The IAF has decided that there is a pressing requirement to have a stealth fighter with multi-role capabilities in its inventory to cater for future threats. It is also evident that this technology cannot be wholly developed in house. For this reason as well as to reduce both costs and shrink the time frame from design to induction, some form of joint development is required. The best choice was with the Russian PAK-FA stealth fighter programme.
Indian Air Force Fighter Inventory
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is on a modernisation drive to replace the MiG-21 variants and the MiG-27s. The Su-30 MKI and the MiG-29 upgraded version are already in service with the Mirage 2000 fleet being upgraded. The long delayed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is likely to join the fleet soon. Acquisition of 126 French Rafale fighters with 18 to be delivered directly from the manufacturer Dassault in a flyaway condition and the balance 108 to be built by the joint venture partner Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to meet the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement is supposedly imminent, provided the usual wrangling over the final contract is sorted out.
The IAF does not have a combat aircraft with stealth and high speed in the non-afterburning capabilities…
The latest bone of contention is about who, between Dassault and the HAL, is to guarantee delivery schedules and product quality for the aircraft to be built in India. Force multipliers such the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft based on the IL-76 platform (IL-76 A50 EI) and the Embraer 145, along with the IL-78 tanker aircraft have already been inducted and integrated. Negotiations for acquisition of six Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft are to begin in the near future.
Going forward, the above acquisitions still leave a gap in the inventory. The IAF does not have a combat aircraft with stealth and capable of flying at high speed without the use of afterburners i.e. with super cruise capability. Such aircraft are needed to operate in dense air defence environments to achieve air dominance. The longer combat ranges, smart weapons, passive and active sensors and data-link capabilities of these aircraft are needed to counter airborne and surface-based Air Defence (AD) systems that are being fielded by India’s potential adversaries. Precision attacks on high-value ground targets defended by modern AD systems require stealth aircraft capable of sustained flight at high speeds and armed with stand-off long range weapons. Reconnaissance missions also require stealth aircraft.
The US has the F-22 air superiority fighter and the B2 bomber, both with stealth characteristics and already in service. Their ambitious F-35 multi-role stealth fighter programme seeks to deploy multi-role variants including the F-35A with conventional take-off and landing capabilities, the F-35B with short take-off and vertical landing capabilities and the F-35C for operation from aircraft carriers. All these aircraft have ground attack, reconnaissance and air defence capabilities with stealth features. The project has run into issues of cost overruns, sub-optimal performance in all roles and resultant delays. The Chinese have stealth fighters under development with the J-20 and the smaller J-31 being flight tested. Japan is developing the Mitsubishi ATX-D as a technology demonstrator, with the first flight planned for 2014. Russia is developing the PAK-FA with the T-50 prototypes already in the flight-test phase. All the above are single-seat, twin-engine aircraft. The forerunner of the USAF F-22, the F-117 Nighthawk, which is primarily a ground attack aircraft with stealth features, was used effectively in the Gulf War of 1991 to penetrate the very dense AD environment around Baghdad and also in the Balkans later, thus somewhat validating the stealth concept.
Only the US and Russia have the capability to develop such aircraft with associated weapons, sensors and engines…
It is evident that only the US and Russia have the capability to develop such aircraft with associated weapons, sensors and engines as of now with the Chinese certainly lagging behind especially as far as engine development is concerned. The Japanese venture is still in the concept stage.
FGFA for the IAF
The IAF has decided that there is a pressing requirement to have a stealth fighter with multi-role capabilities in its inventory to cater for future threats. It is also evident that this technology cannot be wholly developed in house. For this reason as well as to reduce cost and shrink time frame from design to induction, some form of joint development is required. The best choice was with the Russian PAK-FA stealth fighter programme.
Based on a requirement first formulated in the late 1980s to replace the MiG-29 and SU-27 in the Russian Air Force, the Sukhoi SU-47 and the Mikoyan Project 1.44 was mooted. In 2002, Sukhoi was chosen to lead the design team for this new fighter with stealth capabilities. The firms for the avionics suites and the engine design were nominated in 2003 with a consortium of various entities for the former and NPO Saturn for the latter. This aircraft was designated as a Fifth Generation Fighter and called the PAK-FA or the T-50.
Funding was a problem and it was evident then itself that while the Russian Air Force needed such an advanced fighter, foreign participation was necessary to finance the project and foreign orders essential to make costs of acquisition affordable to the Russian Air Force. Since collaboration with the US was most certainly ruled out and with European countries not likely at all for strategic and political reasons, the options were very limited since almost all other nations did not have the financial strength to contribute to the project or to join the project for developing such an aircraft from the inception stage. Once in production, some nations may buy the aircraft as has been the case with the SU-30 variants. In 2004 and in 2007, China was invited to join in the programme; but declined in favour of developing the J-20 and J-21 indigenously. Although there were expressions of interest from both sides, it was only in the late 2010 that the Indo-Russian joint venture began in earnest.
The first flight of the prototype was scheduled for early 2007 but finally took place only in January 2009, followed by the second aircraft undertaking maiden flight in March 2011. These were bare-bone prototypes without radar and weapons control systems. The aircraft was first displayed at the 2011 MAKS air show. The third prototype flew in November 2011 and flight trials with an AESA radar started in August 2012. The fourth prototype got airborne in December 2012. The AL 41F1 turbofan engines on the prototypes have 147kN (33047 lbs) thrust each. The production versions will have 157kN+ (34620+ lbs) thrust and these are supposed to be the standard fit on the Russian Air Force production models. These engines have super cruise capabilities at supersonic speeds without afterburner, Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and full three dimensional thrust vectoring independently for each engine in pitch, roll and yaw with built in Infra Red (IR) and Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction features. A newer engine, (NPO Saturn/FNPTS MMPP Salyut of 107kN in cruise and 175kN thrust with afterburner) with improved performance, reduced weight and life cycle costs, is on the cards with testing reportedly scheduled for 2014. On paper, the T-50 has performance capabilities that exceed those of all existing aircraft worldwide including those of the US armed forces, both in service and under development.
During Aero India 2013 at Bangalore in February 2013, Mikhail Pogosyan, President of the United Aircraft Corporation of Russia, stated at his press conference that variants for both Russia and India have common major systems but customisation would be done to meet Indian requirements including development of a two-seat variant. The Russian preference is for a single-seat. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, Chief of the Air Staff, stated at his press conference at the same venue that the R&D phase was on and the development aircraft would be brought to India for testing, the first scheduled to arrive in 2017 and the second a year later. Performance parameters will then be checked to firm up the IAF’s requirements. Production is planned to commence in 2022.
Indications are that the IAF has a requirement for longer combat range and possibly different avionics and sensors. The IAF philosophy tends to prefer two-seat aircraft for these types of combat roles, the SU-30 MKI being an example. The numbers required are changing frequently and will ultimately be constrained by costs.
The IAF has a requirement for longer combat range and possibly different avionics and sensors.
The roles envisaged are air superiority, strike, special weapons delivery including nuclear weapons, precision air to surface weapons delivery at long ranges and reconnaissance. A true multi-role capability is required unlike the sole air superiority role of the F-22 class of aircraft. Ability to penetrate dense AD environments situated deep inside enemy territory at high speed, using stealth to evade detection and deliver stand-off weapons which have autonomous guidance, are essential pre-requisites if the aircraft is to be successful.
Stealth is a relative term and its effectiveness is degraded by the power of enemy acquisition radars, distance from such radars, variations in RCS because of external stores, changes of aspect because of maneuvering, changes in configuration due to opening of weapon bays and even environmental factors such as icing on the airframe. Finally, if the aircraft do not stay well out of visual range, no amount of stealth design will prevent acquisition by visual means, thus negating all advantages of stealth. Daylight operation was avoided by F-117s in combat and the B2 bombers also operate by night to avoid visual acquisition. Weapons release will illuminate the aircraft since weapons themselves are generally not stealthy and will be picked up by radar indicating the presence of the launch aircraft. All forms of radiation from active sensors used by the aircraft will compromise stealth. The same is the case with weapons guidance systems used by the aircraft to control weapons post launch. Communications used by the aircraft will also pinpoint its location.
Stealth aircraft will be an important part of the inventory but the stealth mantra cannot replace everything else. Stealth imposes a penalty on performance, controllability, maneuverability, weapons carrying capacity, range and other operational factors. Special surface materials on these aircraft in service have proved difficult to maintain and some aircraft like the B2 require climate-controlled hangars and support facilities that have restricted their operational bases to the continental USA. Stealth aircraft will be confined to some specialist roles. As an example, aircraft operating in daytime in support of ground forces will be picked up visually and so design features such as low radar cross section will not make them immune to acquisition. Here, armour protection, weapons carrying capability and agility are more important. Eventually, prohibitive unit costs of stealth aircraft will restrict their use. High costs result in fewer numbers and hence reduced availability.
Stealth aircraft will be an important part of the inventory but the stealth mantra cannot replace everything else.
Similarly, in relatively low AD threat areas, the advantages of stealth will not be a deciding factor. These aircraft are optimal for precision delivery of powerful weapons against very high value targets located deep within heavily defended areas. Nuclear weapons delivery against strategic targets is a prime role and the deterrent threat posed by this capability is even greater than the capability itself. In the air superiority role, airspace dominance by eliminating enemy fighters and AWACS from well beyond visual ranges is a tailor-made role. The moment ranges shorten, the stealth element decreases and at visual ranges the aircraft may be at a disadvantage because of reduced agility and bigger size. Suppression of ground-based AD infrastructure including radars and missile sites is another role, again most effective at longer stand off ranges. Reconnaissance is yet another area.
This capability has to be paired with suitable precision weapons and guidance systems for the aircraft as well as the weapons themselves. In does not make much sense if the launch aircraft negates its stealth capability by having to use active sensors for navigation, target acquisition and illumination and for weapons guidance post launch. We have a history of acquiring aircraft and pairing them with weapons of a bygone era.
Challenges of Joint Development
Despite advanced R&D capabilities and an industrial base which has produced outstanding aircraft, the Russian programme has had major slippages and cost escalation because of the demands of stealth, associated engine and sensors technologies. Do we have the capabilities to match such demands? Will we have the infrastructure in place in time to produce such aircraft? The problem between Dassault and the HAL on the production of the Rafale in India is an indicator of likely conflict areas. As it is, we are looking at a time frame that extends to over 11 years from now. What will be the state of manned fighter aircraft then? Is it possible that the F-35 class could be the last of the high-technology manned fighters? Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are already proving their worth in reconnaissance and air-to-ground precision attack roles. Stealth technology is already being envisaged for these vehicles.
We cannot develop the capability alone and we do have a need for this weapon system…
The FGFA project is in the early development stage unlike previous acquisitions which were of aircraft already in production with verifiable performance figures. The US F-35 programme is an indicator of ambitious performance requirements not being met. Our LCA saga should be kept in mind. The other side of the coin is that we cannot develop the capability alone and we do have a need for this weapon system if the IAF is to remain viable in the future.
Integration of Command & Control
By its very nature, stealth makes it difficult for own command and control systems such as AWACS and ground radars to locate friendly aircraft. This adds to the confusion of war and the danger of fratricide by friendly fire is enhanced. In past conflicts, limited numbers of stealth aircraft operated independently at night to reduce such risks and even then controlling AWACS platforms had limited information on the positions of own stealth aircraft. In a more intense conflict in the future with both sides using such aircraft, control can very easily be lost. It will therefore be necessary to evolve new procedures. Like all new weapons, stealth is not a cure for all and brings its own problems. In our context, integration of forces, command and control and joint operations have been weak areas because of lack of understanding, ego clashes, difference in systems of communication apart from other issues. It is wise to keep in mind that technology has to be harnessed and used properly lest it turns on the owner.
India’s manufacturing capability is a worrying factor.
India has embarked on a project of a magnitude not attempted before. Technologies in structures, engines and avionics that are required are at the cutting edge of development. Integration of equipment from two countries to start with and multiple vendors from other countries as the project progresses is a big challenge. Considering the ever-accelerating pace of advancements in technology, it is likely that what is very stealthy in 2013 will not remain so in 2024 when the aircraft enters service that is, if there are no delays. Most performance parameters have yet to be validated and the true indication of stealth will only be available during trials against a variety of acquisition systems.
A lot of the requirements contradict each other by their very nature – aerodynamic agility and stealth requirements are often contradictory. India’s manufacturing capability is a worrying factor. Out-of-the-box thinking would be necessary to find solutions for effective utilisation of these aircraft. It is hoped that we do an accurate assessment of our capabilities, learn from previous errors in development projects and refrain from making demands for capabilities that cannot be met. Completing the project on schedule is crucial. Delays will nullify the advantages of stealth technology as it exists now since aircraft detection technology is not to be at a standstill either. India certainly should not end up with an obsolescent technology demonstrator 25 years hence.