Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA): India, time to get the act right
The Indian government just cleared the development of the twin engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF) for the Indian Navy. The development phase is expected to cost between Rs 7,000 and Rs 8,000 crore. First flight is tasked to be done in six years. Indigenisation is clearly the focus, and rightly so. Meanwhile, just last year the air combat between Indian Air Force’s (IAF) MiG-21 Bison and Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) F-16, had brought the debate of IAF modernisation back in focus.
IAF is down to an all-time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the authorised 42. The 36 Rafale aircraft to induct shortly are of fourth generation plus class. The US Air Force (USAF) has had a fifth generation aircraft in F-22 Raptor since it formally entered service in December 2005. The USAF and many of their friendly air forces across have inducted the variants of the latest fifth generation fighter the F-35 Lightning II. Home grown fifth generation fighters have also been inducted by Russia and China.
There are others who are already developing the next generation fighters. In fact the sixth generation fighters are on the drawing boards of the leading aerospace countries and individual technologies are being developed and tested in laboratories.
IAF is in the process of initiating to buy 114 new fighters which will still be of the fourth generation plus class. The logical next step for the world’s fourth largest air force, IAF is to develop or procure a fifth generation fighter. India’s venture to develop its Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) jointly with Russia ran aground because of cost and technical differences.
Where must India go from here is the question?
Air dominance and air superiority aircraft
The one who controls the air and space controls the planet. Aerospace craft will aim to seize control establishing dominance/supremacy over the enemy’s assets. Even if aerospace supremacy cannot be established, a “degree of dominance” in the airspace bubble in a given area and given time-space without prohibitive interference by opposing air forces will be desired. Air superiority fighter aircraft are meant for entering and seizing control of enemy airspace.
They operate under the control/co-ordination of Early Warning and Control satellites and aircraft with increased Artificial intelligence (AI). Aircraft like the US Navy’s F-14 and USAF’s F-15 were built to achieve air superiority from the design and development stage. Both later had multi-role variants. Soviets/Russians developed MiG-29 and Su-27 around the same time. Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale though multi-role fighters but both have air-superiority missions. F-22 Raptor, Su-30 variants, Su-35, Chinese J-11 and J-15 are also air-superiority aircraft.
4.5 generation fighters
For some time the world has been classifying the fighter aircraft based on capabilities and technologies. Most modern air forces possess fourth generation fighters which strengthened the trend towards multirole configurations. Concept of ‘Energy-Maneuverability’ impacted aircraft designs that required performing ‘fast transients’ – quick changes in speed, altitude, and direction – as opposed to relying mostly on high speed. It called for small lightweight aircraft with higher thrust-weight ratio. The F-16, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 evolved. Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight controls became possible due advances in computers and system integration, and this allowed relaxed static stability flight and in turn agility.
Analog systems began to be replaced by digital flight control systems in the late 1980s. Likewise, Full Authority Digital Engine Controls (FADEC) to electronically manage power-plant performance was introduced. Both allowed carefree maneuvering by the pilot. Pulse-Doppler fire-control-radars added Look-down/shoot-down capability. Head-up displays (HUD), hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls, and multi-function displays (MFD) allowed better situational awareness and quicker reactions. Composite materials like bonded aluminum honeycomb structures and graphite epoxy laminate skins helped reduce aircraft weight. Improved maintenance design and procedures reduced aircraft turnaround time between missions and generated more sorties.
Another novel technology was stealth using special “low-observable” materials and aircraft design techniques to reduce detect-ability by the enemy’s sensors, particularly radars. The first real stealth designs were Lockheed F-117 Nighthawk attack aircraft in 1983 and the Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit in 1989. Military budget cuts after the Cold War, and high funding requirements of the fifth generation fighter, resulted in a term called the 4.5th generation fighters during 1990s to 2005. This sub-generation saw advanced digital avionics, newer aerospace materials, modest signature reduction, and highly integrated systems and weapons.
These fighters operated in a network-centric environment. Key technologies introduced included BVR air-to-air missiles (AAM); GPS-guided weapons, solid-state phased-array radars, helmet-mounted sights (HMDS), and improved secure, jamming-resistant data-links. A degree of super-cruise ability (supersonic without afterburner) was introduced. Stealth characteristics focused on front-aspect radar cross section (RCS) reduction through limited shaping techniques.
Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen were in this category. Many fourth generation aircraft were also upgraded with new technologies. Su-30MKI and Su-35 featured thrust vectoring engine nozzles to enhance maneuvering. Most of them are still being produced and evolving. It is quite possible that they may continue in production alongside fifth-generation fighters due to the expense of developing the advanced levels of technology. 4.5 generation fighter aircraft are now expected to have AESA radar, high capacity data-link, enhanced avionics, and ability to deploy advanced armaments.
Fifth generation fighters
Fifth generation fighter aircraft are the latest jet fighters encompassing the most advanced features. These aircraft are designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment, and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques. They have multifunction AESA radars with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept.
Infrared Search and Track (IRST) and other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft 360 degree bubble. Avionics suites rely on extensive use of very high-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) technology and high-speed data buses. Integration of all the elements could provide fifth-generation fighters with a “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability”. In addition to its high resistance to ECM, they can function as a “mini-AWACS”. Integrated electronic warfare system, integrated communications, navigation, and identification (CNI), centralized “vehicle health monitoring”, fibre-optic data-transmission, and stealth are important features.
Maneuver performance is enhanced by thrust-vectoring, which also helps reduce takeoff and landing distances. Super-cruise is inbuilt. Layout and internal structures minimize RCS over a broad bandwidth of frequencies. To maintain low signature primary weapons are carried in internal weapon bays. Stealth technology is advanced to where it can be employed without a trade-off with aerodynamics performance. Signature-reduction techniques include special shaping approaches, thermoplastic materials, extensive structural use of advanced composites, conformal sensors, heat-resistant coatings, low-observable wire meshes to cover intake and cooling vents, heat ablating tiles on the exhaust troughs and coating internal and external metal areas with radar-absorbent materials and paints.
These aircraft are very expensive. F-22 costs around US$150 million. Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II fighters will cost on average US$ 90 million due to large scale production. Other fifth-generation fighter development projects include Russia’s Sukhoi PAK FA; a variant of the same was to have been India’s Fifth-Generation Fighter-Aircraft (FGFA).
India is also developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). China’s fifth generation fighter Chengdu J-20 is flying since January 2011 and may be deployed by 2019. The Shenyang J-31 first flew in October 2012. Japan is also exploring technical feasibility to produce fifth-generation fighters. Turkish TAI TFX is being developed with BAE Systems. These aircraft will operate in a ‘Combat Cloud’ along with future UAVs. Japanese next-generation fighter would be based on the concept of aircraft informed, intelligent and instantaneous. Japan already conducted the first flight of the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft for this project. The Mikoyan MiG-41 is another next-generation jet fighter interceptor under development.
France and Germany announced they would jointly develop a new combat aircraft to replace the Eurofighter, Tornado and Rafale. It is likely to be a twin-seat “system of systems” aircraft acting as a combat platform as well as controlling UCAV’s. The UK is committing to a next generation fighter program to potentially replace the Eurofighter Typhoon post-2030, however, the Eurofighter Typhoon has since had its intended service life extended to around 2040. Some Chinese publications are talking of a sixth generation aircraft. Referred to as Huolong (Fire Dragon). But as on date China has serious limitations on radar, avionics, and engine technologies.
Evolving other technologies
Today technologies are offering enhanced capabilities that are driving operational employment and tactics. Artificial Intelligence (AI), smart structures, and hybrid systems will dictate the future. Demand for streaming high-quality data requires bandwidth, which involves innovating sensor/processing systems.
Mission computer systems and network-centric payload processing units enable onboard data fusion prior to sending to digital links. Thermally efficient, high-performance computing onboard the aircraft is essential. Next-generation avionics would be smaller, more efficient and capable of operating under extreme conditions. Gallium Nitride (GaN) is a semiconductor material that is more efficient, easier to cool, and improves reliability for radars. Any system must be designed with aim for maintaining a competitive advantage in an austere budget environment.
The Passive Aero-elastic Tailored (PAT), a uniquely designed composite wing will be lighter, more structurally efficient and have flexibility compared to conventional wings. This wing will maximise structural efficiency, reduce weight and conserve fuel. Hypersonic cruise, fuel cell technologies, hybrid sensors, improved human-machine interface using data analytics and bio-mimicry, combination of materials, apertures and radio frequencies that ensure survival in enemy territory are under development.
Things will be built faster, better and more affordably, using 3D printing yet ensuring quality and safety standards. Additive 3D manufacture creates a world with spare parts on demand, faster maintenance and repairs, more effective electronics, and customized weapons. The development of a hypersonic aircraft would forever change ability to respond to conflict. Nano-materials will control sizes, shapes and compositions, and significantly reduce weight yet create stronger structures for air and spacecraft, yet drive down costs.
Next generation American fighter
US Air Force (USAF) and US Navy (USN) have been defining their own requirements of a sixth generation fighter. Currently, the United States has two projects. The US Air Force’s ‘Penetrating Counter-Air’, a long long-range stealth fighter to escort stealth bombers. The USN is pursuing a similar program called the Next Generation Air Dominance, to complement the smaller Lockheed F-35. The timelines for aircraft in development like the F/A-XX program are now around 2030–2035. So far, Boeing, Lockheed-Martin, and Northrop-Grumman have unveiled sixth-generation concepts.
US DoD began the sixth generation fighter quest in October 2012. DARPA began a study to try to bridge the USAF and USN concepts. Next-generation fighter efforts will initially be led by DARPA under the “Air Dominance Initiative” to develop prototype X-plane. USAF has announced that it will pursue “a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms” rather than a “sixth generation fighter” in its Air Superiority 2030 plan. Dubbed the “Next Generation Tactical Aircraft”/”Next Gen TACAIR“, the USAF seeks a fighter with “enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration and weapons effects.
The future system will have to counter adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defense systems, passive detection, integrated self-protection, directed energy weapons (DEW), and cyber attack capabilities. It must be able to operate in the anti access/anti-denial environment that will exist in the 2030–50 timeframe. USAF and USN have a common approach on the engine using the Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology for longer ranges and higher performance. The newer engines could vary their bypass ratios for optimum efficiency at any speed or altitude. That would give an aircraft a much greater range, faster acceleration, and greater subsonic cruise efficiency. The engine companies involved are General electric (GE) and Pratt & Whitney (P&W).
USAF intends to follow a path of risk reduction by prototyping, technology demonstration, and systems engineering work before creation of an aircraft actually starts. The sixth-generation strike capability is not as just an aircraft, but a system of systems including communications, space capabilities, standoff, and stand-in options. USAF fighter maybe larger and more resembling a bomber than a small, maneuverable traditional fighter.
Fighter significantly larger can rely on enhanced sensors, signature control, networked situational awareness, and very-long-range weapons to complete engagements before being detected or tracked. Larger planes would have greater range that would enable them to be stationed further from a combat zone, have greater radar and IR detection capabilities, and carry bigger and longer-range missiles. It would include stealth against low or very high frequency radars like those of the S-400 missile system, which would mean an airframe with no vertical stabilisers. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works division has revealed a conceptual next-generation fighter design which calls for greater speed, range, stealth and self-healing structures. Northrop Grumman is looking at a supersonic tailless jet.
Other sixth generation programmes
France and Germany have awarded a Joint Concept Study (JCS) contract to Dassault Aviation and Airbus for the Future Combat Air System (FCAS) programme. The baseline concept is an optionally manned Next Generation Fighter (NGF), and a System of Systems approach with associated next generation services. The BAE Systems Tempest is a proposed stealth fighter aircraft concept to be designed and manufactured in the United Kingdom for the Royal Air Force (RAF).
It is being developed by a consortium consisting of the UK Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls-Royce, Leonardo and MBDA, and is intended to enter service from 2035 replacing the Eurofighter Typhoon. Approximately $2.66 billion will be spent by the British government on the project by 2025. BAE Systems is planning to approach India for collaboration for the design and manufacture of the Tempest. Tempest could be optionally manned and have swarming technology to control drones. It will incorporate AI deep learning and possess DEWs. Tempest will feature an adaptive cycle engine and virtual cockpit shown on a pilot’s helmet-mounted display.
China is still evolving its J-20 and J-31. Some Chinese sixth generation aircraft (J-XX) are referred to as Huolong (Fire Dragon). But as on date China has serious limitations on radar, avionics, and engine technologies. China planned to field it in the 2025-2030 time frame. In Russia, work is on for its sixth generation aircraft Mikoyan MiG-41. Japan’s Mitsubishi F-3 sixth-generation fighter would be based on the concept of aircraft informed, intelligent and instantaneous, technologies for which are under testing on the Mitsubishi X-2 Shinshin test-bed aircraft.
Given the enormous expenses and effort devoted to working out the kinks in the fifth-generation, the Sixth-generation fighter programs are still conceptual. Many technologies are under development in parallel. At the earliest, sixth-generation fighters may be visible in the 2030s or 2040s, and may see further conceptual change by then.
Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II
The F-35 is a family of single-seat, single-engine, all-weather, fifth generation, stealth multirole fighters designed to perform ground-attack and air-superiority missions. The F-35A is the conventional takeoff and landing variant that would normally be of interest to any air force. The F-35 had emerged as the winning design of the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) programme. The United States principally funds F-35 development, with additional funding from other US allies. These funding countries generally receive subcontracts to manufacture components for the aircraft. Several other countries have ordered, or are considering ordering, the aircraft. The F-35 first flew on December 15, 2006.
The USAF formed its first squadron in August 2016. In 2018, the F-35 was first engaged in combat by the Israeli Air Force. The United States plans to buy 2,663 F-35s, which will provide the bulk of the crewed tactical airpower of the USAF, Navy, and Marine Corps in coming decades. 520 had been delivered by 07 March 2020. Deliveries of the F-35 for the U.S. military are scheduled until 2037, with a projected service life up to 2070. The unit cost of the aircraft is around US$ 90 million.
The HAL-ADA 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, stealth, all weather multirole fighter. AMCA feasibility study and the preliminary design stage have been completed. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super maneuverability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar, MiG-27 and Mirage 2000 aircraft of the IAF, and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and Tejas in the IAF, and MiG 29K in the Navy.
In October 2008, IAF had asked ADA to prepare a detailed project report for a next generation medium combat aircraft. In April 2010, IAF issued the ASQR for the AMCA, which placed the aircraft in the 25-ton category. The first flight test of the prototype aircraft was scheduled to take place by 2017. DRDO proposed to power the aircraft with two GTX Kaveri engines. In October 2010, the government released RS 100 crore to prepare feasibility studies.
Meanwhile in November 2010 itself ADA sought Rs 9,000 crore to fund the development which would include two technology demonstrators and seven prototypes. In 2013 ADA unveiled a 1:8 scale model at Aero India 2013. The AMCA design will have shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings, and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with large fuselage mounted tail-wing. It will be equipped with a quadruple digital fly-by-optics control system using fibre optic cables. The reduced radar cross-section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons is also planned.
Low-speed and supersonic wind tunnel testing and Radar Cross Section (RCS) testing was reportedly completed by 2014, and project definition phase by February 2014. The Engineering Technology and Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase was started in January 2014 after HAL Tejas attained IOC, and it was announced that the AMCA will have first flight by 2018.
At Aero India 2015, ADA confirmed that work on major technological issues, thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology was going full swing. Russia was to support for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), AESA Radar and stealth technology. Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also offered to help in key technologies. AMCA will 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 the successor to the troubled Kaveri engine. France has offered full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies, and the United States offered full collaboration in the engine development with access to the GE F-414 and F-135. Two technology demonstrator and four prototypes are scheduled to go under various types of testing, and analysis in 2019. Ground reality is that they are far from it. The first flight is scheduled to occur in 2028.Backing the project, chief of Indian air staff, RKS Bhaduria in a briefing in October 2019 said DRDO “must” make the project happen. IAF wants to have “full control” in “defining” technologies of aircraft and supports indigenous fifth generation fighter aircraft as it becomes restricted for IAF when purchasing a foreign system. Defence ministry has been looking for cabinet approval and funds as of 2019 for the prototype development phase which will require Rs 7,000-8,000 crore in a decade. The aircraft was reported to be under Detailed Design Phase in February 2019. and the design phase expected to be completed by the end of 2019. ADA in consultation with the IAF will try to freeze the design of AMCA soon with their very ambitious first flight target of 2024. With LCA Mk 1 still under delivery for next two years, LCA Mk 1A still doing its first flight and there is LCA MK2 or MWF still in between, a more realistic first flight would be close to 2028 or later.
Decision Matrix India
India has to finally take a call for itself. Choices are few.
1. The Russian Air Force has just formed the first squadron Su-57. They have reportedly ordered 78. India has walked out of the project for cost, work share and core technology transfer issues. The Russian government has been trying to put pressure at the highest levels to induct India back into the Russian FGFA program or to buy a few Su-57 squadrons. The then IAF Chief BS Dhanoa during an interview with Russian Ministry of Defense’s official newspaper Krasnaya Zvezda (Red Star), stated that while Su-57 is currently not being considered for the IAF, but the combat aircraft can be evaluated once it joins active service with the Russian Air Force. India’s final decision could depend on resolving the differences. In any case India has already committed to nearly 300 Su-30 MKI. That currently amounts to 45 per cent of the IAF. Putting any further eggs in the Russian basket has its own risks and dynamics.
2. The F-35 first flew on December 15, 2006. A large number of countries are part of the program. Nearly 600 have already been built. The US plans to buy 2,456 F-35s through 2044. It is a huge program and the aircraft will continuously be upgraded. India and the US have strategically come closer in recent years. The Americans are currently not talking with India on the F-35. They believe that India must first fit into the American fighter aviation eco-system, tacitly implying that first India must choose between the F-21 (India-specific variant of the F-16) or the F-18 super hornet. Americans will at best talk about F-35 with India after 2025, or if American fighters lose the India fighter competition. After having procured the Russian S 400 SAM system, has India lost the last of chances to procure F-35? Only time will tell.
3. The BAE Systems Tempest is a proposed fighter aircraft concept that is under development in the United Kingdom for the British Royal Air Force and the Italian Air Force. It is being developed by a consortium known as “Team Tempest,” consisting of the UK Ministry of Defence, BAE Systems, Rolls Royce, Leonardo and MBDA, and is intended to enter service from 2035. Two billion pounds will be spent by the British government on the project by 2025. On 19 July 2019, Sweden and the United Kingdom signed a memorandum of understanding to explore ways of jointly developing sixth-generation air combat technologies. Italy announced its involvement in Project Tempest on 10 September 2019. Tempest will be able to fly unmanned, and use swarming technology to control drones. It will incorporate artificial intelligence deep learning and possess directed Energy Weapons. In 2019 the UK offered for India to join the Tempest program. The programme is still at an early stage. The aircraft will effectively skip the classic fifth generation stage and leave the participants to partial sixth generation. For India it is too early to take such a call.
4. Follow the currently charted route for indigenous fighter. India is still at LCA Mk 1 stage and IAF awaits 20 FOC aircraft in next 18 months. LCA Mk 1A induction is still optimistically more than 36 months away. IAF wants nearly 200 LCA Mk II. Meanwhile this variant would most likely now be the single engine 17.5 ton Medium Weight Fighter (MWF), and would perhaps borrow technologies being developed for AMCA. These could include some RCS reducing measures so that a degree of frontal stealth can be achieved, including Radar-absorbent material coating and composites making up its skin, and twisted air-intake ducts. Originally planned first flight of 2023 is clearly unachievable. Most analysts believe the timeline would be closer to 2028. There is also a talk of a twin-engine version of Tejas, identified as Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA). There is a go-ahead for a deck-based fighter variant (TEDBF). As LCA evolves, the current plan is to proceed with AMCA development. If the Mk II will do first flight in 2028 then realistic estimates are that AMCA will do first flight in 2032 or so. AMCA will then induct in 2035 or later. It must be remembered that the clock starts only once significant funds are allotted. The clock for LCA Mk 1A, which is technologically the least challenging, is just starting. If India is ready for these timelines, this option needs to be pushed.
5. One other option is to concentrate on LCA Mk II, forget the fifth generation aircraft and convert the AMCA concept to a straight into the sixth generation fighter.
6. India may also be forced into an interim option. LCA Mk 1 had its first flight in 2001, and in 2020 only 20 have been delivered. Technologies do push challenges and often excessive delays force looking at fresh technologies. Chinese J 20 first flew in 2011 and was inducted in service in 2017. JF 17 ‘Thunder’ first flew in 2003 and service induction was in 2007-08, and nearly 130 are flying today. India’s fifth generation aircraft timelines are currently nearly 18-20 years behind China. India can ill afford that long wait. India is thus sandwiched between the two ends of the vice. Buying a foreign fifth generation aircraft could further delay the AMCA. So India needs to first ensure it acquires critical technologies during the new 114 fighter acquisition even if it means paying for some. Some systems of the AMCA including engine, radar and EW suites can be developed through joint venture route. By a finite time, say around 2025, India should review the progress of the AMCA and maybe then decide to buy, as an interim two squadrons of some foreign fifth generation. It could be the F-35 or some other on offer that has matured. Meanwhile the entire nation must commit itself for AMCA to succeed quickly.
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