China To Field 500+ Stealth Fighters, Pakistan Upto 100, Is India Left Behind In 5th Gen Aircraft Race?

The Indian Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project that aims to build the nation’s much-wanted Stealth Fighter remains behind schedule. There are only a couple of options for India if it wants to be capable enough to counter belligerent neighbors, China and Pakistan.

The Turkish aerospace industry has recently soared to new heights with the historic first flight of its homegrown stealth fighter jet, KAAN.

This momentous achievement has sent ripples of admiration across the globe as Turkey solidifies its position as a force to be reckoned with in cutting-edge military technology.

Amid the worldwide acclaim, a buzz of intrigue has emerged from India. With eyes fixed on Turkey’s triumph, several Indian internet users have begun to ponder the progress of the nation’s ambitious endeavor: the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project.

Designed to craft India’s stealth fighter, the AMCA program now faces heightened scrutiny from Indian netizens. The scrutiny and questioning directed towards the AMCA project are warranted.

This stems from the fact that though the project commenced over a decade ago, its sluggish progress is significantly impeding the overall development timeline.

The design phase of the aircraft has already been finalized, and in April 2023, the Defence Research and Development Organization (DRDO) approached the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to secure funds.

The initial projected cost for development stands at approximately Rs 15,000 crore. However, the delay in securing the necessary funds is emerging as a major hindrance, slowing down the overall pace of the project.

According to DRDO Chief Dr. Samir V Kamat, the first AMCA prototype is anticipated to roll out seven years after receiving CCS sanction, with potential induction by the Indian Air Force (IAF) occurring approximately ten years later. As a result, the IAF is likely to commence the induction of the AMCA around 2035.

Meanwhile, during a recent interview with IndiaToday, former Indian Air Force Chief Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria hinted that the inaugural flight of the AMCA could potentially occur within four and a half years, with the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) possibly taking a decade to achieve.

These timelines mark a substantial deviation from the earlier projections made in 2022 by the DRDO. Back then, it was suggested that upon project approval, the prototype could be completed within three years, with the first flight expected within one to one-and-a-half years thereafter.

At that point, these timelines indicated the potential for the first flight of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to occur in 2025-26. However, it appears that meeting those earlier projections is now unfeasible.

These delays also spark worries that the AMCA project may encounter a destiny reminiscent of the Tejas project.

The Tejas, sanctioned in 1983 to replace the Soviet-origin MiG-21 fleet, experienced significant delays, with the first delivery to the Air Force not happening until 2015.

Adversaries Focusing On Stealth Aircraft 

As India grapples with the challenges of developing a fifth-generation fighter jet, its two primary adversaries, China and Pakistan, are bolstering their air force arsenals.

China is already believed to have a fleet of approximately 200 J-20 fifth-generation fighter jets in operation. Meanwhile, Pakistan has disclosed intentions to acquire the Shenyang FC-31/J-31 fighter.

Pakistan, however, has not provided any specifics regarding the quantity of jets to be acquired or the delivery timetable. Experts believe it could be as high as 100 or similar to the Indian acquisition of Rafale fighters (IAF acquired 36 French Jets).

This development has ignited profound concerns within India’s defense circles, particularly amidst the nation’s persistent struggle to counterbalance the precipitous decline in squadron strength. With the current squadron count languishing at a mere 32, it stands in stark contrast to the desired threshold of 42.

In 2016, the then-vice Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Marshal BS Dhanoa, started a debate by stating that the IAF lacked a “sufficient” number of fighter aircraft to effectively safeguard both the western and northeastern borders simultaneously.

Two J-20 stealth fighter jets attached to an aviation brigade of the PLA Air Force take off for a flight training exercise in early February of 2024. ( by Liu Weipeng)
Two J-20 stealth fighter jets attached to an aviation brigade of the PLA Air Force take off for a flight training exercise in early February of 2024. (

Experts pointed out that with around 15 current fighter squadrons scheduled for retirement by the mid-2030s, the optimistic scenario of introducing new aircraft would only elevate fighter squadron figures by seven, totaling 39 squadrons.

The disparity underscores a pressing urgency for India to bolster its aerial capabilities, especially in the face of neighboring adversaries bolstering their air force arsenals with cutting-edge fifth-generation fighter jets.

Conversely, with the rapid pace of modernization observed within the Chinese Air Force, projections indicate that it is on track to deploy upwards of 500 J-20 stealth fighter jets by 2025-2026.

While Pakistan, amidst its economic challenges, has refrained from disclosing the number of Chinese fifth-generation fighter jets it plans to procure, its alleged participation in the Turkish stealth fighter development project also hints at the prospect of acquiring at least a limited number of KAAN fighter aircraft.

Options Available for India? 

Considering the grave implications, the potential scenario of an adversary amassing a large fleet of stealth aircraft near India’s borders emerges as a formidable challenge for the Indian Armed Forces.

Such a development poses multifaceted threats, including heightened strategic vulnerabilities and diminished operational flexibility.

In light of this pressing concern, until the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) can be mass-produced, New Delhi may find itself compelled to pursue alternative avenues to bridge the critical gaps in its aerial capabilities.

As far as fifth-generation fighter jets go, the available choices are limited. To date, only Russia, the USA, and China have successfully developed and deployed such advanced aircraft.

India’s options for acquiring a stealth aircraft are essentially limited to the United States or Russia. However, both choices come with their own set of challenges and concerns.

Experts suggest that India’s possession of the S-400 air defense system effectively removes the F-35 from consideration. This stance is exemplified by the case of Turkey, where Ankara’s acquisition of the S-400 led to its expulsion from the F-35 program by the United States.

Will the US make an exception for India cannot be predicted!

Additionally, the acquisition of such aircraft would not only be expensive but would also require the development of a vast support infrastructure, making it financially impractical for the procurement of only a few planes.

This situation effectively narrows down the options for acquiring stealth aircraft solely from Russia. At present, Moscow possesses a fleet of Su-57 fighter jets, albeit in limited quantities.

However, Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired), in his piece for EurAsian Times, pointed out that India was involved in the FGFA program for a considerable period and possesses a clear understanding of the technology and the distribution of work, which currently isn’t advantageous.

There is yet another potential option from Russia: the Checkmate Su-75 stealth aircraft. Moscow has been proposing that India participate in the Su-75 program.

The Su-57 project, however, is currently in a state of uncertainty, and amidst the ongoing conflict with Ukraine, financial support for the project is lacking, placing it in a similar stage of development as India’s own AMCA.

Chopra concluded that considering the options, it would be wiser to lean towards the already-acquired Rafale aircraft.

It is high time that the Indian government accelerates the pace of development for the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) in the broader scheme of strategic initiatives.

This sentiment was recently echoed by former Indian Air Force Chief Rakesh Kumar Singh Bhadauria, who advocated a concerted national effort to elevate the project’s significance. He stressed the importance of collaborative efforts from all agencies to ensure the project’s successful completion.