It is expected that one of the most ambitious venture by India’s defence establishment ever undertaken involving design and prototype development of Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) would get the approval by the Cabinet Committee on Security early next year. This project involves the development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft and is expected to be undertaken jointly by various agencies of India’s defence establishment and also private industry. The lead agencies of this project would be the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA, an agency of DRDO) as the design firm and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) as a manufacturing firm.
Indian Air Force (IAF) is very keen that such indigenous development of aircraft should take place and the newly appointed IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has stated that ‘the IAF gives full support to this idea and the programme is definitely taking off’. It is expected that this process of involving the end-user since the ‘word go’ would definitely help to develop this project in the desired direction.
This project is now, no longer only at a conceptual stage and some work has already begun. It is expected that the aircraft could undertake its first flight only by around 2032. Almost for four decades now DRDO has been working on the project involving the indigenous development of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) called Tejas. This aircraft got inducted in the IAF on July 1, 2016. This is a lightweight, multi-role supersonic fighter aircraft and its trainer version is also available. This project did witness significant delays in execution, however, it has also helped both DRDO and HAL immensely to gather experience in the design and development of such aircraft. It has also assessed in developing an ecosystem within the country for such modern flying platforms.
DRDO is expected to use a similar engine which is presently under design and development for the LCA project, called GE-414 engine. The aircraft belongs to the ‘medium’ group and is a 19-20 ton category fifth-generation fighter aircraft featuring stealth and including an internal weapon bay. This aircraft could be a better version of say upgraded Mirage 2000, the aircraft which currently the IAF flies. This aircraft is expected to complement the aircraft inventory which the IAF is expected to fly say for a period of next 10 to 15 years. This would be a multirole combat aircraft and would be used in various conventional roles like strike, ground attack, interception and bombing. It is expected to have advanced avionics on-board to match the best in the world in this category of aircraft.
India’s interest in the development of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft has been visible since 2007. There was much of talk towards the development of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft as a joint project by Indian and Russia. This project was alive for many years, however, India is known to have withdrawn from the project for unknown reasons around 2018. Subsequently, there was some talk that this project is still ‘on track’ for a very short duration to time, but now it appears that India would have a full focus on AMCA only.
There is much concern about the timelines of AMCA. This aircraft is expected to be flightworthy only by 2032 and this is a projected timeline. Globally and particularly with the Indian system, the experience which such major projects has always been that the timelines are very difficult to adhere too. There is also an opinion that ‘around 2035, there would an increasing dependence on the UAVs, so would IAF require a flying platform like this then’? However, it is important to realise that almost for the last two decades there have been talks like UAVs (and long range missiles) would make fighter flying redundant, but all this has happened. Obviously, there are many valid reasons for the survival of fighter aircraft as a major warfighting platform.
It is also important to note that the development of such platforms is time-consuming. The F-22, a prominent fifth-generation fighter jet is a cold war era design and was in making since the 1970s. It finally entered into the service during December 2005. Even then there was a talk that ‘what use is the cold war era design aircraft, in the post-cold war period’. However, the aircraft has withstood the test of time.
AMCA is an important project both for IAF and DRDO/HAL. It would also be a major boost for India’s defence industry. AMCA project should evolve as a major laboratory for India’s aerospace industry.