The next generation fighter aircraft technologies will enhance survivability in contested, well-defended environment, and yet deliver arsenal for effect-based results

by Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

Combat aviation continues to remain the most preferred means of prosecution of war. The one who controls air and space will dominate all operations. Military aviation continues to see the fastest growth of technology.

Agility – speed and manoeuvrability -- remains important, but it has become less consequential. Occasions for close-combat engagements are reducing. Long-range beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat requires sensors and weapons that allow ability to “see first, shoot first, hit first”. High-exposure close air support can now be taken on by drones and unmanned platforms. Long range and precision strike ability has become more important. Information superiority and shortened decision loop will decide the victor.

The next generation fighter aircraft technologies will enhance survivability in contested well-defended environment, and yet deliver arsenal for effect-based results. Integration with other aircraft will require secure, highbandwidth, datalinks, connecting sensors across platforms and terrafirma in multiple domain environment. Intelligent “data-to-decision” (D2D) capability will be crucial.

System-of-systems approach will greatly enhance situational awareness. AI will support decision-making and autonomy. Helmet-mounted or even retina displays will givethe aircrew all-hemisphere picture, allowing more complete threat assessment and attack or response options.

Aircraft will feature next-generation avionics, more efficient thrust-vectoring engines with in-built super-cruise, advanced stealth features, conformal weapon bays with extended long-range weapons with a high degree of post-launch autonomy.

Modern AESA radars will operate in heavy electronic counter measures (ECM) environment. Passive infrared search and track (IRST) systems will have higher tracking ranges. Improved onboard power-generation capacity will support powerful electronic warfare systems and DEW. Automated health monitoring and diagnostics suite will combine with self-healing options. The stealth will be inbuilt to support low radar cross section (RCS) over large spectrum of frequencies without trading flight performance. There will be a plug-and-play interchangeable hardware. 3D tools will be used for both design and manufacture processes.

Evolving aerial weapons will have greater autonomy. Air launched hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) and hypersonic glide vehicles (HGV) will defeat air defences and bring game-changing vulnerabilities to strategic targets and large ships and aircraft carriers. Large platforms like airborne early warning and control (AEW&C) and mid-air flight refuelling aircraft will be kept farther away from tactical area due to the threat of long-range missiles.

In future, onboard mini-missiles on planes could shoot down incoming air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and act as self-defence for the aircraft. High-energy onboard lasers will engage enemy aircraft and missiles, including those coming from behind, and also target on the ground.

Drones and uninhabited aerial systems (UAS) will proliferate. Dual-use (optionally manned) aircraft are evolving. Next generation UAS will be able to take on all roles of ISR, surface strike, air defence, aerial refuelling and air delivery. Offensive aerial drone swarms will overwhelm the enemy defences. Drone counters, including both “hardkill” and “soft kill”, are already evolving. These could be small arms fire, net guns, electro-optical weapons such as lasers, data-link jamming, electronic or cyber-attack, and directed energy weapons like microwave. A drone swarm may be engaged by a counter drone swarm. Manned and unmanned aircraft teaming will exploit the advantage of human in the loop with strength of numbers to take on well-defended target systems.

Future aircraft engine technologies will support reduced weight, improved engine propulsive efficiency, improved reliability and maintainability and reduced lifecycle costs.

Attack and combat helicopters have an important operational role. Other than flying surface target attack role missions, they are increasingly being used for air-to-air missions against other helicopters and UAVs.

India has already mastered most of the basic aircraft building technologies. India is currently at 4.5 generation technology stage with Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) TEJAS MK-2 and has mastered the composite materials technologies. Some other metal alloys, special metals, and single-crystal blades etc. are still a work in progress. India has more work to be done on AESA radars and electronic warfare. A joint venture route for aero-engines is being finalised.

India is gradually coming of age in aerial weapons. Private companies are already making part of the TEJAS front, central, and rear fuselage. India’s 5th generation aircraft, the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA), is still a work-in-slow-progress. It needs to be accelerated if India has to sit on the global high-table. India has also to accelerate the development of indigenous flight refuelers and AEW&C aircraft. India is already looking at sixth-generation technologies. Time to act is now, lest we get too far behind.