Lost Opportunity

5th generation fighters to enter operational service in the next few years

Atul Chandra

In the next two years, two 5th generation combat aircraft types in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) and Sukhoi T-50 would have entered service. The entrance of the JSF into operational service will mark a paradigm shift in modern air combat. The JSF is the true successor to the F-16, however, the two could not have been more different.

Indian hopes of participating in the co-development and co-production in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) have not fructified
Indian hopes of participating in the co-development and co-production in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) have not fructified

The F-16 was originally conceived as a less complex but capable fighter aircraft that could be procured in more numbers than the F-15. The JSF, on the other hand, will be the most sophisticated fighter aircraft to enter service with NATO and US allied forces, since F-22 production was closed without the air dominance fighter being made available for export. The Russian PAK FA or Sukhoi T-50 is also expected to enter service in the next couple of years. Other 5th generation combat aircraft types under development will likely enter service only towards the end of the next decade.

Indian hopes of participating in the co-development and co-production of what is termed here as the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) have not fructified and must be seen as a massive lost opportunity. It is more than likely though that the technology that is to be made available to India as part of monies it has paid, could be put to good use in the development of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is being handled by the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Rather than trying to reinvent the wheel with the AMCA, it could be made as a copy of the Sukhoi T-50 with a number of India specific changes, especially related to improving inter-operability with western combat types such as the Rafale and the Mirage 2000 and the ability to also carry the same weapons.

New generation weapon systems from the West may be expensive, but are combat proven and would confer substantially increased capability on the FGFA and AMCA. An example being integration of missiles such as the Meteor or long range precision strike weapons like Storm Shadow. The cost of development of a 5th generation fighter could prove a heavy burden for India as there seems to be little understanding of the magnitude of costs and the scale of work that needs to be done to deliver a mature 5th generation combat platform to the armed forces.

One only needs to look at programmes like the F-22, JSF and T-50 and the fact that the countries developing them have unmatched expertise in fighter aircraft development and the industrial wherewithal to manufacture them. This is a stark contrast to the rather isolationist approach that India takes with the development of its combat platforms and the fact that there will be no exports to amortise the enormous development costs.

It is instructive to study the progress of the F-35 programme over the years, even though there has been a large amount of criticism for the programme, there is no doubt that over the next few years, the majority of any unresolved issues would be fixed. The Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightening II is now approaching a major milestone that will see it achieve Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) with the US Marine Corps (USMC) before the end of the year. This will be followed by the IOC for the US Air Force (USAF) in 2016.

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