From Tejas to AMCA - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 6 July 2015

From Tejas to AMCA

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 7th July 15

This fortnight the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which is responsible for the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) project, will brief its new boss on a project that will shape the future of the Indian Air Force (IAF) --- the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), an indigenous “fifth-generation” (Gen-5) fighter more advanced than anything on the IAF’s inventory. After briefing Dr S Christopher, the new Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) chief who is also ex-officio director-general of ADA, the AMCA proposal will be taken to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has specifically asked for a briefing. After Mr Parrikar’s green light, the DRDO will seek $4 billion (currently Rs 25,000 crore, but this would fluctuate with the rupee) to design and develop the AMCA, build and test-fly prototypes, and give the IAF a Gen-5 fighter within 15 years.

Knowledgeable insiders say the AMCA will be a single-pilot, twin-engine, medium (20-25 tonnes) fighter with a highly stealthy design. This would be invaluable in the first days of a major war for targeting enemy war-waging infrastructure -- roads, railways, airfields, radars, headquarters and depots --- when conventional, non-stealthy fighters would be detected by the enemy’s air defence radars and shot down by fighters, missiles and guns. In such a “dense air defence environment”, stealth fighters would be able to degrade the enemy’s air defences, opening the window for our non-stealthy fighters, like the Sukhoi-30MKI, to strike with large loads of externally mounted ordnance and fuel. Stealth is central for a Gen-5 fighter, and is achieved by shaping aircraft surfaces to scatter radar waves, using radar absorbent materials and paints, and using internal fuel tanks, sensors, antennae and weapons carriage and ordnance.

Alongside stealth, a Gen-5 fighter incorporates super-cruise (flying supersonic without an afterburner); super-manoeuvrability (with thrust vectoring engines and an unstable design); advanced avionics architecture and sensors that enhance the pilot-vehicle interface (allowing a single pilot to fly and fight the aircraft); and extended target detection and engagement ranges. In an ideal combat engagement, a Gen-5 fighter would detect an enemy fighter and fire his long-range missile well before the adversary’s radar detects the stealth aircraft.

“Ho-hum! ADA can never do this”, the import lobbyists will say --- self-appointed patriots who see no irony in their advocacy of expensive foreign weaponry at the expense of Indian R&D and defence industry. Their critique of the Tejas is well worn. Arguing (fallaciously) that the DRDO has taken 33 years to deliver the Tejas, they will (incorrectly) extrapolate that the more complex AMCA will take even longer! Their persistent allegations about the Tejas’ performance shortfalls are now being exposed. As flight-testing expanded the Tejas’ flight envelope, it became evident the LCA far outperforms the MiG-21BISON, the most advanced of the fighters it was built to replace, as well as any Pakistani fighter except the latest F-16 Block 50/52. The upcoming Tejas Mark II --- with a more powerful engine, upgraded avionics and better air-to-air missile --- could be built cheaply, overwhelming even more sophisticated opponents with numbers. This would requires Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to galvanise its production line, but that is a management issue, not a delay-inducing technology challenge.

With the Tejas’ performance now demonstrated, critics have shifted their fire to delays in the project, a more credible complaint. Even so, it is false to date the start of the LCA project to 1983, as is commonly done; the project really began a decade later. In 1983, the LCA was allocated Rs 560 crore for “feasibility studies and project definition”, and for creating developmental infrastructure. Only in 1993 was development funding allocated (Rs 2,188 crore, including the Rs 560 crore allocated in 1983). This was for building two “technology demonstrators”, the first of which flew in 2001. Taking 1993 as the base year, the Tejas took just eight years to fly, and will have taken 23 years for “final operational certification” (FOC) which is anticipated by March 2016. This is comparable with international time lines for fighter aircraft development, including the Rafale and the F-35 Lightening II.

Encouragingly, the AMCA will enjoy an impetus the LCA never got, now that the IAF has thrown its weight and support behind the AMCA programme. While the IAF stood aloof from the LCA, participating only as a critic, it has joined hands with ADA in formulating the AMCA’s configuration, and is deputing pilots and engineers to work alongside ADA as it designs the fighter. It is unclear what is driving this dramatic change in the IAF’s approach to indigenization. It could be the realisation --- stemming from the Rafale fiasco --- that India simply cannot afford to import sizeable numbers of modern fighters. It could be the positive example of the navy, which has wisely steered the process of designing and building warships in India. Or, in an organisation that is shaped by the personality of the top man, it could just be that the current IAF chief favours indigenisation.

While the IAF will be praised if the AMCA meets its objectives, credit should really go to the unfairly vilified DRDO-HAL-ADA combine for leapfrogging three generations of technology in developing the fourth-generation Tejas fighter. In this process, the LCA project has catalysed an aerospace eco-structure, and a design experience that will be the essential springboard to the AMCA.

A range of fighter aircraft technologies is already mastered. These include: a sophisticated “unstable configuration” for extra agility; quadruplex digital flight control system; light composite materials for the aero-structures; glass cockpit with digital instrumentation; an environment control system with an on-board oxygen generating system (OBOGS); and advanced avionics that allow the pilot to switch quickly between air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. With much of these Gen-4 technologies currently being refined for the Tejas Mark II, the AMCA team can focus on the Gen-5 challenges.

In sum, the LCA project has created Indian design expertise, design tools and test facilities. It has allowed ADA to gain expertise in the processes of flight-testing and certification, and in prototype development. In designing, building and certifying the Tejas, ADA and the defence ministry have painstakingly woven together a countrywide network of technical and engineering institutions, laboratories and facilities. ADA calculates that 149 work centres in 28 cities have directly contributed to the LCA programme. These are now networked and available for the AMCA project. True, there are shortfalls, such as the fact that India has just one wind tunnel, essential for simulation studies in designing airframes and structures. Before the AMCA gets under way, ADA should holistically identify and make up such deficiencies as part of a national eco-system for future aerospace projects.

The IAF’s future lies in its own hands. At the recent Paris Air Show, the Pakistan Air Force displayed its new Sino-Pakistani fighter, the JF-17 Thunder. Countries like Myanmar and Sri Lanka were reportedly making purchase enquiries. While significantly inferior to the Tejas in technologies and performance, the JF-17 was better in one crucial respect --- it was steadfastly supported by its home air force. Perhaps the IAF could draw a lesson from that.


  1. On the contrary it is quite clear why probably some sense has been knocked into the powers that be at Vayu Bhawan, to support and go for a indigenous programme. There have been several recent write ups logically explaining that the IAF is proving to be very 'un-Indian' in character. If the IAF bosses can give up their brownie point scoring petty games with HAL etc. they could save crores to the country. On the AMCA the IAF should now show professional competence and vision in drawing up QRs. NO CHANGES at a later stage. It should not look like an amateur cut and paste job by some junior officer scouring the internet which keeps getting modified on the whims and fancies of every one who has the power to change it later!! Accommodating these ill conceived QR changes is hell for the design teams which is best avoided and the biggest contributor to time overruns.

  2. Self-appointed aviation experts who have driven tanks in their professional capacity should first check their basic math and hilarious declarations that the LCA was indigenously designed (Were you asleep when Pushpindar Singh was educating rookies like you on LCA's design history in the Stratpost-Vayu seminar?)

    1. ADA says we will deliver AMCA in 15 years. After coming up with all sorts of rationalizations, the article says 23 years is what it took for LCA's FOC. If we subtract 3 years for IOC to FOC (pushed back yet again) for LCA, the author would like you to believe that a more complex aircraft will be delivered in 15 as compared to say 20 years for LCA.

    2. Much is made of IAF backing the ADA this time. Is it on paper? Has the IAF formally created a Navy-like design bureau? Will the IAF appoint the program director for AMCA, who can be sacked if things go wrong? PR puff pieces masquerading as evidence of systemic change are good enough for this author since it helps his ideological standpoint.

    3. The author conveniently sidesteps the HAL issue. Is this a science project? Unless the HAL's problems of low rate of production and assuring quality of mass manufacturing on LCA is established we are supposed to trust them with a "stealth" jet no less. Design agencies don't deliver "weapon systems", Production agencies do.

    4. Who's providing the critical stealth technology, and the engines? The Americans, or the Russians? Try digging into the details on ToT issues there and then look at your timelines again.

    Using the laudable and necessary goal of developing Indigenous capability to tar critics who have real concerns about ADA throwing every principle of "crawl, walk, run" to the winds is the oldest trick in the book.

    The author like the House of Bourbon, has learnt nothing and forgotten nothing.

  3. Col. Shukla, this article should be text-book reading for anyone wanting to uproot deep misconceptions about the Tejas programme.

    Over the past decade, Times of India and Indian Express have, in their utterly misplaced zeal to "expose" DRDO, have heaped scorn on the Tejas and Arjun projects. This has led to misinformation being firmly entrenched in the public's minds.
    On top of it, given the exalted status the armed forces enjoy here, it was considered sacrilege to question the near-criminal decisions taken by IAF and Army (in castigating the Tejas and Arjun, and favouring imports).

    I'll add that the Tejas Mk.1 is no longer an "LCA". When IAF pilots themselves have acknowledged it to be the equivalent of MiG-27 and Mirage-2000s in almost all respects, the "LCA" tag is silly. In this light, the IAF must think of replacing its ENTIRE MiG fleet, right from MiG-21s, MiG-27s and MiG-29s with the Tejas Mk.1s. It should not be stuck to replacing MiG-21s alone.

    The Tejas Mk.2 approaches the F-16 Block 52 in specifications (minus the ability to carry nukes). Its already equivalent if not superior, to the Gripen-NG, which was incidentally an MMRCA contender. Thus, Tejas Mk.2 can be our MMRCA. Till it arrives, the stop-gap purchase of 30 Rafales was a right decision by the government.

    Finally, I have only praise for the dearness and pride that Pakistanis have for their JF-17. Never mind the fact that Chinese call it the FC-1 (Fighter China-1) with no hint of it being a "Joint" fighter. Never mind the fact that its a generation behind the Tejas Mk.1. and may already be dated. The fierce pride the Pakistani media and ordinary Pak enthusiasts have for the JF-17 is to be seen to be believed. So much so that even I feel somewhat good whenever it achieves something, even though its an enemy jet.So bereft are we of pride.

    In contrast, our former Air Chief, Shri. PV Naik comes on National TV with a frown on his face, and calls the Tejas a "disappointment". This, in addition the Indian media has vilified the Tejas to such an extent in the past 10 years, that its synonymous with "failure". The idiom, "With friends like these...." comes to mind.

    I have a theory: If the Nano were to have a Honda or Volkswagen before its name, it would have been lapped up by the Indian middle class -- never mind its "cheap" tag. "Hey, its cheap because it has some gee-whiz German engineering !" would've been the excuse. But because its from the House of TATAs, they conclude, that it surely must be using some cheap materials, and is really cheap.

    Its high time that the IAF also changed its hostile mindset towards the Tejas.

  4. Au contraire, Ajai Shukla, the reason why neighbouring countries are looking at the JF 17 and not at the Tejas has nothing to do with the IAF. The JF 17 is in production and in service, while for the LCA all we have is tareekh pe tareekh.
    Regarding the AMCA and it's potential success, DRDO/ADA/HAL need to drastically overhaul themselves and their structure to move to a professional model and not merely a source of freebies and junkets for all on board. Once they do that, there is no dearth of young and motivated talent within these organizations to deliver. But first, the leadership has to be purged en masse.

  5. The QR points are valid. The real issue is quality - no indian made kit performs as designed. There is no 'quality' in Indian kit. Materials, qc/qa, production, assembly are absolutely the worst. Maintenance is shoddy. Its ok when buying your crap tata maruti car or indian made electronics. Not so ok for military kit... it costs lives.. kind of reasoning. They are already putting up w probably the worst rifle in the world and crap ammunition, boots, protection etc. Do you want them to be guinea pigs and keep dying until your babu technocrats and military brass get their act together? Get your act together FIRST before spewing high falutin nonsense about saving x crores etc. You are not saving anything if the stuff doesnt work.

  6. NSR says ---

    Design the airframe with enough space for two big engines and some dead space filled with light weight materials and then use two GE F-414 INS6 to quickly build three (3) prototypes...

    Demonstrate the proof of concepts and develop sub-assemblies or use the upgraded sub-assemblies of LCA/Tejas to go with the AMCA...

    Scour the world to find willing collaborators for developing sub-assemblies...Since we will build a lot, many will be willing to cooperate...

    Do not not wait forever for things like, ceramic radome, refueling probe, AESA radar, engines, etc

    Once the concept is proven, many people will come forward to sell engine with complete TOT...

    Very sad state of affairs...

    Strap your boots and move on...

    Go Go Go ....

  7. the real issue is the UNCERTAINITY. Will anyone give a reasonable date by which it will be ready? If after 34/23/xx years we are still uncertain it raises doubts about higher direction.

    The other worry is that we are always just round the corner. Now it is Cobham. The open mind will obviously say "What next". If like Marx we say "who is not for us is against us" it is a truncated view likely to be inaccurate.
    No matter what we fudge in accounting this project is the longest running ever. What was the competence of an organization who promised a first flight on April 1990.

  8. Its quite interesting to know that the LCA is better than the JF-17. Could you tell us in which area's its better:

    Combat Range
    Weapons package
    Situational awareness
    Pilot friendly

  9. In everything except combat range but it has mid air refuelling capability. Do a google search. Most importantly what says a lot is that the chinese are not buying any jf17s. The next is avionics and radar. LCA way better. But the jf17 is inducted and lca nowhere close. Tests after tests for the lca ad nauseam. RCS lca way better. Weapons suite lca way better.404 way better than the rd copy engine. But to repeat .. Jf inducted and lca not.

  10. Sir
    Your articles are one sided as always
    let me tell you something...This is what we need before the MK2 even gets FOC
    "an all-new aircraft flight-test regime running into 2,000 hours for each of the two variants & involving no less than 6 flying prototypes for each variant (no one has to date even stated how many flying prototypes of each will be built) for the sake of calculating the airframe's agility metrics parameters with full weapons-load. This has so far not been achieved even by the Tejas Mk1/LCA (Navy) Mk1!!! All Tejas Mk1s are flying with subsonic drop-tanks & not a single supersonic drop-tank has even been built so far! "

    To be honest even the MK1 is not ready for names like MK1,MK2,AMCA does not cut it...we need prototypes
    I suggest you learn something about aeronautical engineering and design and testing practices before you misguide your reader with false information.

    Jai Hind

  11. Anonymous on 11 July at 9:05: You see, Tejas has been ready for combat since 2011 at least, when it demonstrated bomb drops -- dumb bombs and LGBs -- in various scenarios. It could've easily replaced the MiG-27 fighter bombers in the IAF, starting 2011. By now, 1 whole squadron could've been inducted.

    But IAF in all its Babudom, keeps sending DRDO on new errands each time the Tejas is close to a milestone or completion. The IAF very slyly changes the ASRs to send DRDO on another long chase. This time, IAF has asked for retractable refueling probes and a new radome, which to my knowledge were not present in the original ASRs. The ASRs were modified sometime in 2003-04. This, after the IAF on a whim, suddenly asked for a new wing-design of the Tejas, that had already delayed the progrmme by 2 years (there were hardly any flight-tests between Jan 2003 and Dec 2004 to accommodate these changes).

    Its high time you started critiquing the IAF too.

  12. "it became evident the LCA far outperforms the MiG-21BISON, the most advanced of the fighters it was built to replace, as well as any Pakistani fighter except the latest F-16 Block 50/52." Where is the evidence?

  13. Anonymous on 12 July at 01:05: The evidence that Tejas Mk.1 far outperforms the MiG-21 Bison is after the 2,500+ flight-tests from Rajasthan to Leh, under all scenarios and after firing LGBs and dumb bombs on a variety of targets.

    The JF-17 has already crashed once soon after being inducted in PAF service. It employs a last-generation FBW system in the pitch-axis only (per PAC Kamra's official website), as compared to the full quadruplex FBW in the Tejas. The former is less safe than the Tejas' system. Besides, its weapon systems are nothing to be written about, from what has come out of Xinhua and SinoDefence news/fora. Its KLJ radar did show promise 5 years ago, but its current progress is unknown.

  14. Abhimanji

    A little less Abhiman and jargon spouting about quadruplex FBW etc please and more attention to capabilities.

    You say that the LCA was ready in 2011 and also contend that it is superior to the Mig 21 BISON. The latter is BVR capable, please post images/video of LCA firing BVR missiles.

    Dropping LGBs and dumb bombs is important, but you don't need a radar for that. The Mig 27 does not have one. Since you clearly think it was a good Mig 27 replacement, look how "sly" the IAF was in asking for a radar. Let's remove the radar and save some money/weight.

    Getting back to the thrust of the article, the "nation wants to know" how an incompetent IAF and ADA will miraculously jump an entire generation of fighters like the Rafale/Eurofighter and directly deliver the AMCA, in 15 years no less.

    As the old English saying goes "Abhiman goes before a fall."

  15. I liked your article's last sentence - imported air force must draw lessons from JF17. Perhaps PAF is more patriotic than our imported air force which for pelf can screw the nation's security. This has been the case with last several ACMs - Tyagi and Browne were the absolute pits who were goaded from behind the scene by our chor babus and netas.

  16. @Anon 19:08

    As per your logic, to design a new car you always have to reinvent the wheel???? Haven't you heard Newton's "standing on the shoulders of giants"?
    Tejas is the crystallization of decades of work with the giants of the aerospace industry like Lockheed, Dassault, BAE and manufacturing some of the finest Russian fighters.
    The most difficult part is learning to crawl. It takes little effort to run once you've learnt how to walk. With TejasMKI and MKII we've learnt to crawl and walk, so it shouldn't take us much time to learn how to run i.e. AMCA.
    "Bure din aane wale hain" for imported arms lobbyists like you.

  17. Mr. Anonymous at 14 July, '15 at 19:08: Your argument is just like that Arjun vs. T-90 one, i.e. the T-90 is marginally better, simply because it can fire anti-tank missiles. Never mind its inferior armour, lower speed, lesser mobility and electronic systems that need air-conditioning in the desert (otherwise they go kaput).

    The Tejas beats the MiG-21s in ALL parameters, except top speed, and the difference here too isn't much. The argument that the former cannot fire BVR missiles and hence cannot be inducted, falls flat in the face of IAF's intent to induct its first squadron in Sulur in Tamil Nadu. Pray tell, whether the LTTE will resurrect itself that Tejas must need BVR capabilities at Sulur ?

    Radars and BVR missiles can easily be added in later tranches. The Tejas could've replaced MiG-27s starting from 2011 itself at frontline bases near China and Pakistan.

    The BVR ability is held up because the IAF demanded a new radome for the radar, that's stuck in British red-tape.

    ADA will deliver the AMCA in less than 15 years. After all, we jumped the 1st and 2nd generation to licence produce the 3rd generation. From there we directly jumped to 4+ generation under technology denials, sanctions and budget constraints. Going from 4+ gen to 5th gen is much easier. And we aren't that technologically constrained either now.

  18. Has the BJP Govt. given the go-ahead for AMCA? Have any funds been allocated in the budget presented yesterday?


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