Air war in Ukraine is being watched very closely. Despite large asymmetry, Russians have faced resistance from Ukraine through smart use of air defence and anti-tank missiles and precision attacks by Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAVs). Ground and air launched cruise missiles have been extensively used by both sides, including for sinking of Russian flagship destroyer the “Moskva”. Indian armed forces continue to remain eye-ball to eye-ball with the Chinese in Ladakh region. China continues to build new airfields in Xinjiang and Tibet, not far from the region. Chinese aircraft continue to man these bases throughout the year. The Indian Air Force (IAF) has also been carrying out extensive operations. Just three years ago, the Balakot strike by the IAF and the air combat, that followed in response to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) riposte on March 27, 2019, rekindled interest in fighter aircraft technologies and air combat capabilities.
Combat aviation has not only become the most preferred means of prosecution of war but has seen the fastest growth of technology. Special features developed for combat platforms include higher speed, better manoeuverability, longer reach, flexibility of employment in operational tasks as well as enhanced precision in weapon delivery and lethality. As technology grew, the pilot was not just flying the aircraft accurately and safely but was also required to function as a weapon systems manager. After the advent of the jet age, the aviation community began to classify jet fighters by “generations” based on design, performance and technological evolution. Most air forces around the globe currently operate fourth generation aircraft. There are a few fifth generation aircraft flying and the sixth generation aircraft are still on the drawing board and technologies are evolving.
Fourth Generation Plus
A large number of current fighters are of fourth generation with multi-role configurations and capability. Concept of ‘energy-manoeuverability’, ‘fast transients’ involving quick changes in speed, altitude and direction have been in place. Thrust-weight ratios are high. Digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight controls, integrated use of advanced computers allow relaxed static stability flight and in turn agility. Full Authority Digital Engine Controls (FADEC) electronically managed power-plant performance. Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radars provide multi-direction tracking and fire-control ability. Very wide angled Head-Up Displays (HUD), sophisticated Hands-On-Throttle-And-Stick (HOTAS) controls and large screen Multi-Function Displays (MFD) provide better situational awareness and quicker reactions. Composite materials such as bonded aluminium honeycomb structures and graphite epoxy laminate skins have helped reduce aircraft weight. Improved maintenance design and procedures have 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 the enemy’s sensors, particularly radars. Advanced digital avionics, newer aerospace materials, signature reduction and highly integrated systems and weapons came up in 4.5 generation fighters. Stealth characteristics focused on front-aspect Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction through limited shaping techniques as in Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen. The first real stealth designs were Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk attack aircraft in 1983 and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit in 1989.
Fifth Generation Fighters
Starting with the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor in late 2005, fifth generation fighters were 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. The AESA radars with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept and IRST along with other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness (SA) and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft’s 360 degree bubble. In addition to its high resistance to ECM, they could 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.
Manoeuvre performance was enhanced by thrust-vectoring. Super-cruise was inbuilt. Signature-reduction techniques include special shaping approaches, thermoplastic materials, extensive structural use of advanced composites, conformal sensors and weapons, 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. The F-22 costs around $150 million. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II fighters will cost on average $85 million due to large scale production. Other fifth-generation fighter development projects included Russia’s Sukhoi PAK FA, now SU-57. India is also developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). China’s fifth generation fighter Chengdu J-20 is flying since January 2011 and combat units started inducting in early 2018. The Shenyang J-31 first flew in October 2012. The programme has received government funding and the project is being accelerated.
Optionally Manned Fighters and MUMT
Unmanned aircraft technologies are today well proven and more and more aerial tasks are now assigned to Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS). Optionally manned aircraft are flying. Unmanned aircraft are already taking off and landing autonomously on moving ships. Autonomous air refuelling has been tested. Unmanned stealth bombers are evolving. French, Dassault leads a multi nation delta wing UCAV ‘Neuron’ of the size of Mirage 2000. The UK has a Strategic Unmanned Air Vehicle (SUAVE) programme ‘Taranis’.
UAS coordinated swarms of over 1,000 drones have been flown by many countries. Manned Unmanned Aircraft Teaming (MUMT) has been tested and operational concepts put in place. Drones are already being used in all roles including ISR, logistics delivery, armed attacks against ground and aerial targets, laser lasing, and as electronic warfare and communication platforms. Large UAS cargo platforms are under design.
Today, technologies 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. Network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have better 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 manufacture 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 the ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs. Reusable Directed Energy Weapons (DEW) including laser and microwave, sixth-generation missiles that will have longer ranges, be more survivable and combine air-to-air and air-to-ground capabilities is being evolved.
Future Fighter Programmes
Major countries are already working on sixth generation aircraft technologies. “Air Dominance” will be the theme. Terms such as “a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms” are being used. These fighters will have enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration and weapons effects. They will be able to take on adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection and integrated self-protection, DEW and cyber-attack capabilities. They will be able to operate in the Anti-Access/Anti-Denial (A2/AD) environment of 2030–2050 timeframe. They are expected to use advanced engines with Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology for longer ranges and higher performance. The aircraft will feature Artificial Intelligence (AI) as a decision aid to the pilot and have advanced sensor fusion. To reduce time and cost risks, technologies will be evolved stand-alone concurrently, before porting on the new platform.
The Future Combat Air System (FCAS), is a European combat system of systems under development by Dassault Aviation, Airbus, IndraSistemas and Thales Group. It will consist of a Next-Generation Weapon System (NGWS) as well as other air assets in the future operational battle-space. The NGWS’s components will be remote carrier vehicles (swarming drones) as well as a New Generation Fighter (NGF) – a sixth-generation jet fighter that by around 2040, will replace current France’s Rafales, Germany’s Typhoons and Spain’s EF-18 Hornets. A test flight of a demonstrator is expected around 2027 and entry into service by around 2040.
Aerial Technology Status in India
India has already mastered most of the basic aircraft building technologies and is essentially at 4.5 generation stage in most areas. In some other areas, India is gradually catching up. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk 1 is fourth generation aircraft and the Mk 2 will be a 4.5 generation aircraft. The Indian aerospace industry has mastered the basic aircraft design, composite materials and production technologies. For some time the AESA radar will continue to be produced through a joint-venture with Israel. The Electronic Warfare suite will initially be obtained from foreign sources and later move to a joint venture route. India will be dependent on foreign aero-engine for some more years till a joint-venture is evolved and a “made-in-India” engine is produced. Most other avionics are being built in India, some with foreign help. The LCA Mk 1A and Mk 2 will have greater indigenisation and better operational capabilities. The aircraft production rates are still very low and these must go up considerably. Significant private sector participation has begun. Private companies are making the LCA front, central and rear fuselage.
The design of India’s fifth generation aircraft, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), has reportedly been frozen. Metal cutting has begun. It will continue to fly with foreign aero-engines. The specifications drawn are among the best globally. India will need foreign help for stealth and some other technologies if reasonable timeframes have to be maintained. As on date, the first flight is officially planned in 2025. A more realistic timeline would be 2028-2030.
Broad Technology Road Map for India
India needs to identify and list the critical technologies and make dedicated teams to drive them. The best talent in the country must be tapped for technology development and manufacture. Many Indian start-ups and other private companies are manufacturing major components and sub-systems for global aviation majors. The private sector in India is in a better position for joint-ventures. A pert-chart must define clear timelines so that the final aerial platform is not delayed. Some of the critical groups of technologies are listed below.
Communications and Electronic Technologies
Communications and internet technologies backed by AI and 5G and 6G telecommunications networks will be crucial for aviation design and onboard data handling. They will also be crucial for satellite and ground based communications. Internet of things (IoT) and machine-to-machine communications will require these. It will also involve the beaming of millimetre length microwaves at the Earth from thousands of new communication satellites. These speeds will also be required for cyber-security. Imported electronic hardware of the aircraft could be a high-risk option with embedded chips. Indigenisation is very important. Similarly, the electronic warfare equipment has to be home-developed. There is global shortage of micro-ships. These are required for aircraft, automation, electro-optical systems including the weapon sensors. India has decided to invest large sums in manufacture within the country. 5G will be required for the entire network-centred warfare. Fast data transfer of heavy intelligence videos will be time-crucial. Secure, jam-proof data-links will be required for UAS and for drone swarms, in addition to practically all other aviation activities. Uttam AESA radar also must succeed. DRDO has started studies to develop an Airborne Electronic Attack (AEA) aircraft on the Su-30MKI platform.
Aero-Engine Road Map
The turbofan engine market is dominated by a handful of mostly Western players. They all hold the technologies very close to their chest. DRDO’s Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) has struggled to make a turbo-jet engine for many decades. It has clearly been beyond them and had been overstating abilities. World over, the engines are being made by consortiums or joint-ventures. The JV has to both develop and market. The core engine is normally the same for high speed fighter jets and for large airliners. India has a significant market for both. Any JV would be a win-win for both. Sometimes, comparison is incorrectly made between India’s success in rocket engines and lack of it in aero-engines. The two are totally different technologies. Aero-engine is much more complex. There are some Bengaluru-based companies into small engines and could be co-opted. The area of electric and hybrid engines is where the future is. India must invest in such research also.
Critical Airframe Technologies
India has mastered composite surfaces manufacture technology and is a global leader. Basic aerodynamic designs and fuselage-wing blending designs require complex computational data and research. Also adaptive-curvature wings will be the future. India must work more on it. Stealth design and maintenance is complex and expensive. Even Americans find so. While we should work on it, the first variant of AMCA could be only partially stealthy. Intake and exhaust design are crucial for reducing aircraft signature. This would require a lot of research. India has mastered most other airframe systems technologies adequately, including self-healing structures and systems.
Advanced Weapons Research
Precision and range are the two critical requirements for both air-to-air and air-to-surface weapons. India has a successful missile programme including the BrahMos. Astra Mk 3, and BrahMos II need to be driven. In many cases, we have partnered with Russia and Israel. The JV route is working well. Gradually sourcing of critical components like weapons sensor heads and control systems must be made increasingly in India. Hypersonic and DEW are areas of future action. These two need to be driven actively.
Unmanned Aircraft Production Ecosystem
For long, the Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADE) was responsible for UAV development in India. Lakshya and Nishant were cut and paste jobs. Serious work on UAVs started only with Rustam and Tapas variants. Armed forces still await their induction. DRDO must find private partners for UAVs. Adanis are making the Israeli Hermes UAVs in India through a JV with Elbit. Meanwhile the private sector has been rightly galvanised for mid-sized drones. As per Drone Federation of India, the manufacturing of drones and related systems is happening in India, but key components are largely sourced from other countries. These include battery, motor, sensors, semiconductor, GPS, and camera. Select countries have developed mass production capabilities against aggregated demand of such components. India needs to get into such mass production. Initiatives such as the Mehar Baba competition helped identify private sector start-ups.
AMCA Must Succeed
For India to be part of the big league, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) must succeed. We lost time in the FGFA project with Russia, but did learn a little on the concept. It is good to know about the commencement of manufacturing of the first prototype of AMCA. The AMCA will be a futuristic fifth generation aircraft that would also incorporate some features of planned 6th generation aircraft all over the globe. The development of AMCA will take place in two phases, AMCA Mk-1 and AMCA Mk-2 which would majorly differ in the indigenous content and futuristic features. Mk-2 will focus more on stealth, EW and futuristic pilot-AI interface. The AMCA Mk-2 will have DEWs and thrust-vectored engines with serrated nose pattern. The aircraft needs to be developed concurrently with LCA Mk2 and must have a dedicated separate team.
Technology and Obsolescence Management
Breakthrough disruptive technologies keep changing the status quo. High-bandwidth high-speed networks, AI, quantum computing, robotics, hypersonic and DEW are going to change the way the air war is fought. Keeping abreast with new technologies is important. The aerial platforms must be built around modularity that will ease regular upgrades.
The Way Ahead
The escalating cost of modern fighters coupled with national priorities, budgetary constraints, human-resource crunch, newer battlefield challenges, lead one to conclude that a new way of war-fighting would need to be employed, especially in the aerospace domain. National Security Strategy must be finalised quickly. From this will flow the operational capability building for the armed forces. In turn, that will lay the road for technology development. Future aerial platforms will have to penetrating dense integrated AD environment that is backed by electronic and cyber-attacks. The armed forces need to prepare for asymmetric warfare. The air forces will have to engage in system-of-systems approach to take on multi-dimension, multi-domain operations. Since aerial platforms will be used across various military and paramilitary users, a “whole of nation” vision must evolve. Undoubtedly, the “Atmanirbharta” campaign will drive indigenisation. It will have to be an all of Government approach. Spelling out clear end-states, timelines and regular path-line reviews would be important. The time to act is now, lest it is too late.
Just three years ago, the Balakot strike by the IAF and the air combat, that followed in response to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) riposte on March 27, 2019, rekindled interest in fighter aircraft technologies and air combat capabilities.
Actual date: February 27th, 2019 Important to fully recheck all key dates & data quoted in a serious military article