by Lt. General P.C. Katoch (Retd)

Media reports of October 29 state "with the IAF now backing the indigenous development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft" (FGFA), it is all systems go for the desi stealth jet and the Defence Minister plans to seek the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approval for the detailed design and prototype development of the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) by early next year. It is appalling to see how the public is fooled by inserting sponsored media reports like “with the IAF now backing the indigenous development of a fifth generation fighter aircraft” to cover the Ministry of Defence (MoD) inefficient functioning, poor planning and lackadaisical attitude. When was the IAF against indigenous development of a stealth jet, and was it not to be a joint venture? Is the gun being fired from their shoulders not a poor effort considering that the IAF would love to have a stealth fighter jet from whichever source? Has the MoD not deliberately played around with joint development of the FGFA with Russia past so many years? Do we really believe that India will develop the advanced AMCA entirely on its own and not in collaboration with a foreign entity under Make in India? Latter being the logical course, why was the FGFA project with Russia not progressed and modified or tweaked as required?

In May 2018, China’s J-20 (introduced as a stealth fighter) was easily picked up by IAF’s Sukhoi-30MKI many km away in Tibet, negating former’s advantage of an earlier missile launch than the adversary. Yet India had reservations about the Russian stealth program? Reviewing the ‘Ek Bharat, Shreshtha Bharat’ on October 12, Prime Minister Narendra Modi told top bureaucrats present at the meeting that they had spoiled his first five-year tenure but that he would not allow them to spoil the second. But the bureaucrats exclusively manning the MoD have spoiled the seven plus decades of the military and there appears no indication that the Modi government will go for the much-needed overhaul of the MoD.

Bureaucrats of the Department of Defence Production (DoPD) have no technical expertise either. Getting back to the media report about advanced indigenous AMCA, the twin engine AMCA is to combine advanced stealth, super-cruise (capability to achieve supersonic cruise speeds without the use of afterburners), super manoeuvrability, data fusion and multi-sensor integration with active electronically scanned (AESA) radars.

Media quoting an un-named IAF officer has stated that development of a FGFA being an extremely complex and costly affair, the US F/A-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening-II Joint Strike Fighter are the only fully-operational ones presently world-wide, and that “both the Chinese J-20 and Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA do not have the requisite super-cruise and stealth capabilities.” He did not mention the Rafale but obviously Rafale too are in the same category of China’s J-20 and Russian Sukhoi PAK-FA – sans requisite super-cruise and stealth capabilities. But interestingly, China has recently claimed it can detect the American F-35 Lightening-II Joint Strike Fighters. If true, the F-35 Lightening-II Joint Strike Fighter too goes out of the stealth category.

This indicates the race in stealth and counter-stealth technology, which India must bear in mind. Of the many reader’s comments on the media report on Defence Minister seeking CCS nod for developing prototype of advanced AMCA, an interesting one reads, “I am amazed by the optimism of Rajat Pandit! About ten years ago, there was an article of twenty pages in one of the most well read magazine of India titled the Next Generation soldier or INSAS 2.0 or whatever. It pictured an Infantry soldier equipped with the best camouflaged all weather attire, carrying a most sophisticated laser weapon, a helmet with night vision equipment, bullet proof vest etc. In the past twelve years, our DRDO cannot even develop a basic bullet proof vest leave aside all the tall claims. DRDO and HAL are not able to produce surveillance UAV in the past twenty years. By the time the fifth generation fighters are inducted to IAF, other countries will be engaging their enemies with pilot-less unmanned fighters and bombers to make them redundant.” Rajat Pandit only inserts in media what the bureaucracy feeds him but comments and reservations of the reader are certainly not unfounded, given the track record of indigenous development by the governmental defence-industrial complex. 

As per earlier reports, the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA or Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF) is a fifth-generation aircraft, based on the Russian Sukhoi Su-57, being jointly developed by Sukhoi and HAL, for the IAF. While the program was earlier called FGFA, the combined project is now referred as Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF). The completed FGFA is to include a total of 43 improvements over the Su-57, including advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics.

The Indian version would be also a two-seater with pilot and co-pilot or weapon systems operator (WSO). Reports indicated that India withdrew from the FGFA program in 2018, but also hinted that the project could be resumed at a later date, when the Su-57 is fully operational in the Russian Air Force first. Significantly, Yury Slyusar, General Director of United Aircraft Corporation had claimed last year that the FGFA program was not cancelled and India is still working with Russia and sending questions to Sukhoi about the future aircraft. Call it FGFA, PMF or indigenous advanced AMCA, the answer lies in joint venture (JV) under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. As important is the need for indigenous private players, especially the major ones, to form a conglomerate and go for aircraft development rather than being content with producing only aircraft parts. Finally, better technology advance fighters will continue to be required but stealth may not be much stealthy after all with new quantum radars under development for whom stealth does not matter.

The Author is Former Director General of Information Systems and A Special Forces Veteran, Indian Army