by Yusuf Unjhawala 

There have been interesting and varied reactions to the idea that it will be better for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to put in all its efforts on the 5th generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and cancel the 4th generation LCA MkII which is now known as the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) program. While

some have been supportive, others don’t think the MWF should be scrapped. Their arguments are that the MWF is required and without the learning from it, India will not be able to make the AMCA. Another argument is that it is needed to replace the Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar fleets. Some others fear that any delay in the development of the AMCA will leave a hole while killing the LCA program.

First of all, the MWF is not required to make the AMCA. The AMCA was a separate development program and is not intended to succeed the LCA. The technologies and learnings from the LCA Mk1 and the LCA Mk1A will help the DRDO, HAL, ADA and the private sector companies involved to make the AMCA. This was also stated by the HAL CMD R Madhavan. Interestingly, this was in December 2018 when the LCA MkII had not changed into the bigger MWF. Earlier In April 2018, the then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in a written reply to a question in Lok Sabha stated that the feasibility study for the programme has been already completed So clearly, the making of the MWF has no bearing on the future manufacturing of the AMCA.

The LCA program which was initiated to replace the MiG-21 did not envision a larger MWF as a follow up. After the shortcomings of the LCA Mk1, the LCA MkII was to be re-engined with a more powerful GE-414 from the current GE-404 along with the advanced avionics and weapons capabilities with modifications to the airframe. The delays in getting the LCA MkII project led to the LCA Mk1A with upgrades as demanded by the IAF – primarily, the AESA radar and electronic warfare suite.

The Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) was envisioned in the middle of the 1990s to replace the Mirage and Jaguar fighter jets. As that project didn’t take off, it transformed into the AMCA project in 2010 which the IAF saw as the replacement for its Mirage, MiG-29 and Jaguar fleets. So the question of the recently announced MWF being the replacement for these jets does not arise and is not dependent on it.

The fear of delays in AMCA leaving a hole in capabilities while killing the LCA project is unfounded. Perhaps those saying so doubt the capabilities of our scientists and engineers to deliver. The LCA project is not being killed as a total of 123 jets are on order as on date. But delays in giving full backing to the AMCA will hurt the project as both the LCA Mk1A and MkII projects will run parallelly taking majority of the resources and effort. In fact the LCA project itself could benefit from the AMCA project. The advanced sensors and other technologies that will be developed for the fifth generation AMCA can be used to upgrade the LCA and make it a potent platform. This can potentially lead to an LCA Mk1B model in the future which the IAF will find useful to order in certain numbers. This is what Lockheed Martin has done with the F-16 block 70 which draws from technologies developed for its F-35 5th generation fighter. Incidentally, it is one of the contenders for India’s medium range combat aircraft acquisition project.

Since there are reports of interest in the LCA from other countries, India will have a potent product to offer for export after the requirements of the IAF are completed.

The Indian Navy (IN) will not have an indigenous option if the AMCA is not developed at the earliest as it has rejected the LCA for carrier operations. The IN has stated that it will only buy the AMCA even as it backs the testing of technologies for naval operations with the Naval LCA. The IN operates one aircraft carrier, the INS Vikramaditya and building a second which will be named INS Vikrant. The IN is also going to build a much larger third carrier that will carry twice the number of aircraft with assisted take off. The carrier which is likely to enter service sometime in the mid 2030s will require about 100 fighter jets.

In the absence of an indigenous option, the navy will be forced to look for an imported jet. It is already looking to buy 57 fighter jets for which the French Rafale and the American F/A-18 Super Hornet are in contention. The navy will also need a replacement for its 45 MiG-29s that currently are in service. The potential requirement for the AMCA from both the IAF and the IN is nearly 400 jets. The time frame for that acquisition to start is in the next 12-15 years. This will only be possible if there is complete backing and support for the AMCA so that it enters production in that timeframe.

Yusuf Unjhawala is a military affairs analyst and Editor of Indian Defence Forum. is curated by Shiv Aroor one of India's most renowned defence journalists