by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

The Balakot air strikes in February 2019 and the air combat thereafter in which a MiG 21 Bison of Indian Air Force (IAF) had to engage a much more modern F-16 of Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has once again brought IAF modernisation back into focus. The then IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa, has said in many forums that IAF has hit an all time low of 30 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis the government authorised 42. He has highlighted the convergence of strategic interests between China and Pakistan and their rapidly modernising air forces. IAF on the other hand has been slowly losing the clear combat edge that it had enjoyed over Pakistan in 1971 both in terms quality and numbers.

Aerospace is the domain of the future and the one who controls it will control the planet. It is clear that IAF must win the air war for the Army and Navy to win the surface war. Technology intensive air power requires faster replacement of assets due to quicker obsolescence. While IAF has a plan ‘B’ to fight with what it has, if forced into conflict, but numbers are clearly not adequate to fully execute an air campaign in a two-front scenario. It is incumbent upon the nation to provide IAF assets for the task it has been entrusted. It is imperative that IAF quickly rebuilt the squadron strength and acquire modern fighters that are as good or better than the adversaries. Developing indigenous aircraft is critical for India to become a global power. China has already moved way ahead. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘TEJAS’ and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) are the main two aircraft projects. It is important to continuously monitor their progress.

4th And 5th Generation Fighters

The ‘TEJAS’ was envisaged to be a 4th generation fighter and the AMCA is meant to be a 5th generation fighter. 4th generation fighters are mostly multi-role; use ‘Energy-Manoeuvrability’ concept for performing ‘fast transients’ – quick changes in speed, altitude, and direction – as opposed to just high speed; lightweight aircraft with higher thrust-weight ratio, and use digital Fly-By-Wire (FBW) flight controls which allow relaxed static stability flight and in turn agility. They have electronically managed power-plants. Pulse-Doppler fire-control-radars give look-down/shoot-down capability. Head-up displays (HUD), hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) controls, and multi-function displays (MFD) allow better situational awareness and quicker reactions. Composite materials help reduce aircraft weight. Improved maintenance design and procedures reduce aircraft turnaround time between missions and generated more sorties. The F-16, F-18, MiG-29, SU-30 MKI and Mirage-2000 are all in this category. A sub generation called the 4.5th generation fighters evolved in the last decade, which saw advanced digital avionics, newer aerospace materials, modest signature reduction, and highly integrated systems and weapons. These fighters operated in network-centric environment. Key technologies introduced include multi-function active electronically scanned array (AESA) radars; longer range BVR AAMs; GPS-guided weapons, solid-state phased-array radars, helmet-mounted sights (HMDS), and improved secure, jamming-resistant data-links. A degree of super-cruise ability (supersonic without afterburner) was introduced. Stealth characteristics focused on front-aspect radar cross section (RCS) reduction through limited shaping techniques. Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Rafale and Saab JAS 39 Gripen were in this category. Many 4th generation aircraft were also upgraded with new technologies. Su-30MKI and Su-35 featured thrust vectoring engine nozzles to enhance manoeuvring.

The fifth generation was ushered in by the Lockheed Martin/Boeing F-22 Raptor in late 2005. These aircraft are designed from the start to operate in a network-centric combat environment, and to feature extremely low, all-aspect, multi-spectral signatures employing advanced materials and shaping techniques. AESA radars are with high-bandwidth low-probability of intercept. IRST and other sensors are fused in for Situational Awareness and to constantly track all targets of interest around the aircraft 360 degree bubble. Advanced avionics and glass cockpit, and improved secure, jamming-resistant data-links are other features. Avionics suites rely on extensive use of very high-speed integrated circuit (VHSIC) technology and high-speed data buses. Fifth-generation fighters target “first-look, first-shot, first-kill capability”. In addition to high resistance to ECM, they can function as a ‘mini-AWACS’. Integrated electronic warfare system, integrated communications, navigation, and identification (CNI), centralised “vehicle health monitoring”, fibre-optic data-transmission, and stealth are important features. Manoeuvre performance is enhanced by thrust-vectoring, which also helps reduce takeoff and landing distances. Super-cruise is inbuilt. To maintain low signature primary weapons are carried in internal weapon bays. The current fifth-generation fighter projects include Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning II, Russia‘s Sukhoi PAK FA (SU-57), China’s Chengdu J-20 and Shenyang J-31, and India’s AMCA. Japan is also exploring technical feasibility to produce fifth-generation fighters.


IAF has committed for 200 TEJAS Mk-II aircraft, taking the total requirement of TEJAS to over 300. TEJAS Mk II was originally planned to retain basic aircraft shape and incorporate the larger and more powerful 98 kN thrust GE F414 engine, which was more likely to meet the TEJAS originally agreed specifications. This would have meant significant change to the air inlets and also the aircraft dimensions and weight would have to increase. At the Aero India 2019, ADA unveiled a new model of the TEJAS’s Mk-II, and called it a Medium Weight Fighter (MWF). This aircraft was expected to fit into IAF’s requirement for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). This enhanced version of TEJAS, the TEJAS Mk-2 MWF would be 14.6m long with a wingspan of 8.5m (compared with 13 m and 8.2 m respectively for the TEJAS and 14.36m and 9.13m for Mirage 2000). The aircraft will have a compound delta wing with close-coupled canards. This would reduce drag in all angles of attack it was announced. The longer fuselage will allow for more fuel behind the cockpit. The Mk II would carry much more internal and external fuel. The maximum weight of the aircraft would be 17.5 tonnes (compared to Mk 1’s 13.5 tonnes). Its external stores carrying capacity will increase from 5.3 to 6.5 tonnes. It will be equipped with a higher thrust General Electric GE-F414-INS6 engine that features a Full Authority Digital Electronics Control (FADEC) system.

TEJAS Mark-II will also feature an indigenous integrated life support system-onboard oxygen generation system (ILSS-OBOGS) weighing 14.5 kg, a built-in integrated Electro-optic electronic-warfare suite among other improvements to avionics. It will have an infra-red search and track (IRST) system and a missile approach warning system (MAWS) and a modern AESA radar. An increase in payload capacity to 6,500 kg (14,300 lb) and increased number of weapons stations from 7 to 11, will allow the MWF to carry more weapons. It is said to be designed for swing role, with BVR and close-combat capability, and precision strike. Beyond the TEJAS program, the AMCA, India’s fifth-generation fighter, can only move forward once the TEJAS Mk-II design is frozen. The realistic first flight time-line would be 2028. The aircraft may induct around 2034-35. In any case HAL will require at least 7-8 years to deliver the 123 Mk1 and Mk 1A aircraft.


Comparisons are being drawn between the JF-17 and India’s TEJAS. The TEJAS uses many new technologies including large amounts of composite materials, advanced avionics and a unique aerodynamic configuration, and has a good potential to be expanded into variants. Some call JF-17 the aircraft of today and the Tejas the aircraft of tomorrow. The JF-17 Block II costs close to US$ 25 million, vis-a-vis the TEJAS Mk-1 around US$ 28 million.

TEJAS has been manufactured by a single country, and is claimed to be the world’s lightest supersonic fighter. Currently only one squadron with 16 aircraft has been formed. Aircraft production is still floundering at below 8 a year, and is planned to be ramped up to 16 a year. The more comparable TEJAS Mk-1A will have its first flight only in 2021 and induct earliest by 2023. Indian government has recently cleared 83 TEJAS MK-1A. 

The JF-17 is joint project between China and Pakistan. Nearly 120 are already flying. The aircraft production at nearly 25 aircraft a year is high. The Block III will induct in 2020. There are already two foreign customers flying the JF-17. JF-17 has been in service for last ten years and serves in six squadrons at full operational capability, whereas the TEJAS has only one squadron after four years. TEJAS and JF-17 are competing for the Malaysian contract. The two contenders have ‘fairly similar’ performance. JF-17’s Russian engine has maintenance and serviceability issues well known to Malaysia from their MiG-29 experience. LCA’s General Electric F404 engine is much more reliable.

Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF)

The Indian Navy eventually issued an RFI for 57 naval multi-role fighters. However, despite rejecting the TEJAS initially for being overweight, the Navy restarted testing with the NP-2 (Naval Prototype 2) in August 2018, with the first mid-air refuelling being held in September 2018. The experience gained in operating the Naval Prototype will help in proving input to the development of Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) aircraft. The TEDBF will be powered by two General Electric F414 and will carry higher and heavier payloads and range.

Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA)

A few images of India’s future Twin-engine Medium Class Omni-Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) fighter are being circulated on social media. Some of the visible features are the canards, diverterless supersonic inlet, conformal wing root tanks/containers, larger number of hard-points, and option for folding wingtips. It will weigh around 23 tons. An ambitious timeline of first flight in 2026 and production start in 2030 are being spoken of.


The AMCA is a fifth generation aircraft being designed by ADA and will be manufactured by HAL. It will be a twin-engine, all weather multi-role fighter. It will combine super-cruise, stealth, advanced AESA radar, super manoeuvrability and advanced avionics. It is meant to replace the Jaguar and Mirage 2000 aircraft and complement the SU-30 MKI, Rafale and TEJAS in the IAF and MiG 29K in the Navy. On 4, April 2018 then Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the parliament that the feasibility study of the programme had already been completed and the program has already been given go ahead by the IAF to initiate AMCA Technology Demonstration phase before launching full Scale engineering development phase.

Earlier, in October 2008, IAF had asked ADA to prepare a detailed project report for a next generation medium combat aircraft. In April 2010, IAF issued the ASQR for the AMCA, which placed the aircraft in the 25-ton class. The first flight test of the prototype aircraft was originally scheduled to take place by 2017. DRDO proposed to power the aircraft with two GTX Kaveri engines. In October 2010, the government released Rs 100 crore to prepare feasibility studies. Meanwhile in November 2010 itself ADA sought Rs 9,000 crore to fund the development which would include two technology demonstrators and seven prototypes. ADA unveiled a 1:8 scale model at Aero India 2013. The AMCA design will have shoulder-mounted diamond-shaped trapezoidal wings, and an all-moving Canard-Vertical V-tail with large fuselage mounted tail-wing. It will be equipped with a quadruple digital fly-by-optics control system using fibre optic cables. The reduced radar cross-section (RCS) would be through airframe and engine inlet shaping and use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). AMCA will have an internal weapons bay, but a non-stealthy version with external pylons is also planned.

Low-speed and supersonic wind tunnel testing and Radar Cross Section (RCS) testing was reportedly completed by 2014, and project definition phase by February 2014. The Engineering Technology & Manufacturing Development (ETMD) phase was started in January 2014 after HAL TEJAS attained IOC, and it was announced that the AMCA will have first flight by 2018. At Aero India 2015, ADA confirmed that work on major technological issues, thrust vectoring, super-cruising engine, AESA radar and stealth technology was going full swing. Russia was to support for the development of Three-Dimensional Thrust Vectoring (TDTVC), AESA Radar and stealth technology. Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin also offered to help in key technologies. AMCA will initially fly with two GE-414 engines. Eventually it is planned to be powered by two GTRE, 90 kN thrust, K 9 or K10 engines which are successor to the troubled Kaveri engine. France has offered full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies, and United States offered full collaboration in the engine development with access to the GE F-414 and F-135.

AMCA CCS Clearance

Two technology demonstrators and four prototype were scheduled to go under various type of testing, and analysis in 2019. Ground reality is that they are far from it. As of 2020, defence ministry was seeking approval from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to go ahead with the Prototype Development Phase. AMCA is intended to be a test case for fundamental Indian research in the unfamiliar field of cutting edge aviation, and yet is poised to be anything but it says defence analyst Shiv Aroor of Live Fist. DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), had earlier announced the targeted first flight of AMCA by 2020, and production by 2025 has now revised first flight to 2025.


The Indian Navy first got ‘involved’ in the AMCA project in March 2013 when it formally asked the DRDO/ADA if they were planning a naval version of the program. They were looking at it in relation to the indigenous aircraft carriers IAC-2. Navy have already sought 57 aircraft of MMRCA2 class. Naval AMCA (NAMCA) timeshares will match IAC-2 they feel. Navy’s requirements were sent to DRDO on 7 September 2015. They have suggested a separate team for NAMCA development.

AMCA Foreign Support

Unsure of indigenous capability, India has informed the foreign vendors of MMRCA 2 program that India’s quest for fighters would need commitments towards the AMCA. In anticipation, most vendors have set up joint ventures with Indian defence majors and set up research and manufacturing facilities. IAF is ‘fully supporting’ the project, but hopes the timelines stated are realistic, because otherwise it upsets its procurement cycles. In any case IAF’s 114 Make-in-India fighters will partly act as cushion for delays. Meanwhile DRDO has been discussing with Indian defence companies including TATA, Mahindra Defence, Larsen & Toubro and many smaller specialised firms for work share for AMCA. Part of private Indian industry is already does major fabrication work for defence majors like Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Airbus, BAE Systems and others. Flight Global’s Stephen Trimble says “AMCA is clearly India’s best option for preserving sovereignty and flexibility over the long-term, but it is the highest risk”. Technologically, the AMCA is a project that runs concurrent to India’s Ghatak stealth unmanned combat aircraft. Many laboratories are researching common technologies for both platforms, including shape, stealth, network-centricity, sensors and materials.

Way Ahead

TEJAS and AMCA are flag ship programs of Indian defence manufacturing. The aviation technologies are much more complex and expensive than building ships and tanks. The fact that India is still struggling to get FOC aircraft production for the base TEJAS model indicates that there is need for external help. The variables and anxieties will continue to hit the AMCA. Joint ventures or technology transfers are essential for the engine, AESA and EW systems. Also we will require help to handle complex aerodynamic configuration and stealth of the AMCA. Considering the slow progress in TEJAS program, it is going to be an uphill task. Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles says “A first flight in 2025 (if achieved) plus ten or twenty years of development to get it operational sees it reaching squadrons in the 2035-45 period. At best, you have an F-35 twenty years too late”. The indigenous fifth generation fighter would require more concerted energies and professional administrative attention. During technological hold-ups, there is a need to accept reality and raise the hands, then carrying on ‘hit and trial’. Best to invite help lest we end up in serious delays and cost overruns. Time act is now.

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, is a retired Indian Air Force officer. He is currently Administrative Member of the Regional Bench of the Armed Forces Tribunal at Lucknow