Wednesday
May 29, 2024

AMCA and Augmentation of India’s Aerospace Power

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By: Darshan Gajjar, Research Analyst, GSDN

Prototype of AMCA: source Internet

“One must be clear when Diplomacy of persuasion must end and Diplomacy of threat of force and force itself should be considered.” ~ Mr K Subrahmanyam

Recently, on March 7, 2024, India’s Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which is chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, finally approved a project to design and develop a fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). As per the reports, the project will be undertaken by India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in partnership with various private and public sector agencies to build five prototypes in the next five years.

It has been more than fifteen years since the Indian Air Force (IAF) and Indian strategic community were contemplating the development of an indigenous multirole stealth fighter aircraft in 2007. Though the CCS has approved the prototype, it is very unlikely that the IAF can have the final version of the aircraft before 2035, since the flight-testing phase will start once the initial prototype is approved in the next five years.

Why AMCA is Important

Despite such a long timeline, the approval of the project, apart from its operational advantage, is important for three reasons. First, it will strengthen India’s indigenous defence manufacturing capabilities and its domestic military-industrial ecosystem, which has seen significant growth in the last few years. The strengthening of this ecosystem is being backed by the efforts of all three-armed forces of India.

Last year, in November, an order of Rs 36,468 crore for the delivery of 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk 1A Tejas for the IAF was placed with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in addition to the induction of indigenously designed and developed light combat helicopters (LCH) by the Indian Army and the Indian Air Force in 2022 and 2023. Further, the Indian Navy has also contributed heavily to these indigenization or Atmanirbharta efforts; notable of them was the commissioning of the country’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC-1) INS Vikrant in 2022.

Coming back to the AMCA, the initial versions of the aircraft will have American GE F414 engines; the later upgraded variant of the aircraft will be powered by a domestically developed jet engine.

Second, the development of the AMCA will pave the way for India to enter the elite club of countries that possess the capabilities to design and develop advanced 5th generation aircraft. One of the key adversaries of India in the region, China and its People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), is believed to have a fleet of 200 Chengdu J-20 stealth, twin-jet, fifth-generation fighters, which pose an incredible challenge to India, which has already been involved in skirmishes with China in the Himalayan mountains since the 2020 Galwan valley clashes. Additionally, the prototype of China’s Shenyang FC-31 Gyrfalcon, also known as the J-31, a mid-sized twin-jet 5th-generation fighter aircraft, is also in development and is being considered by Pakistan, another adversary of India, for acquisition in the Pakistan Air Force (PAF). The situation where both of India’s neighbouring adversaries, Pakistan and China, have 5th generation aircraft disproportionally alters the balance of air power in the region. Thus, operational squadrons of fifth-generation aircraft are not only a necessity but also a prerequisite for the preservation of credible deterrence and the balance of air power.

Third, and perhaps the most oblivious of all in this case, is the enhancement of the US-India Comprehensive Global Strategic Partnership. The most instrumental part of any aircraft is its engine, and as mentioned earlier, the AMCA will be powered by General Electric (GE) F414 engines, which are also being used by American Boeing F/A-18E and F/A-18F Super Hornet aircraft. Last year, in June, during PM Modi’s state visit to the USA, a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) was signed between India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the USA’s GE Aerospace to produce fighter jet engines for the IAF. Apart from AMCA, the GE F414 will also be used in the LCA Tejas MK2. The current LCA Tejas Mark 1 and proposed Mark 1A use GE F404 engines, highlighting the continuation of trust in the long-standing Indo-US relationship. Apart from solving India’s engine predicament, the USA also provides India with other major defence equipment, most recently the Indian Navy’s commissioning of the first squadron of American-built MH-60R Seahawk multi-role helicopters that will strengthen the Indian Navy’s surface, subsurface, and anti-submarine warfare capabilities.

IAF’s and India’s Aerospace Power

Returning to the AMCA, from an operational point of view, with its advanced avionics and added stealth features, it will further bolster aircraft’s survivability and lethality in modern air combat. Additionally, at the strategic level, it is no secret that the IAF has the ambition to become an extensive aerospace power, and the induction of the AMCA, apart from its tactical advantages, should be looked at from that perspective as well. In 2022, India’s defence minister, Shri Rajnath Singh, highlighted during an event, “The Indian Air Force should become Aerospace Force and be ready to protect the country from ever evolving threats,” highlighting the country’s intention as well as the need to move beyond the conventionality of air power and embrace the amplitude of futuristic aerospace power amid rapid technological advancements.

The IAF doctrine that was made available in the public domain last year outlined the IAF’s transformation from a conventional air power-oriented force to a full-fledged aerospace power. It says in this context, “An understanding of the distinct characteristics and limitations of this [Aerospace] dimension is the basis for optimal exploitation of power. The core characteristics of aerospace power are reach, flexibility, mobility, responsiveness, offensive lethality and trans domain operational capability. These core characteristics within the frames of force, space and time provide employability options towards National Security Objectives.”

Air Marshal Diptendu Choudhury, a former Commandant of the National Defence College at New Delhi and one of the key architects of this IAF doctrine highlighting the importance of aerospace power beyond traditional national security constructs, comments , “Geopolitical and regional security realities, state-sponsored terror, the continuous simmering on India’s hostile borders and internal security challenges serve as the basis for the employment of aerospace power in information dominance, shaping operations, and external and internal security operations.”

Most recently, on March 27, 2024, during the 15th Jumbo Majumdar International Seminar, Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, accentuating the significance of maintaining military readiness in the aerospace domain, said, “The evolution of aerospace power is not merely a matter of technological prowess but also a testament to the ingenuity and adaptability of human innovation in the face of emerging threats and challenges. Space has emerged as a critical domain for the conduct of military operations… As nations increasingly rely on space-based assets for building strategic advantage, militarization and weaponization of space has become an inevitable reality. Air and space control, along with denial capabilities, will prove to be decisive for the furtherance of all operations.”

What after AMCA: Does India need 6th Generation Aircraft?

As mentioned earlier, it will take perhaps more than a decade for AMCA to enter into service. Is this the right time for us to think about developing India’s own 6th generation fighter aircraft? The USA aims to deploy its Next-Generation Air Dominance (NGAD) platform, under which the US Air Force aims for the acquisition of a sixth-generation air superiority fighter by 2030 that will succeed the current Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Further, China also aims to develop its own 6th generation fighter that will succeed the current J-20s. The upgraded J-28, as they call it, will be equipped with a profoundly powerful laser weapon along with advanced stealth features. Russia is also working to integrate an electromagnetic pulse (EMP) gun system into its 6th generation Mig-41, which is under development.

While eventually, in due course, India will have to develop its own 6th generation fighter aircraft, at the moment it lacks the technical know-how and monetary resources to invest in such a project.

Conclusion

As Winston Churchill rightly observed eight decades ago, “Air Power is the most difficult of military force to measure or even express in precise terms.” In modern combat, the instrumentality of air and aerospace power cannot be emphasised enough.

While approval and subsequent induction of the AMCA will strengthen India’s aerospace power vis-à-vis our adversaries, it must not stop there. Gone are the days when India could rely on imported weapons to enhance its kinetic abilities. We must develop a robust ecosystem that can allow us to design and develop advanced aircraft domestically in the future. There still exists the jet engine predicament when it comes to making an aircraft, which can be solved with the help of allies and like-minded partners.

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