Delegates from HAL and Sukhoi and Rosoboronexport sign the Preliminary Design Contract to develop a 5th generation fighter aircraft
by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 12th July 11
A number of strands are coming together in structuring India’s air power capability for the second quarter of the 21st century. The indigenous Tejas light fighter, developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), is entering production and an improved Tejas Mark II is being developed. Riding this success, ADA is developing a fifth generation medium fighter, called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Simultaneously, the overseas acquisition of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) is nearing a close with Dassault’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon in a race to the finish line. In the heavy fighter category, the redoubtable Sukhoi-30MKI is being upgraded even as more trickle into the fleet. Meanwhile, Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) are working together on the Indo-Russian fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA).
These five fighters will form the sword edge of the Indian Air Force (IAF) from 2025 onwards. At that stage, the IAF will operate seven squadrons (an IAF squadron has 21 fighters) of Tejas, more if ADA can enhance capabilities and reduce price. Six squadrons of MMRCA are currently planned, but that could rise to 10 squadrons, if performance is great and technology transfer smooth. The indigenous AMCA will equip another 10 squadrons. Thirteen IAF squadrons will fly the upgraded Sukhoi-30 MKI, while the FGFA will equip another ten squadrons
By then five current fighters, whose service lives have been extended by upgrades – the Mig-21 BISON; MiG-27; MiG-29; Jaguar; and the Mirage 2000 – would retire. Despite that the IAF would field a minimum of 46 squadrons, possibly more than 50. That would make for a far more reassuring air power equation than the IAF’s current strength of 32 squadrons against an authorisation of 39.5 squadrons. Importantly, half the fleet would be indigenous in 2025, with 17 squadrons (7 Tejas + 10 AMCA) entirely Indian-designed and another 10 FGFA squadrons with a substantial indigenous component.
This planned fleet would boast a formidable technological profile. The oldest fighter in 2025, the Tejas, a Generation-four fighter once the Mark II is inducted, would be enhanced to Generation-four plus through a mid-life upgrade. Another 19-23 squadrons (MMRCA + Sukhoi-30MKI) would also be Generation-four plus. And the IAF’s Generation-five fleet would comprise a solid 20 squadrons (MCA + FGFA).
Supported by mid-air refuelling, airborne early warning, and the world-class airlift capability provided by the C-17 Globemaster III, the C-130J Super Hercules and the Indo-Russian Multi-role Transport Aircraft, the IAF would be capable of safeguarding Indian interests along the Pakistan and Chinese borders and in the Indian Ocean region. But this rosy picture depends largely on two development programmes that are in their early stages: ADA’s development of the AMCA, and the HAL-Sukhoi FGFA. Without success in these programmes, India’s fighter fleet would appear depleted and vulnerable.
That success is far from guaranteed. Notwithstanding the Tejas experience and the growing technological capability of Indian industry, India lacks the overarching structures that are essential for supporting two advanced fighter development programmes. National aerospace capabilities remain fragmented, islands of excellence in a sea of dysfunction. ADA, which oversees the Tejas programme, is the closest to an overarching body for controlling aeronautical development. Since the DRDO chief heads ADA, it successfully coordinates between the DRDO’s aerospace laboratories but exercises direct control over little else. HAL, India’s 900-pound aerospace gorilla, remains primarily a manufacturing behemoth, churning out Russian-designed fighters from Russian blueprints.
With coordination lacking even within the defence ministry, it is unsurprising that there is little synergy with “outsider” organisations like the National Aerospace Laboratories (NAL), which functions under the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research. NAL’s designers and its sophisticated test facilities are busy in pipedreams, dissipating effort into marginal projects like the struggling Saras transport aircraft rather than pooling talent into a national effort like the AMCA. Nor is there systematic cooperation with India’s many top-class academic institutions, which have the researchers and the facilities that could feed into a national project.
We must, therefore, institute an overarching body that can oversee and coordinate the development of the aerospace industry, and especially complex projects like the AMCA and the FGFA, vertically integrating resources at the national level. The successful models provided by two existing domain-focused organisations – the Department of Atomic Energy and the Department of Space – must be studied for creating a Department of Aerospace (DoAer) under the defence ministry. One branch of DoAer must manage research organisations, with another branch managing production organisations, including within the private sector. An aerospace technological specialist with managerial skills and experience must head DoAer. He must be given the rank of secretary to the government, even though this will inevitably run up against turf interests within the bureaucracy.