India :- Building Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft
India’s effectiveness as a major power and a rising great power depends greatly on its ability to project deterrence and influence from its military power. Modern military capability is critically dependent on the nation’s aerospace capability, which is demonstrated through the nation’s ability to design, develop and manufacture its own fighter aircraft, with most of its ingredients within the country. While India has achieved significant technological progress in various fields, its military continues to be heavily dependent on imports, most of all at the cutting edge fighter aircraft technologies.
The highlight of the 2017 Republic Day fly-past was the flight by three LCAs, our fourth generation fighter aircraft, the culmination of more than three decades of work. Yet, much of the LCA continues to be import dependent. In the context of a renewed effort at indigenisation through ‘Make in India’, it is time for us to review our past programmes and make appropriate corrections in order to achieve our fighter aircraft capability as a reality. This is even more compelling from a security perspective, when we see the rapid progress made by China in this area, in particular with their Fifth generation aircraft progressing towards operational reality.
While India has produced many fighter aircraft under licence in the last 60 years, there have been just two indigenous fighters that have been designed, developed, and produced within the country. The first fighter was the HF-24 Marut, which was designed in the late 1950s and early 1960s. Prime Minister Nehru displayed visionary approach to bring in the legendary German aircraft designer, Dr Kurt Tank, to head the design effort for India. He not only brought his core team, but with their assistance created an exceptional design capability for HAL in a short span of time. It is another mater that the country squandered that wealth of capability and experience created. The HF-24 was an exceptionally advanced design for its time. Dr Kurt Tank’s leadership and programme management was outstanding. At a time when technical wherewithal in India was extremely limited, he ensured that the programme was managed very efficiently. The first flight of the prototype took just four years from the drawing board, and the series production commenced in less than 10 years. Contrast this with 16 years for the first flight of the LCA, and more than three decades for establishing its series production, albeit incomplete as the SOP (Standard of Preparation) of the aircraft is still not frozen due to incomplete development process.
Successful fighter aircraft programmes in various countries flow from efficient programme management. This includes strong interface between the user, industry, and the development agencies. Fundamentally, the programme management needs to be done by the user as it is important to synergise the conflicting pulls of costs, impractical development aspirations, and most importantly operational necessities of the user. It is very important to achieve the right balance with the cost of the programme, technology development time frames, operational urgencies, and technological continuities with previous programmes in the context of experience and research data base. Success of these principles are clearly evident in the China’s programmes of JF-17 (a programme that commenced with LCA, but has already clocked more than 5000 hours of operational flying with more than four squadrons in operational service), J-10, J-11, and now their J-20/J-31 Sweden’s Gripen; French Rafale; etc. All of these aircraft were contemporaries in development with the LCA, but have entered operational service decade ago.
The LCA has suffered primarily from poor programme management, besides a host of other technological issues. The HF- 24 aircraft, in spite of its under-powered engines, had acquitted itself well in the 1971 war. Despite this the aircraft was phased out prematurely in the early 1980s. One of the primarily reasons was lack of any support for further development and derivative work on this excellent design. As a result, the decade of 1970s was a lost decade where much of the HF-24 experience was lost or squandered away. The world over nations and aerospace industries build on experiences gained from one fighter aircraft programme to another. In India’s case, the HF-24 and the LCA had nothing in common.
The LCA’s development was driven more by the DRDO than the user, the IAF. Moreover, the industry (HAL), which should really have been the main driver and the lead agency, was pushed into a subsidiary role. ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) was created as a separate Society to coordinate the interactions between various agencies to develop the LCA. ADA was effectively made another DRDO vehicle that took charge of the LCA programme. This relegated the critical roles of the user (Indian Air Force) and the industry (HAL) into secondary ones with adverse impact on the overall programme management. The net result is that the LCA has taken excessively long time, has exceeded budgetary provisions, and most importantly, has failed to meet the user’s critical operational requirements. In order to get away from the criticism of poor programme management, ADA has subsequently sought to address the deficiencies in performance through infusion of imported technologies in radar, weapons, and sensors. But this cannot address the basic performance non-compliance which flow from poor design decisions implemented right in the beginning.
Lessons for the AMCA
There are many lessons to be learnt from the LCA experience and these need to be implemented for future programmes like the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). The most important lesson is the fact that ADA should be restructured to run a programme efficiently with cost, operational, and national imperatives in a well balanced manner. It also needs to be well integrated with the industry. This can only be done by the user or user’s representative. All over the world, the user or the military service takes over the programme management immediately after the technology demonstration phase.
For example, the USAF’s fifth generation fighter F-22, was managed by the USAFappointed programme manager for its entire 18 years of development time after first two years of technology demonstration phase by the industry, namely Lockheed Martin.
Although the LCA programme made some significant achievements, it is still largely an inefficient and an incomplete fighter aircraft programme. This style of programme management has been too costly and inefficient for India. India now intends to move on to the next generation fighter aircraft programme, the AMCA. If we need to address various problems, we must adopt the following recommendations, which will establish a viable fighter aircraft industry and capability through the ‘Make in India’ strategy. These are listed below:
ADA (Aeronautical Development Agency) has to be restructured as a National Fighter Aircraft Design and Development agency, and should be headed by a professional with Air Force operational experience. He must have a long tenure, and must have the freedom to take operational, technological, and financial decisions in order to achieve time-bound, cost-efficient, and operationally compliant programme management.
Assistance from foreign OEMs must be strategically selected with longterm and risk-sharing partnership. For example, if the GOI chooses a single-engine fighter for manufacture of at least 200 aircraft for the IAF, this OEM should be so chosen that India gains strategically on a long-term basis. This OEM should be involved in assisting ADA and the industry in developing, manufacturing, and exporting derivative models of the LCA. It will then be a 50% risksharing partner for the development, manufacture, and sale of the AMCA under ADA’s program management.
The AMCA must become India’s FGFA, and be IAF’s main stay over the next 20-30 years. Derivatives of the AMCA will meet the navy’s requirements, as well could become the basis of India’s export drive.
The AMCA programme should lead to indigenisation of aerospace materials, aggregates, radars, avionics, sensors, weapon systems, communications, components, and complete control of all its algorithms. The development of aero engine capability can be followed up subsequently, as this would take much longer time, face more hurdles, and incur significantly higher costs.
In summary, it is evident that the current manner of fighter aircraft programme management has been a failure. In order to achieve a success in our ‘Make in India’ strategy, the next generation fighter aircraft development (AMCA) must undergo significant change through restructuring of ADA and placing it under the control of a user led professional programme management.
Source:- Vayu Aerospace