By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th July 15
This fortnight the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which is responsible for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, will brief its new boss on a project that will shape the future of the Indian Air Force (IAF) --- the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an indigenous “fifth-generation” (Gen-5) fighter more advanced than anything on the IAF’s inventory. After briefing Dr S Christopher, the new Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) chief who is also ex-officio director-general of ADA, the AMCA proposal will be taken to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has specifically asked for a briefing. After Mr Parrikar’s green light, the DRDO will seek $4 billion (currently Rs 25,000 crore, but this would fluctuate with the rupee) to design and develop the AMCA, build and test-fly prototypes, and give the IAF a Gen-5 fighter within 15 years.
Knowledgeable insiders say the AMCA will be a single-pilot, twin-engine, medium (20-25 tonnes) fighter with a highly stealthy design. This would be invaluable in the first days of a major war for targeting enemy war-waging infrastructure -- roads, railways, airfields, radars, headquarters and depots --- when conventional, non-stealthy fighters would be detected by the enemy’s air defence radars and shot down by fighters, missiles and guns. In such a “dense air defence environment”, stealth fighters would be able to degrade the enemy’s air defences, opening the window for our non-stealthy fighters, like the Sukhoi-30MKI, to strike with large loads of externally mounted ordnance and fuel. Stealth is central for a Gen-5 fighter, and is achieved by shaping aircraft surfaces to scatter radar waves, using radar absorbent materials and paints, and using internal fuel tanks, sensors, antennae and weapons carriage and ordnance.
Alongside stealth, a Gen-5 fighter incorporates super-cruise (flying supersonic without an afterburner); super-manoeuvrability (with thrust vectoring engines and an unstable design); advanced avionics architecture and sensors that enhance the pilot-vehicle interface (allowing a single pilot to fly and fight the aircraft); and extended target detection and engagement ranges. In an ideal combat engagement, a Gen-5 fighter would detect an enemy fighter and fire his long-range missile well before the adversary’s radar detects the stealth aircraft.
“Ho-hum! ADA can never do this”, the import lobbyists will say --- self-appointed patriots who see no irony in their advocacy of expensive foreign weaponry at the expense of Indian R&D and defence industry. Their critique of the Tejas is well worn. Arguing (fallaciously) that the DRDO has taken 33 years to deliver the Tejas, they will (incorrectly) extrapolate that the more complex AMCA will take even longer! Their persistent allegations about the Tejas’ performance shortfalls are now being exposed. As flight-testing expanded the Tejas’ flight envelope, it became evident the LCA far outperforms the MiG-21BISON, the most advanced of the fighters it was built to replace, as well as any Pakistani fighter except the latest F-16 Block 50/52. The upcoming Tejas Mark II --- with a more powerful engine, upgraded avionics and better air-to-air missile --- could be built cheaply, overwhelming even more sophisticated opponents with numbers. This would requires Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to galvanise its production line, but that is a management issue, not a delay-inducing technology challenge.
With the Tejas’ performance now demonstrated, critics have shifted their fire to delays in the project, a more credible complaint. Even so, it is false to date the start of the LCA project to 1983, as is commonly done; the project really began a decade later. In 1983, the LCA was allocated Rs 560 crore for “feasibility studies and project definition”, and for creating developmental infrastructure. Only in 1993 was development funding allocated (Rs 2,188 crore, including the Rs 560 crore allocated in 1983). This was for building two “technology demonstrators”, the first of which flew in 2001. Taking 1993 as the base year, the Tejas took just eight years to fly, and will have taken 23 years for “final operational certification” (FOC) which is anticipated by March 2016. This is comparable with international time lines for fighter aircraft development, including the Rafale and the F-35 Lightening II.
Encouragingly, the AMCA will enjoy an impetus the LCA never got, now that the IAF has thrown its weight and support behind the AMCA programme. While the IAF stood aloof from the LCA, participating only as a critic, it has joined hands with ADA in formulating the AMCA’s configuration, and is deputing pilots and engineers to work alongside ADA as it designs the fighter. It is unclear what is driving this dramatic change in the IAF’s approach to indigenization. It could be the realisation --- stemming from the Rafale fiasco --- that India simply cannot afford to import sizeable numbers of modern fighters. It could be the positive example of the navy, which has wisely steered the process of designing and building warships in India. Or, in an organisation that is shaped by the personality of the top man, it could just be that the current IAF chief favours indigenisation.
While the IAF will be praised if the AMCA meets its objectives, credit should really go to the unfairly vilified DRDO-HAL-ADA combine for leapfrogging three generations of technology in developing the fourth-generation Tejas fighter. In this process, the LCA project has catalysed an aerospace eco-structure, and a design experience that will be the essential springboard to the AMCA.
A range of fighter aircraft technologies is already mastered. These include: a sophisticated “unstable configuration” for extra agility; quadruplex digital flight control system; light composite materials for the aero-structures; glass cockpit with digital instrumentation; an environment control system with an on-board oxygen generating system (OBOGS); and advanced avionics that allow the pilot to switch quickly between air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. With much of these Gen-4 technologies currently being refined for the Tejas Mark II, the AMCA team can focus on the Gen-5 challenges.
In sum, the LCA project has created Indian design expertise, design tools and test facilities. It has allowed ADA to gain expertise in the processes of flight-testing and certification, and in prototype development. In designing, building and certifying the Tejas, ADA and the defence ministry have painstakingly woven together a countrywide network of technical and engineering institutions, laboratories and facilities. ADA calculates that 149 work centres in 28 cities have directly contributed to the LCA programme. These are now networked and available for the AMCA project. True, there are shortfalls, such as the fact that India has just one wind tunnel, essential for simulation studies in designing airframes and structures. Before the AMCA gets under way, ADA should holistically identify and make up such deficiencies as part of a national eco-system for future aerospace projects.
The IAF’s future lies in its own hands. At the recent Paris Air Show, the Pakistan Air Force displayed its new Sino-Pakistani fighter, the JF-17 Thunder. Countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka were reportedly making purchase enquiries. While significantly inferior to the Tejas in technologies and performance, the JF-17 was better in one crucial respect --- it was steadfastly supported by its home air force. Perhaps the IAF could draw a lesson from that.