IAF needs to build its own aircraft

IAF needs to build its own aircraft

Perhaps, the chief reason why it took so long for Lig­ht Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme to reach fruition was the fact that India did not have an aerospace ecosystem in place to support the project at the time of its inception.

This, in turn, was primarily due to the unfortunate hiatus in domestic fighter development that followed the creation of the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) HF-24 Marut which left India devoid of the necessary human and capital resources for next generation system development.

Instead, infrastructure had to be developed concurrently even as the LCA programme was progressed, contributing to time and cost overruns. Therefore, it is imperative that India move ahead with the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project without further delay to consolidate and build upon the aerospace capability acquired via the LCA programme.

A serious AMCA effort will not only help India enhance its design pedigree but also enable it to move up the value chain in what should be a key ‘Make in India’ manufacturing sector. Besides the second order technological benefits that would accrue to India’s aerospace sector, AMCA also holds the potential to become an aircraft that can be tailored to Indian Air Force’s (IAF) doctrinal requirements.

Despite what critics say, it is undeniable that the LCA prog­ramme has engendered a credible domestic aerospace eco-system with potential for further development. Due to the project, a range of standard test facilities have been set up by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which manages the overall LCA development program­me. Today, India also has a contemporary National Flight Test Centre thanks to the LCA effort.

On the industrial side of things, several companies are involved in the HAL Tejas (LCA) programme and some of them are now global Tier-II and III suppliers. They have cut their teeth with this project that has seen the indigenous development of major sub-components such as an aircraft-mounted accessories gearbox, carbon-carbon brake discs, heat exchangers, hydraulic and fuel valves etc. 

By value, more than 60% of the components going into the HAL Tejas MK-I are now indigenous and the aircraft’s indigenous content is sought to be raised further through greater outsourcing by HAL.
Today, out of an order of 20 ‘initial operation clearance’ standard Tejas MK-I, four have already been delivered to the IAF by HAL, with 20 more MK-Is to be delivered in ‘final operational clearance’ standard subsequently. What is more, another 83 Tejas MK-IA with improvements such as an airborne electronically scanned array (AESA) radar are also firmly projected.

With these orders, it can be said that the focus of the LCA programme has now moved to the production side of things where  HAL should ideally take the lead with handholding from ADA. To be sure, ADA is also committed to the development of the Tejas MK-II as well the naval LCA project.

Nevertheless, it is time that ADA used its core technological strengths garnered via the LCA programme in areas such as avionics, flight control laws and computational fluid dynamics to progress the AMCA project to the full-scale engineering development (FSED) phase. Currently, the AMCA project started on the basis of a preliminary staff qualitative requirement from the IAF is in the preliminary design phase.

Around Rs 150 crore has already been spent on the project with progress made on finalising the aircraft’s stealthy aerodynamic configuration as well as its in-board and structural layout. Work on next generation cockpit displays and weapons release testing from a mock internal bay is also underway.

The AMCA is envisaged to be firmly in the ‘medium’ category with a maximum take-off weight of 24.2 tonnes and will feature a large weapons bay that can acc­ommodate a payload of 3 tonnes. Overall, it will have fifth generation (5G) features such as radar and infrared signature management, supercruise and on-board sensor fusion.

Unevenly developed
However, the technology for the above mentioned 5G features is unevenly developed in India at the moment and a wide-ranging effort drawing in a number of DRDO labs will be required to realise the same. In particular, technology related to radar absorbent materials, conformal antennae and flush air data sensors will need to be matured.

As such, it is time the central government sanctioned the fun­ds required for this overarching effort to expedite matters. It see­ms that a sum of Rs 3,000 crore-Rs 4,000 crore will be enough to create three-four prototypes in a seven-eight year period.

Successful technology demo­nstration by itself will strengthen India’s hand at the world aerospace table. Indeed, if the AMCA programme had been seriously underway, the Russians would perhaps have been more flexible in negotiations related to technology sharing for the fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) programme.

If anything, the FGFA programme has shown that it will not be that easy for the IAF to ‘mould on demand’ a design that has been developed to the specifications of another air force. To be able to play to its own emerging airpower doctrine in the 21st century, the IAF also needs to ‘build’ its own aircraft at some level by taking ownership of the AMCA project.

(The writer is a New Delhi-based commentator on security and energy issues)