Once Leading China/Pak JF-17 Program, India Must Get It’s Fighter Aircraft Production Right To Zoom Ahead

OPED By Air Marshal Anil Chopra

India is fast heading to become the third-largest economy in the world. It must become a more significant military power to secure its rightful place on the global high table. This will require indigenous defense production.

While the government is pushing ‘Atmanirbharta’ (self-reliance) through policies and directives in earnest, aggressive physical actions are required to achieve early results. Aviation technologies are the most complex. And are the leading edge of all research and development globally. They also see premature obsolescence.

Aircraft building is multifaceted, requiring huge investments in task force approach and the highest level of monitoring. Let us look at where we are and where we are heading.

HF-24 Great Design Unfulfilled Potential

The Hindustan Aeronautic Limited (HAL) HF-24 ‘Marut’ was designed by Kurt Tank, a German designer hired by HAL in the 1960s.

It was the first Indian-developed jet fighter aircraft and the first Asian jet fighter (outside the Soviet Union) to get into active service. It had an excellent airframe, perhaps ahead of its time.

The domestically designed and produce aero-engines to meet the air staff requirement of Mach 1.4 to 1.5 could not come up. Finally, the maiden flight was on June 24 1961, powered by two Bristol Siddeley Orpheus 703 turbojets that also powered the Folland Gnat. The first production aircraft was delivered to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in April 1967.

Finally, 147 aircraft, including 18 two-seat, were produced. It was planned to be a supersonic aircraft, but it never exceeded Mach 1 because India failed to manage appropriate engines.

The Marut had excellent low-level flying characteristics, but low thrust resulted in losing speed when it turned. The aircraft had substantial participation in the 1971 war.

After India conducted its first nuclear tests in 1974, international pressure further put spokes in getting better engines, making it difficult even to get spares for the Orpheus engines.

The aircraft was phased out in the late 1980s. Some aircraft had less than 100 recorded flight hours when the Marut retired. The plane did have a reasonably good flight safety record.

Alternative engines from the Soviet Union, Egypt, and other European countries could not go through. The Gas Turbine Research Establishment’s (GTRE) own program to improve the Orpheus without external aid proved incompatible with the Marut. The lack of clear government direction and backing was also sighted as a reason.

HAL also could not reverse engineer or apply technologies from other projects. India’s limitation in allocating considerable resources also resulted in a lost opportunity. By the time the Marut entered mass production, the IAF had already purchased foreign-built fighters such as the Hawker Hunter and Sukhoi Su-7.

HAL hereafter proceeded to produce larger quantities of both European and Soviet combat aircraft under license and then mostly became a license production house till the LCA and ALH programs changed the culture. India failed the Marut as a nation.

LCA Program Slow And Steady

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ is the Indian single-engine, light multi-role fighter designed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and later jointly with the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

The “Long Term Re-Equipment Plan 1981” envisaged that the MiG-21s were approaching the end of service life and needed replacement by 1995. In 1984, the Government of India established Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) to manage the LCA program.

The government’s “self-reliance” goals for the LCA included the Fly-by-wire (FBW) flight control system, multi-mode pulse-doppler radar, and after-burning turbofan engine.

The project definition phase commenced in October 1986. Consultancy support was initially taken from France’s Dassault and America’s Lockheed Martin. However, the US placed an embargo in response to India’s nuclear tests in 1998.

India finally developed control laws on its own. All this added to the delays. Similarly, India sought help from outsiders (Ericsson/Ferranti) for the multi-mode radar (MMR). But later decided to develop an indigenous one.

By 2005, only two radar modes tested were suboptimal. An “off-the-shelf” Israeli Elta EL/M-2032 radar was chosen as an interim option. Now the LCA is being fitted with the indigenous ‘Uttam’ radar.

The Technology Demonstrator made its first flight on January 4, 2001. The first prototype aircraft, PV-1, made its maiden flight in 2003. The first Limited Series Production aircraft (LSP-1) performed its maiden flight in April 2007. The first trainer prototype PV-5 made its first flight in November 2009.

The aircraft achieved initial operational clearance (IOC) in 2011. To ease up the process of FOC, an interim IOC-II was issued to Tejas in December 2013. The IOC-II expanded the g-limit and angle of attack and allowed the aircraft to carry precision-guided munitions and close combat missiles. IOC-II configuration became operational in 2016.

The final operational clearance (FOC) came in 2019. The first Tejas squadron was formed in January 2015 and operational in 2016. The second Squadron was equipped in April 2020.

The Indian Air Force Tejas performs at the opening ceremony of the Singapore Air Show on February 15, 2022.

Currently, there are three the Mk 1, Mk 1A, and a trainer version. The IAF has ordered 32 Mk 1, 73 Mark 1As, and 18 Mark 1 trainer aircraft. Today, around 34 aircraft are with IAF. Eventually, the IAF plans to procure a total of 324 aircraft in all variants, including the Tejas Mk 2, which is currently under development.

The Tejas Mark 2 is expected to be ready for series production by 2026. As of 2022, indigenous content in the Mk1 is 59.7% by value and 75.5% by number of line replaceable units. The indigenous content of the Tejas Mk 1A is expected to be 50% and rise to 60% by the end of the program.

The Mk1 shortcoming that government-appointed committees listed is being addressed in the upcoming Tejas Mk 1A. The MK1A will also have AESA radar, a self-protection jammer, updated avionics, and electronic warfare capabilities, among other improvements.

The Mk 1A made its first flight in May 2022. And is expected to begin production in 2023–24. It will use the Elta EL/M-2052 AESA Radar and later Uttam AESA Radar, Elbit DASH IV Helmet, a pod-based forward-looking infrared (FLIR), and the Rafael Litening 4I targeting/reconnaissance pod.

The Tejas Mark 1A will also carry a pod-mounted Elta ELL-8222WB self-protection jammer. The ejection seat will be Martin-Baker 16LG. Though there will be many indigenous systems, including the new unified EW system being developed by DARE, the foreign content reduction will take a long.

The Mk1A will have a reduced turnaround time. Delivery to IAF is meant to start in March 2024. The order of 73 aircraft for IAF is planned to be completed by 2029.

There are two production lines in Bangalore. A third production line of 8 aircraft is being set up to speed up delivery at HAL Nashik, taking annual production to 24 aircraft. While some countries have shown interest, sales abroad have not seen success.

The same may happen when the production rate picks up. Meanwhile, HAL is working on Combat Air Teaming System (CATS), CATS MAX, with a twin seater Tejas Mark 1A to act as the mother-ship.

LCA Tejas

HAL Tejas Mk2 will be a larger and heavier aircraft with a more powerful General Electric F414 INS6 engine, canards, and other design changes. It will ultimately replace the Jaguar, Mirage 2000, and MiG-29 aircraft. It will have more hard points and carry more load. HAL had been working on a naval variant of Mk1.

In January 2020, the naval prototype NP-2 successfully carried out its first arrested landing and ski-jump-assisted take-off from the aircraft carrier INS Vikramaditya. But as Indian Navy wanted a twin-engine aircraft, a twin-engine variant (TEDBF) is evolving. The indigenization content of LCA needs to go up further.

AMCA Is Still Very Far

The ADA-HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is India’s single-seat, 25-ton, fifth-generation stealth, multi-role combat aircraft. The development cost is estimated to be around ₹15,000 crore (US$2 billion). DRDO completed the design of AMCA and the “Critical Design Review” in April 2023.

It is meant to replace the Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighter and become the backbone of the IAF fighter fleet. The program was launched in 2010 with a feasibility study. The Project Definition and Preliminary Design phase began in 2013.

In 2015, the basic design configuration was finalized and accepted by IAF in 2016. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CSS) approval process began in April 2023.

File Image” AMCA Model

HAL and ADA feel that after sanction, the prototype can be rolled out in three years and the first flight in one to one and half years after that. There will be two variants.

AMCA-1 will be less stealthy, and AMCA-2 will meet all fifth-generation technology requirements. IAF plan to procure at least 125 aircraft. The numbers will go up later to around 200, if not more.

AMCA will also have some sixth-generation characteristics, be optionally crewed, have directed energy weapons, and MUM-T. AMCA will use 38–40% composites. AMCA-1 will use the General Electric F414 engine.

The engine for AMCA-2 is still to be finalized. Most analysts feel realistic timelines could be 2028 for the first flight and 2035-38 for induction.

Interestingly, Lockheed Martin’s technology demonstrator X-35A first flew in October 2000. The F-35 prototype aircraft first flew in 2006. The F-35 variants service entry began in July 2015.

As of June 2023, nearly 950 have been built. The timelines and numbers clearly show that the US has money, technology, and wherewithal.

Sino-Pak JF-17 Thunder

JF-17 Thunder is a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft designed by China for Pakistan and co-produced. Powered initially by the Russian Klimov RD-93 and later by the Chinese WS-13 engine, the aircraft is the new workhorse of the PAF. The Block II variant is claimed to cost $25 million.

China was already working on aircraft design for itself since 1985. After the US imposed sanctions on Pakistan going nuclear, in June 1999, Pakistan signed the joint development contract. Prototype production began in 2002.

The maiden flight was made in August 2003, after India’s LCA. The first Pakistan-built small-batch production (SBP) flew in March 2007. They planned to produce 12 aircraft in 2010 and 15-16 in 2011. The JF-17 was inducted into the PAF in February 2010.

A JF-17 Thunder Of Pakistani Air Force

Block II variant had air-to-air refueling capability, improved avionics, enhanced load-carrying capacity, data link, and electronic warfare capabilities. Block III got AESA radar, a helmet-mounted display (HMD), infrared search and tracking (IRST) system.

And a single, large-area display. 58% of the airframe is built in Pakistan and 42% in China. Fifty Block III are on order.

Pakistan has received 150 aircraft, seven from Myanmar and three from Nigeria. Iraq reportedly ordered 12 JF-17C Block III in a $1.8 billion deal. The aircraft may not be as cheap as one thought. In November 2022, it was reported that most of the JF-17 acquired by Myanmar had been grounded due to structural cracks and other technical issues. Quality has often been an issue for Chinese products.

Way Ahead For India

For India to become a global power, it must master aircraft-building technologies. For a long India has gotten into the culture of license building.

The MiG series; Jaguar; HS-748; CASA C295 transport aircraft; AH-64 Apache helicopter fuselage; aero-structures for Boeing’s CH-47 Chinook helicopters; and C-130J; the S-92 helicopter cabins; the CFM International LEAP engine components; the F-16 wings, are all license production jobs with production drawings given by the OEM. So is likely to be the case with the GE 414 engine.

The only way forward is to invest in R&D and build our own intellectual property. The US and China have been pumping huge sums into defense R&D. They both have much larger defense budgets. As the economy grows, India’s defense spend is going up. GE 414 may not bring technologies for India to become independent on the engine.

A separate indigenous engine program may still be required. India must do more on electronic warfare systems, stealth technology, and hypersonic platforms and weapons. The academia and private sector needs to be involved more.

Some technologies may have to be bought out, even at a cost. Some may be jointly evolved with friendly partners.

It has to be a whole national approach. The US has the money and a vibrant private sector. China and Pakistan have faster decision-making cycles. Unrealistic capabilities and over-ambitious timelines by Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and DPSUs often result in delayed procurements and impact the operational preparedness of the nation.

The minutes of every project review meeting since the beginning of the LCA program are recorded. The delays, reasons, and the qualification requirement concessions made are also documented. The blame game against the decision-makers in the government, service HQs, and the manufacturer has to be stopped.

Everyone is keen on atmanirbharta. Indigenization content can go up only when numbers increase. Task forces have to be created for key technologies, and projects monitored at the apex level, as is being done for highways and railways. India should have known much earlier about the no-go stage of the Kaveri engine.

Lastly, LCA production numbers have to increase. Prediction planning is a joint exercise between the user, producer, and financer. The time to act is now, lest India gets left behind further.

  • Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retired) is an Indian Air Force veteran fighter test pilot and is currently the Director-General of the Center for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. He has been decorated with gallantry and distinguished service medals while serving in the IAF for 40 years. He tweets @Chopsyturvey 
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