IAF's Dassault Rafale
IAF's Dassault Rafale

Generation Gap: As US, Russia And China Race For 6th-Generation Fighter Jet, Will India Miss The Bus Again?

India is in a precarious spot as its hostile neighbour China continues to build sixth-generation airpower at full steam  

For the uninitiated, Tom Cruise-starrer Top Gun: Maverick provided a sneak peek into the world of fighter aircraft and aerial combat. In the 2022 sequel to the popular 1986 film Top Gun, Cruise pointedly tells his US Navy (USN) teammates about the advantage that the enemy state had over them with its advanced fifth-generation fighter jets during a special mission that they were set to embark upon with their slightly inferior jets. 

While this nameless “rogue” state using a fleet of the fifth-generation jet had been a worry for Cruise and the USN in the film, the US is more concerned about its real-world rival China going a step ahead and developing a sixth-generation fighter jet.    

Last month, The Eurasian Times quoted US Air Combat Command General Mark Kelly saying that China was not having a debate over the relevance of sixth-generation air dominance and that the communist country was “on track” to develop the advanced aircraft. The US Air Force needs to “make sure we get to six-gen air dominance at least a month before our competitors,” the publication had quoted Kelly as saying. 

The sixth-generation jet that Kelly was talking about will go beyond the qualities of its predecessor: advanced stealth, artificial intelligence, automated take-off and landing, automated missions and auto air-to-air refuelling, low-probability-of-intercept radar, agile airframes with supercruise, advanced avionics, net-centric computer capabilities, super manoeuvrability, among others. Currently, some of the fifth-generation aircrafts are the US’ Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightning II, Russia’s Sukhoi Su-57—also the one used by the bad guys in the Tom Cruise film—and China’s Chengdu J-20. 

As the two influential nations and even other developed countries try to one-up one another by being the first one to cross the technologically advanced sixth-generation finish line, India stands at a distance, waiting for its turn, almost struggling to keep up as it is yet to add a fifth-generation jet to its fleet. That also places India in a precarious spot as its hostile neighbour China continues to build airpower at full steam.   

Where India Stands

India has various kinds of fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft manufactured in various countries. The country operates the indigenous Tejas Mark 1, Mirage-2000, Dassault Rafale, SEPECAT Jaguar, Mikoyan-Gurevich MiG-29 and Sukhoi Su-30 MKI.

Currently, India has 30 Tejas Mark 1s (multirole), 51 Mirage-2000s (multirole), 36 Dassault Rafales (omnirole), 98 SEPECAT Jaguars (ground attack) and around 50 Mikoyan MiG-29s (air-superiority). While the Mirage and Jaguar are fourth-generation jets, the MiG-29 and Su-30MKI are slightly higher at  4+ generation. The Tejas and Rafale are the most advanced, both being 4.5-generation jets. The production of a fifth- and sixth-generation platform is underway. 

IAF conducting an Elephant Walk IAF

Russian Su-30MKI is India’s most popular fighter jet and serves as the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF) which operates around 270 of them. The IAF inducted its first set of Sukhoi Su-30Ks—eight aircraft out of two squadrons (40 aircraft)—into Lohegaon Air Force Base’s 24 Squadron in June 1997 with the rest of the 32 streaming in later. Angad Singh, a military aviation analyst, says, “These 40 Su-30Ks were returned to Irkut Corporation (the Russian manufacturer of the aircraft) when an equal number of Su-30MKIs were inducted in 2002.” The induction of these Su-30MKIs significantly enhanced the IAF’s strategic capabilities.

 While India is progressing, it still seems to be far off as compared to China and the US. China has an unknown number of Chengdu J-7s (fighters) and Shenyang J-8s (interceptors) operational as of July 2019. It had 270 J10As (multirole fighters) as of March 2015 and an unknown number of Chengdu J-10Bs (multirole fighters) and over 200 Shenyang J-11s (air-superiority fighters) as of March 2022. In addition to that, the country has 170-plus Shenyang J-16s (multirole strike fighters) as of 2021, 150 Chengdu J-20s (air-superiority fighters) as of 2021, 150 Sukhoi Su-27s (air-superiority fighters) as of 2013, an unknown number of Sukhoi Su-30s (multirole strike fighters) and 122 Sukhoi Su-35s (air-superiority fighters) as of December 2018. The J-7s and J-8s are third-generation; the J-10s, J-11s and J-16s are fourth-generation, while the J-20 is China’s sole fifth-generation jet.

As of April 2022, the US has 450 Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning IIs (stealth multirole fighters) and 123 Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptors (air-superiority) as of May 2020. It had 281 Fairchild Republic A-10C Thunderbolt IIs (close-air support/attack) as of May 2022, nearly 500 F-15 Eagles (strike/air-superiority/multirole) and almost 900 F-16s. The F-15s and F-16s are four-4.5 generation while the F-22 and the F-35 are fifth-generation jets.

Where India Is Falling Short

There are three pathways through which a nation’s defence sector can advance—implementing indigenous national-level research and development (R&D) programmes, collaborating with a foreign partner to develop the requisite technology and purchasing foreign technology. It can be done by either one of these or a combination of them all. 

India’s strategic choices can be broadly separated into three stages. In the initial stages of India’s defence technological and acquisition history, the country was only importing weapons platforms as it lacked the technical know-how to design and develop them. As it enhanced its expertise, India began partnering with foreign states to jointly develop and produce weapons platforms. It is only in the past decade, thanks to the Make in India scheme, that India has focused on developing indigenous technological research and development (R&D).

While the country has made significant progress in developing and implementing new defence technologies and platforms, the Centre has always had a poor track record when it comes to defence R&D and production.

Even though the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Technology Demonstrator-1 (TD-1) programme—which came to be known as the LCA Tejas Mark (Mk) 1—commenced in 1984, the government had spent $6.96 billion on defence that year—3.42 per cent of the gross domestic product—2.5 per cent of which was spent on defence research and development. In 2020, the Ministry of Defence’s expenditure was $73 billion or 2.9 per cent of its GDP, which was a decline from 3.42 per cent in 1984. 

Tejas was jointly developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) as a multirole, single-engine, single-seater, supersonic light combat aircraft. Today, there are 30 operational airframes but the programme has been heavily criticised for its delays as it was to replace the Russian MiG-21s in 2000.

India has also faced significant challenges while purchasing foreign military equipment. This was especially true when the US heavily sanctioned the country following its second set of nuclear tests in 1998. The American sanctions severely impacted the Tejas programme. This was because the project’s entire production timeline was disrupted as a large majority of its components were produced in the US. The first squadron of the Tejas Mark 1 variant was raised only on July 1, 2016.

The 4.5-gen. LCA Tejas displaying its maneuvering capabilities IAF

A key reason for the delay was India’s inability to develop Tejas’ engine in-house by 1994. The IAF finally selected American company General Electric’s FN404 engine, which is the Tejas’ current engine.

In his book Radiance in Indian Skies: The Tejas Saga, its project director, retired Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar had written that the project’s holdups had to do with its conception, hinting at an underprepared technological infrastructure before the project was planned. He went on to write that both India’s Tejas and Europe’s Eurofighter programmes received final operational clearance 15 years later.

The Tejas project has also been criticised for its burgeoning costs. The Cabinet Committee on Security approved the Tejas Mk2 programme at a total cost of around Rs 9,000 crore. 

VR Chaudhary, Chief of the Air Staff, stated at a conference that all MiG-21s will retire by 2025, the SEPECAT Jaguars by 2032-33 and three upgraded squadrons each of the Mirage-2000s and Mig-29s will be retired  by 2033. The Tejas is expected to replace all these jets but will only fly 2028 onwards.

What Is In Store

India is currently developing a number of aerial systems which are in various stages of development and progress. In this journey, state-owned HAL has played a major role. Today, it designs and produces various fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft, power plants, avionics, systems and accessories. It is also developing future products in aviation and aerospace.

HAL and the ADA are co-developing the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) which will be the world’s first and only 5.5 generation aircraft. The AMCA, which the manufacturers started developing on March 9 this year, will be a single-seater, twin-engine stealth all-weather multirole fighter with an indigenous active electronically scanned array radar and supercruise capability. Weighing 25 tonnes, it will have internal weapons bays, an internal payload of 1,500 kg, an external payload of 5,500 kg and an internal fuel capacity of 6,500 kg. 

Other programmes like the twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF), the LCA Naval (LCAN) and the Omni Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA); the Stealth Wing Flying Testbed (SWiFT) and the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) Warrior are also in the works. The SWiFT and the CATS are sixth-generation systems.

The TEDBF programme has two fighter jet versions of the Tejas Mk2. It will have improved visibility features and a reinforced undercarriage to cope with greater stress on its airframe. Its foreign alternatives are the existing MiG-29K Fulcrum, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Rafale-Marine.

The SWiFT is an autonomous unmanned research aircraft and will influence the AMCA as their stealth features will overlap. It had its first flight on July 1, 2022, albeit as a scaled-down protype.  The 13-foot-long aircraft has a wingspan of over 16 feet, weighing around 1,000 kg and will be India’s technology-demonstrator for the unmanned combat aerial vehicle programme Ghatak. 

The final version will likely launch missiles and precision-guided munitions, and there is potentially a deck iteration design for the Indian Navy. SWiFT will be similar to foreign flying wing drones already in service like the US’ RQ-170 Sentinel, Russia’s Sukhoi S-70 Okhotnik-B and China’s Hongdu GJ-11. Once operational, it is likely to become an unmanned stealth bomber for long-range deep-penetration missions in denied airspace. 

The CATS programme, as per Arup Chatterjee, Director Engineering and R&D, HAL, will have pilots operating unmanned jets and drones. The fighter jets will serve as a mother ship from which armed drones will operate. This platform will be able to stealthily enter 700 km into enemy territory for strikes. Integration of the CATS with Tejas and Jaguar is being explored. If and when that is achieved, the CATS Warriors will become the Tejas and Jaguar’s loyal wingmen. 

Tejas Mk2’s first flight is expected in 2023 and the delivery of the AMCA will be 2030 onwards. The LCAN will likely be ready before 2030-32 and the ORCA after that. SWiFT’s full-scale prototype will have its first test flight in 2024-25 and the CATS is scheduled to fly for the first time in 2024. The critical question is: will the timelines be followed or will there be a repeat of what happened with Tejas?

Today, India is being able to implement projects because it has developed indigenous defence manufacturing and research capabilities. Having said that, it still has a long way to go if it intends to compete with the likes of the US, China and Russia.  

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