To maintain a qualitative edge over its adversaries, put scarce resources to better use and look at over 50 years at the horizon, the Indian Air Force should drop its plan to make 200 fourth generation LCA Tejas Mark-2 fighter jets and focus on the fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft – AMCA – stealth fighter jets.
Otherwise, the Indian Air Force risks the AMCA becoming obsolete on arrival, while flying an even more obsolete LCA Mark-2 jet into the 2070s. Even the Indian Navy requires the AMCA because the Light Combat Aircraft – LCA – that is currently being tested is not good enough for carrier operations.
MWF is a bad bet
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has to consider the timeline and the investments being made from an ever-shrinking budget. The LCA is a fourth generation fighter jet and the LCA Mark-2, which is now being converted to the Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) programme, is an entirely new fighter jet that is expected to first fly around 2023. That is if the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO), Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and others involved in the project manage to deliver on time, something they are not known for.
Even the LCA Mark 1A, which the IAF wants 83 of, is expected to fly only by 2022.
Although the MWF will draw on the experience and technologies developed for the LCA Mark 1 and the LCA Mark 1A, it is going to be a new fighter jet and will undergo rigorous testing, which will last several years before it is ready for induction and mass production – probably at the end of the next decade.
This is simply not good enough for the IAF, which is grappling with both a drop in its squadron strength and its qualitative edge over adversaries.
China has two fifth generation fighter jets. The twin-engine heavy fighter, the J-20, is already in service and in squadron strength in the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). China is also developing a medium weight fifth generation fighter, the FC-31, which is likely to be exported to potential customers. Pakistan could be its first.
The LCA programme development has already cost India over Rs 10,000 crore. The cost of the LCA Mark 1A has shot up. The 83 Mark 1As are going to cost Rs 45,000 crore, which is about Rs 542 crore each, or $77 million. Compare this to the production cost of the American F-35 fifth generation fighter jet. By leveraging economies of scale, advanced and efficient production methods, the cost of the F-35 has been brought down to less than $80 million each. The LCA Mark-2 is likely to cost much more, probably close to $90-$100 million – very expensive for a homegrown fourth generation fighter jet. The comparable SAAB Gripen E, costs about $85 million.
Investing further into the programme for a jet that will only be ready by the end of the next decade is not wise. The IAF should instead cancel the MWF programme and focus on the AMCA.
Focus on AMCA
The AMCA has already been shelved once because the entire focus was on the development of the LCA. However, work on its design has been going on. The IAF should define the qualitative requirements and throw its weight behind the AMCA instead of funding the fourth generation MWF.
Barring the Su-30 MKI and the Rafales that are going to be inducted soon, the entire current inventory of MiG-29, Jaguar and Mirage in the IAF will be phased out by 2035-2040. That is about 250 fighter jets. Even first of the Su-30s will be over 40 years old and start getting phased out. Inducting a fourth generation MWF to replace them will not give the IAF a qualitative advantage and makes no sense as the timeline suggests its service life running through to the 2070s.
After India backed out from the joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) with Russia, because the IAF was not satisfied with both quality and the work share that was proposed, and uncertainty over whether the US will offer the F-35 to India after we bought the Russian S-400 air defence system, the IAF needs a fifth generation option quickly.
The development of the MWF will take away all the money and attention from the critical fifth generation fighter that the IAF needs, and push its introduction beyond the 2030s and induction sometime into the 2040s. By this time, many countries, which are already working on sixth generation fighters, will start its introduction, making the Indian AMCA a generation behind its contemporaries.
The Indian Navy, which has rejected the LCA for carrier operations, will likely prefer the twin-engine AMCA. The twin-engine jet will give it the requisite power to take off from its ski jump carriers and also carry the sufficiently useful payload, while also giving it stealth capabilities, rather than a naval MWF, which will still be underpowered for carrier operations and not carry sufficient payload.
What the IAF can do in the meantime is increase the order for the Rafale, for which India has sunk in costs for India-specific enhancements. Probably order another 36-54 jets to cover the falling squadron numbers along with the 40 LCA Mark 1 and the planned 83 LCA Mark 1A. India should also cancel the fourth generation MRCA 2.0 programme, which is likely to cost over $15 billion for 110 jets.
If the IAF does not throw its weight behind the AMCA now, it will likely end up with a situation where the development of the AMCA is lagging and it is forced to buy the Russian fifth generation PAK-FA, which it has already declared as not suitable for its requirements. That will set the AMCA programme back and repeat the cycle of imported fighter jets over indigenous ones well into the middle of the century.
The author is editor of Defence Forum India. He is a commentator on defence and strategic affairs. He tweets @YusufDFI. Views are personal.