Stealth in the skies

SP's MAI - - AEROSPACE -

Lt Gen­eral P.C. Ka­toch (Retd) ]

Fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft (FGFA) is an im­prove­ment over the fourth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft and in­cor­po­rate all as­pect of stealth even when armed, low prob­a­bil­ity of in­ter­cept radar (LPIR), high-per­for­mance air frames, ad­vanced avion­ics fea­tures, and highly in­te­grated com­puter sys­tems ca­pa­ble of net­work­ing with other el­e­ments within the theatre of war for sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. The only fully op­er­a­tional FGFA is the US F-22 in ser­vice since 2005. The US F-35 ‘Light­ning II’ Joint Strike Fighter and Rus­sia’s Sukhoi T-50 or PAK-FA will go op­er­a­tional soon. China, Ja­pan, South Korea, In­dia and Turkey too are work­ing on such projects. China’s un­der devel­op­ment Shenyang J-31 (also been re­ferred to as F-60 or J-21 Snowy Owl) made its first flight on Oc­to­ber 31, 2012, ac­com­pa­nied by two J-11 fighters in a 10-minute test flight with its land­ing gear low­ered. With this, China be­came the sec­ond na­tion af­ter the 1991 Ad­vanced Tac­ti­cal Fighter fly off, to have two stealth fighter de­signs in field-testing at the same time. In­dia has been work­ing on the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA. It is a de­riv­a­tive project from the PAK-FA (T-50) be­ing de­vel­oped for the IAF. FGFA was the ear­lier des­ig­na­tion for the In­dian ver­sion, while the com­bined project is now called the per­spec­tive multi-role fighter (PMF). The com­pleted PMF is to in­clude 43 im­prove­ments over the T-50 in­clud­ing stealth, su­per­cruise, ad­vanced sen­sors, net­work­ing and com­bat avion­ics.

The first air­craft was to begin testing 2014, with in­tro­duc­tion into ser­vice ex­pected by 2022, how­ever, dur­ing the re­cent visit of Pres­i­dent Putin it was re­ported that the project has run into cost over­runs and time de­lays. In­dia wanted to in­duct the PMF ear­li­est be­fore de­vel­op­ing a wholly in­dige­nous FGFA and had told Rus­sia it can­not wait till 2024-25 to begin in­duct­ing the 127 x PMF en­tail­ing an ex­pen­di­ture of $25 bil­lion. How­ever, given the long-stand­ing In­doRus­sian friend­ship and strong Indo-Rus­sian strate­gic co­op­er­a­tion, it was ex­pected that th­ese is­sues will get sorted out soon. And this is al­ready hap­pen­ing with Rus­sian De­fence Min­is­ter Sergei Shoigu hav­ing held talks with De­fence Min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar on Jan­uary 21, 2015, at New Delhi to re­view the PMF project.

An MoD of­fi­cial quot­ing Par­rikar said a de­ci­sion has been taken to fast-track is­sues re­lat­ing to the PMF. Both min­is­ters have agreed to re­view progress ev­ery three months. The push to get Indo-Rus­sian PMF project off the ground came just prior to Pres­i­dent Obama’s visit to In­dia.

The sec­ond project is the ad­vanced medium com­bat air­craft (AMCA) fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth multi-role fighter un­der devel­op­ment that will com­ple­ment the HAL Te­jas, the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA, the Sukhoi Su-30MKI and the Das­sault Rafale. The prod­uct de­sign work of the AMCA in col­lab­o­ra­tion be­tween the IAF, DRDO and Aero­nau­ti­cal Devel­op­ment Agency is al­most over. The ini­tial de­sign and devel­op­ment phase will re­port­edly re­quire ` 4,000-5,000 crore.

As per the cur­rent road map, it is planned to fly the pro­to­type by 2024-25 co­in­cid­ing gen­er­ally with the time the IAF re­ceives de­liv­er­ies of the Te­jas Mark II fighters. Though in­or­di­nately de­layed, the IAF is slated to get the first Te­jas Mark I by the end of the cur­rent fi­nan­cial year. That this has been pos­si­ble 30 years af­ter the LCA project was sanc­tioned speaks very poorly of our in­dige­nous ca­pa­bil­ity but then we also took 15 years to pro­duce an as­sault ri­fle which is not even close to the top ten in its cat­e­gory. But hope­fully all this will change with the new gov­ern­ment and the dy­namism of Prime Min­is­ter Modi. Presently, the sim­u­la­tion mod­el­ling of the AMCA is on­go­ing. With the Chi­nese stealth fighters and hy­per­sonic ve­hi­cles on the hori­zon, our asym­me­try vis-à-vis China will go up yet fur­ther.

Con­sid­er­ing that the AMCA is still in the stage of in­fancy, the even­tual cost of in­duct­ing the re­quired num­bers would be large but that is un­avoid­able. While our mission to Mars has taken us to an ex­clu­sive club, we can­not af­ford a sit­u­a­tion where our IAF faces stealth fighters with­out hav­ing sim­i­lar ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The LCA project though in­or­di­nately de­layed has pro­vided a huge aerospace base in the coun­try. If large or­ders for the AMCA are guar­an­teed pri­vate play­ers would find set­ting up new fa­cil­i­ties much more lu­cra­tive. The AMCA needs to be ex­e­cuted on a newer model of public-pri­vate part­ner­ship to ob­vi­ate many of the con­cerns the IAF has about in­dige­nous pro­duc­tion. Some of the en­vis­aged ca­pa­bil­i­ties for the AMCA in­clud­ing fly by light, cloud shoot­ing and new gen­er­a­tion man-ma­chine in­ter­faces ac­tu­ally put it in a realm closer to that of a sixth-gen­er­a­tion fighter. If the AMCA project is pur­sued whole­heart­edly, In­dia could have an in­dige­nous con­tem­po­rary fighter by 202728. The re­quire­ment, there­fore, is to speed­ily progress the PMF and AMCA si­mul­ta­ne­ously.

Ad­vanced medium com­bat air­craft fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth multi-role fighter; (right) Prospec­tive multi-role fighter

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