The only reason Indian pilots still use the "flying coffin" MiG-21 is because of the delay in acquiring TEJAS, about two decades on

Air Marshal Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, the new Chief of Air Staff, claimed in a press conference that the days of importing jets were over and that the Indian Air Force will now throw its entire weight behind the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. This seemingly innocuous statement reveals the deep malaise in our defence thinking, born from a lack of institutional handover of knowledge.

To understand what could go wrong with the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), we need to look at what went wrong with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), the homegrown TEJAS. After all, the only reason we still fly the “flying coffin” MiG-21s is because of the inordinate delay in the induction of the fourth generation TEJAS – the aircraft whose maiden flight took place in 2001 but which is yet to be operationalised 18 years later. This is when the US, Russia, and China have started fielding fifth generation fighters with the US operationalising the F-22 back in 2005.

Misplaced Priorities

To start with, both “light” and “indigenous” had become anachronistic even before the Tejas took its first flight. When the aircraft was conceived in an era before fly by wire (fbw) system was introduced, “light” denoted manoeuvrability. Recall how the original Maruti 800 was once considered much easier to drive than the bulky Ambassador, but the entry of electronic steering made even a huge BMW 7 Series just as easy to drive as a minuscule TATA Nano.

This obsession with “light” meant that when, within the 4th generation, the emphasis shifted from kinetics to electronics, sometime in the mid-1990s, Tejas had neither the extra power nor the space to accommodate the additional electronics such as data boxes, secure network devices, built-in countermeasures and associated wiring. Moreover, it became painfully obvious that India, still a third world pre-industrial country, did not possess either the industrial depth or width to produce the entire gamut of electronics required to facilitate this change of focus in fourth generation aircraft.

Additionally, the need to be “indigenous” was born in an era before the collapse of the USSR, when India was subject to severe technology transfer restrictions, which were rapidly and progressively lifted after US President Bill Clinton’s visit in 1999. In short, by the time the very first Tejas flight came around in 2001, the rationale to be light and indigenous had both evaporated. More significantly, 18 years on, we still haven’t internalised these changes or learnt from our mistakes.

Rooting For A ‘Deeply Flawed’ AMCA

While Britain is moving forward with a sixth-generation aircraft, India is pondering rudimentary and deeply flawed designs for a fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft, despite being so far behind the technology curve. Why is AMCA flawed?

For starters, much like the Tejas, the AMCA seems to focus on paradigms of combat that have long since been bypassed. Defence and foreign policy expert Pushan Das and I had written about this extensively in 2015.

A summary of the findings from our analysis are as follows:

1) Too much emphasis on engine thrust and thrust vectoring despite close-range air combat having moved away from G force manoeuvring to get into an attack position to Angle of Attack, which emphasises maintaining power and recovery from a steep manoeuvre.

2) A continuing emphasis on kinetics as opposed to understanding that a fifth generation aircraft is essentially a computer in the air, able to cut short the processing time, and reduce the ‘detect to kill chain’ (the time taken between detecting and killing an aircraft – essentially the ability to detect first and shoot first, and in the case of stealth, hopefully avoid being detected) by several tens of seconds (the difference between life and death).

3) The lack of emphasis on deep networking with other detection and attack assets, which form the basis of the fifth generation combat that allow it to hand over time-critical information to assets that may be better positioned or equipped to fire the first shot.

4) No thought was given to a new range of smaller but long-range weapons to be carried in sufficient numbers concealed within the body of the aircraft.

5) No thought was given to conformal sensors that blended into the aircraft’s body or new materials like cockpit canopies that allow the pilot to look outside but prevent radars from detecting the cockpit (which is a major problem as it is not stealthed up like the rest of the aircraft’s body) or frequency selective radome materials that perform the same function for the radar (allow the radar to function unimpeded, while preventing the radar’s flat surface from being detected by other radars).

6) A range chart that seemed horrendously muddled, implying that the twin-engine AMCA would cover the same range in twice the amount of fuel that an F-35 would with half the fuel.

Given these serious conceptualisation flaws that do not bode well from a project and risk management point of view, besides the industrial supply chain problems inherent in the Tejas, we now run a very high risk of chasing another white elephant. It’s one thing that the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) did not learn anything from its failures — natural given it is a public sector undertaking with no accountability or risk. But the Indian Air Force’s failure to internalise these lessons after so many crashes and deaths and capability shortages is simply appalling.