By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Feb 15
The first two days of each Aero India show are normally packed with press conferences by key government and military officials. At Aero India 2015 in Bengaluru today, the heads of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), and the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) aerospace chief talked about the air force of the future.
IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, stated that, even in the best case, the air force would take 16-17 years to achieve its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. This too only if the contract for 126 Rafale fighters was quickly inked, the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) developed without further delay, and the smooth development of DRDO’s fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
“It is very difficult to give an exact time-line for these aircraft, but it should take four-five years beyond the 14th Plan [2022-2027] to build up the strength of the IAF to the authorized level of 42 squadrons”, said the IAF chief.
The IAF currently has 35 operational fighter squadrons, and another 11 would retire by 2018. Neither the AMCA nor the FGFA are likely to appear in squadron service before the mid-2020s, and the Tejas Mark II would also be operationalized only by the start of the next decade, Raha explained.
Significantly, given the dark clouds that Business Standard has reported over the proposed purchase of the Dassault Rafale (February 15, Rafale proposal “effectively dead” as MoD discovers Dassault bid not cheapest) Raha declared for the first time that it did not matter which MMRCA was procured.
Besides the French Rafale, built by Dassault, the other MMRCA that the IAF had found suitable for procurement is the Typhoon, built by European consortium, Eurofighter GmbH.
The DRDO’s aeronautics chief, Dr K Tamilmani, described the AMCA programme, which the DRDO will spearhead after guiding the Tejas Mark I to squadron service.
Revealing that the basic design of the AMCA had already been frozen, Tamilmani claimed the DRDO already had the basic technologies needed, but these needed to be adapted to higher performance requirements.
“We have to introduce three technologies on AMCA that are not there on LCA: stealth; thrust vectoring engines; and supercruise (the capability to fly at supersonic speeds without engine afterburners. We are working on all three areas already.”
Two of these three capabilities --- thrust vectoring and supercruise --- depend upon high-performance engines, and the DRDO will import the AMCA’s engine.
Says Tamilmani: “By late-2019, I will need an engine to be integrated onto the AMCA. We are discussing with multiple engine vendors --- Rolls-Royce, GE, Snecma. We could by an upgraded version of an existing engine, with its output enhanced to 110KiloNewtons. The vendors need three years to develop that.”
Current engines --- including the American GE F-414, which India is already buying for the Tejas Mark II fighter --- have thrust ratings of 90-95 KiloNewtons. That means the AMCA engines would require significant uprating.
Tamilmani opines that buying an American engine provides a trouble-free route, given the experience of the Tejas project.
“With the government-to-government route with the US now open, we would be happy to use the GE F-414 engine. We have been working with the smaller GE F-404 on the Tejas for a long time and have seen no problems”, he said.
The DRDO aerospace chief spelt out detailed time lines for the AMCA. By next year, he would arrive at a budgetary requirement. This is being formulated with care, “because we cannot keep going back for funding again and again”, he said.
By late-2019, the aircraft would require to be mated with an engine, and the first flight planned for early 2020.
“I will need four years from that date for flight testing, with four prototypes testing the new technologies we have developed. In 2024, I should be able to develop and freeze the AMCA design, and then we can start production,” said Tamilmani.
Meanwhile HAL would co-develop the FGFA with Sukhoi of Russia, in a partnership that is bogged down in foot-dragging by India. Meanwhile Russia is going ahead with the project alone, and is already test flying the fighter.
For the first time, the IAF chief revealed delays in the Russian programme, stating: “The FGFA was supposed to start production in 2018-19, but there are some delays.”
HAL has argued that the skills obtained in the FGFA co-development would help in building the AMCA, but Tamilmani downplayed that benefit. Illustrating the gulf between development agencies, he said, “DRDO is playing a minimal role in the FGFA project”.