The Galwan showdown of June 2020 and the continuing stand-off between the world’s two powerful nations India and China has brought the focus back on Indian Armed Forces capability building. Indian Air Force‘s (IAF) fighter fleet modernisation has been in discussion. The convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernizing air forces is of concern. Notwithstanding the induction of 20 Rafale as of date and order for 83 LCA Mk1A, the IAF continues to be at a low of 32 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorized 42. Technology-intensive airpower requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. It is clear that IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. It is time to see where IAF is heading.
IAF’s Fighter Inductions and Upgrades
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) has delivered all the 20 LCA Mk1 ordered in the Initial Operation Clearance status (IOC). The second LCA squadron was formed in May 2020. 20 LCA Mk1 (FOC) will get delivered by mid-2022. All 36 Dassault Rafale will be delivered by early 2022. IAF’s MiG 29, Mirage 2000, and Jaguar fleets are undergoing avionics and weapons upgrades to take them closer to 4-plus generation. The process should complete in 2021. All the ordered 272 SU-30 MKI have been inducted. 12 additional aircraft will replace those lost in the last two decades. IAF will upgrade 40 Su-30 MKI with new AESA radar, onboard computers, a new electronic warfare suite, and the ability to carry BrahMos cruise missiles. Desperately short of fighters, 21 additional upgraded MiG 29 aircraft are being acquired.
LCA Mk 1 and Mk 1A
LCA Tejas first flew in January 2001. Nearly 24 have been inducted as of date. Delay in LCA forced IAF to postpone the retirement of a few MiG-21 variants. The MiG 21 Bison-fleet will perhaps continue till 2024 with depleting numbers and lower availability of spares. Due to delays, and difficulty to achieve technological milestones, the LCA program had to be split into LCA Mk1 IOC, FOC, Mk1A, and Mk 2 variants. The indigenous ‘Kaveri‘ engine has still to succeed, and India may have to seek foreign help to retrieve it. India also needs help in airborne radars, stealth, electronic warfare (EW) systems, etc.
LCA production is currently around 12-14 per year and is expected to be ramped to 16 by mid-2021. Indigenous content of the Tejas is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by the number of line replaceable units. Order for 83 LCA Mk 1A was placed on HAL in February 2021. The first aircraft is planned to be delivered by early 2024. LCA Mk1A will have the improved version of the Israeli EL/M-2052 AESA radar, and an electro-optic Electronic Warfare (EW) suite developed by IAI subsidiary ELTA. There will be a special data link package, self-protection jammer, satellite navigation systems, improved flight controls, electrical and electronics systems among others to increase the operational capability. It will also incorporate weight reduction along with easier servicing and maintainability. The Mk 1A will one day have an indigenous AESA Radar jointly developed by BEL and Israel’s ELTA.
LCA Mk II
IAF needs nearly 200 LCA Mk II aircraft, taking the total requirement of LCA to over 300. The Mk II also called the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), would be 14.6m long with a wingspan of 8.5m, compared with 13 m and 8.2 m respectively for the Mk1 and 14.36m and 9.13m for Mirage 2000. The aircraft will have a compound delta wing with close-coupled canards. The longer fuselage will allow for more fuel, and could also carry more drop tanks. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tons (compared to Mk 1’s 13.5 tons). Its external stores will increase from the current 7 to 11, and carrying capacity will increase from 5.3 to 6.5 tons. It will be equipped with a higher thrust General Electric GE-F414-INS6 engine. New systems will include an indigenous onboard oxygen generation system (OBOGS), a built-in integrated electro-optic electronic-warfare, an infra-red search and track (IRST) system, a missile approach warning system (MAWS), and a new AESA radar. It will be designed for swing-role, with combined BVR air defence and precision strike capability. The realistic first flight timeline would be around 2025. The aircraft may induct around 2030. In any case, HAL will require at least 7-8 years to deliver the LCA Mk1 variants. For India to remain a significant player in aircraft manufacture, LCA has to succeed and it must establish the framework for the leap ahead to AMCA.
HAL is also proposing a Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft for the Navy, and a Twin-engine Medium Class Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) fighter for the IAF, though no such decision has yet been taken.
The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is a fifth-generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, all-weather multirole fighter. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super maneuverability, and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale, and Tejas in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy. The feasibility study of the program had already been completed and the program has already been given go-ahead by the IAF to initiate the AMCA Technology Demonstration phase before launching the full-scale engineering development phase.
The AMCA design is known to have shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with a large fuselage-mounted tail-wing. The reduced radar cross-section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and the use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons is also planned. It is being said that AMCA may initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually, it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K 9, or K10 engines which are successors to the troubled Kaveri engine. France has also offered access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies. The realistic first flight could be around 2028, and induction in 2035.
114 New Fighters
The first round of, to be Made-in-India, Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) with the requirement of the 126 aircraft had to be curtailed due to technical and contractual reasons and finally, only 36 fly-away Rafale aircraft were bought from France. The process for the second attempt, now to acquire 114 aircraft got kicked off after the IAF released the RFI on April 8, 2018. The response to RFIs was received by July 2018. Six global companies responded. The contenders were the same six aircraft that were part of the earlier MMRCA competition. These were Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 (later named F-21), Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian MiG-35, and European Eurofighter. A new participant Sukhoi Su-35 was added later. Meanwhile, Boeing has announced to offer the Boeing F-15 EX. IAF has still to issue its Request for Proposal (RFP) which would become the basis of actual competition. Having initially wanted only a single-engine fighter with larger numbers, the selection for IAF has now become rather wide. The much heavier F-15EX could be at one edge of the spectrum and much lighter single-engine Lockheed Martin F-21 and Saab Gripen JAS 38 E/F on the other end. Under all scenarios, India will have to acquire some foreign fighters till indigenous aircraft start joining in large numbers.
Fighter Fleet – Target 2035
IAF today has roughly four squadrons of MiG 21 Bison, five of Jaguars, three MiG 29 (UPG), three of Mirage 2000 (UPG), 12 of Su-30 MKI, two LCA, two Rafale, totaling 31 squadrons. IAF is thus short of 11 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorised. For some time now, there has been an ambitious plan to re-build the IAF to 42 squadrons by 2035. Even if IAF was to stretch the Mirage 2000 and MiG 29 (UPG) till then, there will be a need to replace the 10 squadrons of Bison and Jaguars. That would mean a need to induct 21 squadrons between now and 2035. Based on the ambitious current induction plan, that would mean one squadron each of SU-30 MKI and MiG 29, six of the new fighter, 11 LCA, and two AMCA squadrons.
The Cost Mechanics
The 83 LCA Mk1A, with support package, is going to cost Rs 45,000 Crore. It means Rs 550 Crore per aircraft. 36 Rafale had cost Rs 59,000 Crore. It can be safely assumed that for any new MRCA class aircraft, the average package cost will be in excess of Rs 1,000 Crore per aircraft. 20 squadrons would mean close to 378 aircraft. That would mean Rs 378,000 Crore at current prices. IAF’s Capital Budget for 2021-22 is Rs 53,214 Crore. In addition to fighter aircraft, IAF has to pay for many other systems that are already being inducted or are planned. These include S-400, ALH, LCH, LUH, Avro replacement, radars, surface, and aerial weapons, among many others. The backlog in modernization is so huge that defence budgets need to go up for the next 10 years. With the economy being hit by Covid-19 and other national commitments where will the money come from is the question?
The thrust is rightly on “Atmanirbharta” (indigenisation). LCA and AMCA are flagship programs of Indian defence manufacturing. Aviation technologies are much more complex and expensive than building ships and tanks. India is still at the Mk 1A stage. The variables and anxieties will continue to hit the LCA Mk II and AMCA. The engine, AESA, EW systems, and the complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA will require technological help. It is going to be an uphill task. The AMCA would require national resources and very professional management. A ‘hit and trial’ approach will not work, lest we end up in serious delays and cost overruns.
While India pushes for ‘Made-in-India’ fighters, it has no choice but to procure some more fighters from abroad. IAF always wanted a single-engine aircraft because it would be cheaper, easy to maintain, and turn-around for a greater number of missions. IAF already has many twin-engine aircraft in SU-30 MKI, MiG 29, Jaguar, and Rafale. If India has to acquire a twin-engine aircraft, then why not buy more Rafale to reduce the logistics burden of too many types. China is pulling ahead with huge induction of funds in military aviation. Pakistan and China are also working in close coordination. It is critical for India to build back fighter numbers. Time act is now.
This article by the author had first been written for Indian Aerospace & Defence in May 2021
Header Picture Credit: Artistic Representation of Tejas Mk2 by Kuntal Biswas