India’s bête-noir Pakistan could lay its hand on a 5th generation fighter jet before the indigenously-built Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
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Turkey recently announced it is starting negotiations with Pakistan to make it an official partner in combat aircraft development. The culmination of a series of bungling by the Indian defense establishment and top brass of the Indian Air Force (IAF) over the years has resulted in the force staring at two lost decades of technological advancement.
Delayed acquisition and slow development of indigenous fighter jets have resulted in the IAF with dwindling units of aging fighter jets to defend the Indian airspace. As reported by the EurAsian Times, the IAF now has more surface-to-air missile units than fighter jets.
India’s quest for the next generation of fighter jets began almost 15 years ago when it joined hands with Russia to develop the Fifth Generation Fighter Jet (FGFA).
The IAF withdrew from one of the most ambitious and controversial joint Indo-Russian defense programs to date: the co-development and production of the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) in 2018 after both sides disagreed on cost-sharing plans, technology transfers, and the aircraft’s technological capabilities among others.
India withdrew from the project 11 years after the two countries entered collaboration.
The first AMCA is expected to roll out in 2026, provided the Cabinet Committee on Security grants its approval and funding to the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) for the twin-engine stealth aircraft. As opposed to this, the first 5th generation fighter jet, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, first entered service in 2005.
“Based on their track records and their proclivity for over-projection, there can be little doubt that DRDO and HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) leadership will be forced to push back timelines and seek performance concessions due to technology shortfalls during the AMCA project,” Squadron Leader Vijaindra K Thakur wrote in an article for the EurAsian Times.
In 2009, the AMCA was initially planned as an all-weather, swing-role fighter jet capable of aerial fights, ground strikes, enemy air defense suppression, and electronic warfare. After four years, in 2013, the first feasible configuration was worked out, which was accepted by the IAF.
But, then, the joint venture with Russia to develop FGFA was initiated. Buoyed by the success of the BrahMos joint venture, the IAF decided to go with the project until it pulled out of it in 2018. This has led to the delay of the AMCA project, but now the IAF against decided to go with the indigenous 5th-generation fighter jet.
The IAF has given its acceptance of the critical design presented by the ADA. GE-F414 engines will power the first five AMCA prototypes. The IAF will procure 125 AMCAs in Mk1 (40 with GE F414 engines) and Mk2 (with ‘Indian’ engine) configurations. The latter is proposed to have a more powerful engine developed in collaboration with a foreign partner.
The DRDO has often been criticized for setting up ambitious timelines only to miss them. The Project Director of AMCA, Dr. AK Ghosh, had stated during DefExpo-2022: “Once the project sanction is received, the prototype can be rolled out in three years and the first flight in one to one and half years after that.” However, the IAF received the claim with a dollop of salt.
In November 2022, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, advised “prudence.” He recommended foreign tie-ups as a fallback for developing “alternative systems and sensors” in case indigenous development slips off the timeline.
Following the remarks from the IAF Chief, DRDO Chairman Samir Kamat announced a redone timeline on February 14, 2023. As per it, the first flight of the AMCA “may take seven years, and the induction can be done in ten years from now.” The first flight timeline had already been pushed back from 2027 to 2030, and the induction was slated for 2035.
Squadron Leader Thakur adds: “While giving its go-ahead to the project, it is essential that the CCS be aware of the pitfalls and remain alert to the impact of project delays on the combat capability of the IAF. The nation can afford to wait for the AMCA but cannot afford to let its guard down.”
Pakistan Hitching Ride On Turkish Innovation
While it is unclear when Pakistan will be able to join the Turkish combat aircraft program, Turkey has indicated that it plans to begin negotiations with Pakistan at the earliest.
“Pretty soon, within this month, we will be discussing with our Pakistani counterparts to officially include Pakistan in our Kaan national fighter jet program,” Turkish deputy defense minister Celal Sami Tufekci said in Pakistan on August 2, 2023.
The announcement came just days after Azerbaijan became part of the fighter jet project. Turkish Aerospace, leading the development of the Kaan, has a close relationship with Pakistan Aeronautical Complex (PAC) Kamra, the state-owned military aircraft company and maintenance, repair, and overhaul house.
It is unclear where Kaan participation might leave Pakistan’s indigenous efforts to develop a future fighter—the so-called Next-Generation Fighter Aircraft—initiated through Project AZM in 2017.
What is impressive about the Kaan fighter jet is that its development began at the same time as the AMCA project. The core group to develop the Indian stealth fighter was formed in 2009 with five defense scientists—Ashish Kumar Ghosh, Krishna Rajendra Neeli, MB Angadi, AK Vinayagam, and Fairoza Naushad. Whereas Turkey’s Defense Industry Executive Committee (SSIK) decided to develop a next-generation air-superiority fighter in December 2010.
While the Indian project is still on the drawing board, the Turkish Aerospace Industry aims to roll out the aircraft by 2023, even though, at this stage, the engines will only be capable of taxiing.
TAI General Manager Temel Kotil announced on television late last month that the company had chosen December 27 for the aircraft’s debut into Turkish skies, five years before schedule.
Thereafter, critical design review (CDR) activities will be carried out in 2024, the production of the first aircraft, Block-0, will be completed in 2025, and the first flight will be in 2026.
Pakistan and Turkey seek a fifth-generation fighter aircraft to replace their fourth-generation Lockheed Martin F-16 fighter aircraft. According to information published by TAI, the Kaan – called the “first big fighter” of the Muslim world, is planned to have a maximum speed of Mach 1.8 at 40,000 ft (12,192 m) and a service ceiling of 55,000 ft.
The AMCA will have a top speed of around Mach 2.15 and a combat range of 1,620 km. The aircraft is designed to tackle both air-to-air and air-to-ground operations and will be fitted with Brahmos-NG (next generation) air-to-ground missiles, Astra air-to-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, Rudram anti-radiation missiles, laser-guided bombs, and precision munitions.
Engine technology has been the bane of India’s fighter jet dream. While India dithered to accept its failure to manufacture engines indigenously and collaborate with foreign companies to get one, Turkey acted swiftly.
In January 2015, it signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Eurojet, the manufacturer of the EJ200 engine powering the Eurofighter Typhoon. Turkey’s interest in making Pakistan an official partner in the project reflects Ankara’s ambition to enhance resources and expertise to mature the program.
India’s ‘go alone’ policy underwent a shift, as India ditched its plan to re-invent the wheel and collaborated with the US General Electrics and the French Safran to manufacture engines for fighter jets. The GE F414 engines will power the LCA Mark II and AMCA.
Apart from the engines for the Mark-1, the ejection seats are also imported. All sensors, avionics, and flight control systems are indigenous. That means that over 70 percent of the aircraft is indigenous.
Scientists do not want to scale up the indigenous content further because it would not be economically viable. Once the Mark-2 engines are developed, the indigenous content will rise to 90 percent.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com