5th-Gen Op­tions

The In­dian Air Force (IAF) was quick to recog­nise the im­mense po­ten­tial of fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters and around five years ago, seemed set to in­duct not one, but two types


When the Lock­heed Martin F-22 Rap­tor, a fifth­gen­er­a­tion, twin-en­gine, stealth fighter air­craft was in­tro­duced by the United States Air Force (USAF) in De­cem­ber 2005, it cre­ated a stir. An­a­lysts opined that if an at­tack­ing air­craft could be ren­dered “in­vis­i­ble” to the en­emy de­fences on ac­count of its low-ob­serv­able char­ac­ter­is­tics, it would en­joy im­mense ad­van­tage. Con­versely, the foe would find it well-nigh im­pos­si­ble to en­gage an in­truder he could not “see”. As Amer­ica’s po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries stepped up ef­forts to de­velop their own fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters, its al­lies de­manded th­ese “in­vin­ci­ble” plat­forms for their own air forces.

The mys­tique sur­round­ing fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters abated a lit­tle when the F-22 pro­gramme was ter­mi­nated on ac­count of high costs af­ter only 195 jets were built. But its suc­ces­sor, the Lock­heed Martin F-35 Light­ning II, has fared bet­ter. This sin­gle- en­gine stealth mul­ti­role fighter is pro­jected to be­come the largest and most ex­pen­sive weapon sys­tem in his­tory, based on its fore­cast pro­duc­tion of over 3,000 jets and its es­ti­mated life­time cost of $1.5 tril­lion.

The In­dian Air Force (IAF) was quick to recog­nise the im­mense po­ten­tial of fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters and around five years ago, seemed set to in­duct not one but two types – the Sukhoi/ Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) Fifth Gen­er­a­tion Fighter Air­craft (FGFA) and the indige­nous Ad­vanced Medium Com­bat Air­craft (AMCA). How­ever, re­cently, the FGFA project has col­lapsed, the AMCA is still a dis­tant dream and the IAF can­not re­al­is­ti­cally hope to ac­quire the F-35. Be­sides, the short­age of con­ven­tional com­bat squadrons in the IAF has turned acute. It is star­ing at an im­mi­nent drop below 30 squadrons against the au­tho­rised strength of 42

The PLAAF in­tends to in­duct a large num­ber of fifth­gen­er­a­tion fighters and the Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) is likely to get some of th­ese plat­forms too

squadrons (each con­sist­ing of 18 jets), the as­sessed min­i­mum nec­es­sary to tackle a two-front col­lu­sive threat from Pak­istan and China. In such cir­cum­stances, a hugely ex­pen­sive stealth fighter seems like an avoid­able ex­trav­a­gance. So does the IAF re­ally need a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft? The short an­swer is: Yes it does, but per­haps not just yet.


It was in 2007 that In­dia and Rus­sia be­gan ex­plor­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of jointly pro­duc­ing a fifth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft for the IAF. In 2010, the two coun­tries signed a $295 mil­lion de­sign con­tract for the co-de­vel­op­ment of the Sukhoi/HAL Per­spec­tive Multi-role Fighter (PMF) or FGFA based on the Su-57 pro­to­type, the T-50. The pro­jected pro­duc­tion run was as high as 250 jets for Rus­sia and 144 for In­dia by 2022 at a cost of around $30 bil­lion. Mean­while, in 2008, In­dia’s Aero­nau­ti­cal De­vel­op­ment Agency (ADA) also got into the act with a pre­lim­i­nary study on an indige­nous stealth mul­ti­role jet to be known as the AMCA. De­sign work on this fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter com­menced in 2010.

Strangely enough, there are no clearly de­fined at­tributes of a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft. It ap­pears it is sim­ply one that in­cor­po­rates all proven fea­tures of fourth-gen­er­a­tion de­signs, be­sides some new char­ac­ter­is­tics such as com­pre­hen­sive all-as­pect stealth, low prob­a­bil­ity of in­ter­cept radar (LPIR), high-per­for­mance air­frame, high-per­for­mance en­gine ca­pa­ble of su­per­sonic cruise with­out af­ter­burner or su­per-cruise, ad­vanced avion­ics with long-range sen­sors, and net­worked data fu­sion to pro­vide full bat­tle-space sit­u­a­tional aware­ness. The ar­ma­ment must be car­ried in­ter­nally to keep the air­craft’s radar cross-sec­tion (RCS) low.


The F-22 Rap­tor was the world’s only op­er­a­tional stealth fighter for al­most a decade be­fore a vari­ant of the F-35 achieved ini­tial op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity (IOC) in July 2015. More re­cently, China’s Chengdu J-20A en­tered op­er­a­tional ser­vice in Septem­ber 2017 with the Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force (PLAAF). It will be fol­lowed by China’s Shenyang J-31 which may at­tain IOC by 2020. Rus­sia for its part, claims that its Su-57 will be op­er­a­tional in 2019. How­ever, the Rus­sian Air Force (RAF) has only or­dered a dozen such jets in­di­cat­ing a dis­mal lack of faith in its ca­pa­bil­i­ties. As per re­ports, the PLAAF in­tends to in­duct a large num­ber of fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters and the Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) is likely to get some of th­ese plat­forms too in not too dis­tant a fu­ture. In fact, heart­ened by their suc­cess­ful co­op­er­a­tion on the JF-17 light­weight fighter, Pak­istan is even con­sid­er­ing build­ing a fifth-gen­er­a­tion jet with Chi­nese as­sis­tance. The only way for the IAF to keep abreast of its po­ten­tial ad­ver­saries and pen­e­trate their fear­some air de­fences with low chances of de­tec­tion and in­ter­cep­tion, would be to have its own fleet of fifth-gen­er­a­tion com­bat air­craft. It would also need to de­velop ef­fec­tive coun­ter­mea­sures against in­trud­ing en­emy stealth jets.


Build­ing fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters from scratch is a ter­ri­bly dif­fi­cult and costly propo­si­tion and very few at­tempts across the world have suc­ceeded. That is why de­vel­op­ment of the FGFA seemed such an ex­cel­lent idea. How­ever, fol­low­ing de­tailed eval­u­a­tion of the T-50 pro­to­type, the IAF found se­ri­ous short­com­ings in the plane’s stealth en­gi­neer­ing, en­gine, radar which had lim­ited cov­er­age and ca­pa­bil­ity and weapon-car­ry­ing ca­pac­ity.

The sought more than 40 changes in it plat­form. Dis­agree­ments also in­creased about work share, trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy (ToT) and costs. HAL how­ever strongly backed the project, claim­ing that the ex­pe­ri­ence gained would ul­ti­mately help in the AMCA project. The IAF, ham­strung by se­vere lack of re­sources and bud­getary sup­port, fi­nally de­cided that fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters can wait. It first needs to ac­quire fighters in large num­bers at af­ford­able cost. Ear­lier this year, In­dia asked Rus­sia to pro­ceed alone with de­vel­op­ing their fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter. In­dia how­ever left the op­tion open to join the project later or buy some Su-57 jets off-the-shelf if nec­es­sary.

For some time, ru­mours abounded that the IAF might make a bid for the Lock­heed Martin F-35A. How­ever, the IAF quickly scotched such spec­u­la­tion. Apart from the un­cer­tainty about the US govern­ment clear­ing the sale of such an ad­vanced fighter jet to In­dia, the F-35A makes lit­tle sense. Lock­heed Martin would nei­ther agree to pro­duce the fighters in In­dia nor to trans­fer tech­nol­ogy. US mil­i­tary air­craft also come with strings at­tached. For in­stance, af­ter hold­ing out for years, In­dia on Septem­ber 6, 2018, signed the en­abling agree­ment COM­CASA with­out which it failed to ob­tain spe­cialised equip­ment for en­crypted com­mu­ni­ca­tions for its USbuilt air­craft such as the Boe­ing C-17 Globe­mas­ter III, the Lock­heed Martin C-130J Su­per Her­cules and the Boe­ing P-8I Po­sei­don.


The IAF also realises that with the govern­ment re­luc­tant to sign on the dot­ted line for fighter jet im­ports, there is no al­ter­na­tive to indige­nous air­craft. That is why, de­spite reser­va­tions over their nu­mer­ous short­com­ings, it plans to in­duct at least 18 squadrons of the HAL-made Light Com­bat Air­craft (LCA) Te­jas fighters by 2032. The Te­jas Mk-2 would prob­a­bly re­place the ex­ist­ing MiG-29s, Jaguars, and Mi­rage 2000s and be­come the main­stay of the IAF by num­bers. An indige­nous fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter such as the AMCA would com­plete the pic­ture and may also act as a force mul­ti­plier to com­pen­sate for some of the IAF’s miss­ing squadrons. The IAF is back­ing the AMCA pro­gramme whole­heart­edly since it seems to be the only hope of get­ting a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter.

How­ever, the Te­jas ex­pe­ri­ence where it took decades to de­velop a sin­gle-en­gine fighter is not a good au­gury. The AMCA be­ing a twin-en­gine, stealth, su­per-ma­noeu­vrable and su­per-cruise air­craft, is per­haps an order of mag­ni­tude more chal­leng­ing. Much ef­fort and plenty of luck will be needed to suc­cess­fully de­velop cru­cial fifth-gen­er­a­tion tech­nolo­gies. Speedy time­lines and re­al­is­tic goals need to be set to en­sure that the project pro­gresses as planned.

The main chal­lenge is de­vel­op­ing an en­gine with the re­quired per­for­mance in­clud­ing thrust vec­tor­ing and su­per-cruise. In the­ory, the AMCA will be pow­ered by a do­mes­ti­cally man­u­fac­tured Kaveri K9 or K10 en­gine, cur­rently un­der de­vel­op­ment by the Gas Tur­bine Re­search Es­tab­lish­ment (GTRE). Only af­ter the Kaveri is ready, hope­fully by 2019, can se­ri­ous work on the air­frame be­gin. As Plan B, the AMCA may ini­tially fly with two Gen­eral Elec­tric F414 tur­bo­fans and get indige­nous en­gines later. Other ma­jor chal­lenges in­clude the AESA radar and the de­vel­op­ment of radar ab­sorb­ing ma­te­ri­als (RAM). The ADA has per­haps wisely de­cided to con­cen­trate on geo­met­ric stealth – that is, shap­ing the air­craft for min­i­mum RCS from var­i­ous an­gles rather than ma­te­rial stealth, which would need the de­vel­op­ment of RAM to re­duce the RCS. Even so, the AMCA’s first flight is not ex­pected be­fore 2032.


Given that it could take up to two decades for the IAF to get the AMCA in op­er­a­tional ser­vice, it realises the need to put in place ro­bust de­fences against Chi­nese and pos­si­bly Pak­istani fifth­gen­er­a­tion fighters. The IAF claims that the Su-30MKI radar can de­tect Chi­nese fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters. If this is true, it would bear out Western scep­ti­cism about the qual­ity of Chi­nese stealth de­sign. It would also mean the IAF may have at least 10 to 15 years to re­plen­ish its dwin­dling fleet of fourth­gen­er­a­tion fighters be­fore the PLAAF’s fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighters be­gin to con­sti­tute a sig­nif­i­cant threat.

In­dia is also close to sign­ing an agree­ment to ac­quire the Rus­sian S-400 Tri­umf air de­fence mis­sile sys­tem. The S-400’s high­band tar­get­ing radar can en­gage a stealth jet at short range. The S-500, due to be de­ployed by Rus­sia in 2020, may even be ad­vanced enough to gen­er­ate a weapons-qual­ity track on an F-22 or F-35 stealth fighter.

As In­dia strives to de­velop a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter, it would be un­wise to ig­nore the emerg­ing sixth gen­er­a­tion. A sixth-gen­er­a­tion fighter, likely to be first fielded by the US af­ter 2030, is ex­pected to be an air­craft with all the char­ac­ter­is­tics of fifth-gen­er­a­tion jets plus di­rected-en­ergy weapons and/or hy­per­son­ics. Some an­a­lysts be­lieve that ad­vanced sen­sor tech­nol­ogy will ren­der stealth de­sign fruit­less, while fighter agility, elec­tronic war­fare and in­frared ob­scur­ing de­vices will cor­re­spond­ingly gain in im­por­tance. Coun­tries such as France, Ger­many and the United King­dom ap­pear to have given up at­tempts to build pure fifth-gen­er­a­tion jets and in­stead pro­pose to di­rectly start work on the sixth gen­er­a­tion plat­form. The IAF and the AMCA de­sign team would do well to keep this in mind.

As In­dia strives to de­velop a fifth­gen­er­a­tion fighter, it would be un­wise to ig­nore the emerg­ing sixth gen­er­a­tion

(LEFT) PAK FA (T-50); (RIGHT) F-35A


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