest in the project was fading after Russia cut back its own purchases. In 2017, Russia suddenly demanded seven billion dollars that India could not afford. India then began evaluating the need for the FGFA in light of the price increase and progress on the HAL AMCA. There was also a proposal of an upgraded Su-35 with stealth technology, as a more affordable alternative to the FGFA. On April 20, 2018, it was reported that India had left the project. It was asserted that India was not satisfied with the capabilities of the Su-57. However, India did not rule out the possibility of a re-launch of the FGFA programme.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, fifth generation, stealth multi-role fighters designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions. The F-35A is the conventional take-off and landing variant that would normally be of interest to any air force. The F-35 had emerged as the winning design of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme. The US principally funds F-35 development, with additional funding from allies. These funding countries generally receive subcontracts to manufacture components for the aircraft. Several other countries have ordered or are considering ordering the aircraft. The F-35 first flew on December 15, 2006. The USAF formed its first squadron in August 2016. In 2018, the F-35 was first engaged in combat by the Israeli Air Force. The United States plans to buy 2,663 F-35s, which will provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps in the coming decades. 355 had been delivered by December 20, 2018. Deliveries of the F-35 for the US military are scheduled until 2037, with a projected service life up to 2070. The unit cost of the aircraft is around $90 million.
The HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is a fifth-generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, stealth, all-weather multi-role fighter. The AMCA feasibility study and the preliminary design stage have been completed. The aircraft will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super manoeuverability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar, MiG-27 and Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy. 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 had issued the ASQR for the AMCA, which placed the aircraft in the 25-tonne category.
Buying a foreign fifth-generation aircraft could further delay the AMCA…
The first flight test of the prototype ft was scheduled to take place by 2017. The 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, the ADA sought Rs. 9,000 crore to fund the development which would include two technology demonstrators and seven prototypes. In 2013, the ADA unveiled a 1:8 scale model at Aero India 2013. The AMCA design had shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with large fuselage mounted tail-wing and was 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 was to have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons had also been planned.
Low-speed and supersonic wind-tunnel testing and Radar Cross Section (RCS) testing was reportedly completed by 2014, and reached the project definition phase by February 2014. The Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase was started in January 2014 after HAL Tejas attained IOC, and it was announced that the AMCA will have first flight by 2018. At Aero India 2015, ADA confirmed that work on major technological issues, thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology was going full swing. Russia was to provide support for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), AESA Radar and stealth technology.
By 2025, India should review the progress of the AMCA and maybe decide to acquire two squadrons of F-35 through direct purchase…
Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also offered to help in key technologies. The AMCA was to 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 has offered full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies and US has also offered full collaboration in engine development with access to the GE F-414 and F-135. Two technology demonstrators and four prototypes are scheduled to undergo various types of testing and analysis in 2019. The ground reality is that they are far from it; the first flight is scheduled to occur in 2028!
Decision Matrix India
The Russian Air Force has just formed the first squadron Su-57. India has walked out of the project for cost, work share and core Transfer of Technology issues. The Russian government has been trying to put pressure at the highest levels to induct India back into the Russian FGFA programme or to buy a few squadrons of Su-57. India’s final decision could depend on resolving the differences. In any case, India has already committed to nearly 300-plus Su-30 MKI. That currently amounts to 45 percent of the IAF. Putting any further eggs in the Russian basket has its own risks and dynamics. The AMCA is still work in long term progress. Core technologies have still to be evolved or bought. India is still at the LCA Mk-1 stage. A big step in-between is the LCA Mk 2, which may take over six to seven years for its first flight.
As per DRDO estimates, which invariably are tall order, the AMCA’s first flight will be around 2028 and that would mean induction around 2035. That would mean nearly 18 years after the Chinese. India can ill afford to wait that long. The Americans are currently not talking with India on the F-35. They believe that India must first fit into the American fighter aviation eco-system, tacitly implying that first India must choose between the F-21 (India-specific variant of the F-16) or the F-18 Super Hornet. The US will, at best, talk about the F-35 with India after 2025, or if it loses the India fighter competition. India is thus sandwiched between two ends of the vice. Buying a foreign fifth-generation aircraft could further delay the AMCA. The best option then would be to acquire critical technologies during the new fighter acquisition even if it means paying for some. AMCA radar and EW suites can be developed through the joint venture route. By 2025, India should review the progress of the AMCA and maybe decide to acquire two squadrons of F-35 through direct purchase.