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India's Fifth Generation Fighter Program: The progress so far

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New Delhi, Dec 15: There are two programs to develop an advanced fighter jet in which India is involved. One is in collaboration with Russia from which India decided to pull out earlier this year but later said it may join the programme at a later stage. The other is the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) program.

Representational Image

The AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) is being developed by an aerospace industry team which consist of Aeronautical Development Agency as a design firm and is to be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). AMCA would likely to be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-manoeuvrable all-weather multirole fighter aircraft.

AMCA should not be confused be with a separate FGFA programme which is a co-venture between the Russians and HAL.

In July this year, India conveyed to Russia its unwillingness to go ahead with the joint development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) primarily due to high cost involved in the project. India, however, said the negotiations between the two countries on the much ambitious project have not yet been shelved as India was ready to have a re-look at co-development of the jet if an appropriate cost-sharing formula between the two countries was arrived at.

[FGFA project: Russia to offer 'second stage' engine for Su-57 fighter]

India decided last year to go slow on the FGFA program that had been intended as a joint program between Russia's Sukhoi, HAL and production agencies on both sides. One grouse is that despite its low work share in the joint development project, India has to pay 50 per cent of the development cost. Another is that unless the Russians agree to substantial Transfer of Technology (ToT), the IAF will be perpetually dependent on it for components, spares and even minor modifications. And not only does the FGFA come at a high price, it will be expensive to maintain as well.

The AMCA 5th Generation Stealth Fighter Project:

AMCA would likely to be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth super-manoeuvrable all-weather multirole fighter aircraft.

AMCA is totally different since it will completely be made by India. But for it to become a reality, the development of Kaveri engine is crucial. DRDO will look to develop many of its 5th generation systems ingenuously, so tentatively it should be ready around 2025. Some say that project may also get delayed up to 2030.

[China's 5th generation fighter J-20 Chengdu: Where does it stand compared to Rafale?]

The main hurdle in developing a Fifth Generation fighter is the engine which should be able to deliver the performance needed for an advanced aircraft. India has long been working on Kaveri engine project and it was actually this engine that was supposed to be fitted in LCA Tejas. However, the Kaveri programme failed to satisfy the necessary technical requirements or keep up with its envisaged timelines and was officially delinked from the Tejas programme in September 2008.

Kaveri Engine and problems in its development:

The GTRE GTX-35VS Kaveri, is an afterburning turbofan project developed by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE), a lab under the DRDO in Bangalore. The Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) decided to wind up the Kaveri engine (GTX-35VS ) programme in November 2014 due to its shortcomings. The GTRE is now running two separate successor engine programmes, the K9+ programme and the K10 programme.

France has offered to help India revive the unsuccessful Kaveri engine project. An upgraded Kaveri engine with 90 kN thrust compared to the existing 72 kN can be developed with French cooperation which can eventually be used for Tejas which currently uses an American engine.

In theory the AMCA will be powered by a domestically manufactured Kaveri K9 or K10 engine, currently undergoing development by the Gas Turbine Research Establishment. But making powerful and reliable jet engines from scratch is hard.

Only after the Kaveri engines are ready, supposedly in 2019, can the serious work on the airframe really begin. Proposed upgraded Kaveri engine will be a 90kN thrust class engine which will be marginally more powerful than GE supplied F404-GE-IN20 engine which is currently generating 84kN thrust. Ideally for Kaveri engine should be able to deliver 95 Kn thrust.

Finally, the ADA and HAL will need to produce sufficiently powerful turbofan engines to meet performance specifications. This is further complicated by the need for an S-shaped air intake that will shield the reflective turbofan blades from showing up on the radar, as well as specially designed nozzles to reduce the heat signature of the engines from infrared sensors.

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