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BW Businessworld

IAF Chief Calls For Foreign Collaborations On Futuristic Fighter Jet Programme

In an exclusive interview to BW Businessworld’s Vishal Thapar, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari flags scepticism over AMCA and LCA Mk-2 deadlines and seeks “prudent back-up development plan”

Photo Credit : IAF

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Chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari

Chief of the Indian Air Force (IAF) Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari has called for foreign collaborations for development of niche technologies for the indigenous AMCA Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft programme as a hedge against timeline slippages. 

“Considering the timelines and niche technologies being looked at for AMCA, it would be prudent to have a back-up development/realisation plan in place to ensure availability of alternative systems and sensors in case indigenous plans fail to mature as per planned timelines,” Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari told BW Businessworld in an exclusive interview. 

The Chief of Air Staff made this statement in response to a question on whether the IAF wants scope for foreign collaborations in the AMCA programme in areas other than jet engine technology. 

While expressing full support for indigenisation programmes, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari flagged the IAF’s deep concern and scepticism over the ability of the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) of the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to deliver on key indigenous fighter aircraft programmes on time.

AMCA - the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft - programme is due for a key milestone, the completion of the critical design review (CDR) by the end of 2022. The AMCA project director AK Ghosh has been recently quoted stating that the first prototype of India’s futuristic fighter will roll out by end-2025 and the deadline for the first flight is 2026-27. 

The only significant foreign collaboration sought by the ADA is for the development of a 110 kN engine to power the futuristic fighter. The French Safran, British Rolls Royce and American General Electric are competing to offer collaboration backed by their respective Governments.

But now, the IAF Chief has advised “prudence” of foreign tie-ups as a back-up for development of “alternative systems and sensors” just in case the indigenous effort slips on deadlines. 

A Special Purpose Vehicle (SPV) led by ADA-HAL and also comprising private sector players has been envisaged for manufacturing AMCA once the development process is complete. 

Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari also emphasised that the AMCA programme is being led by the DRDO/ADA and that the IAF is rendering full support to the project, suggesting that the responsibility for delivering on time rests with the development agency and its production partners.

“AMCA programme is being led by DRDO/ ADA. IAF has a dedicated team at ADA Bangalore. Flight test crew at NFTC (National Flight Test Centre) are actively involved in the development activities. IAF is fully committed to the AMCA programme, for which an aggressive timeline has been set by DRDO,” he stated. The IAF is widely reported to have committed itself to acquiring a minimum of 140 AMCA fighters in the Mk-1 and 2 variants.

Having flagged the IAF’s scepticism on stated deadlines, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari stressed that there should be no doubt about the alignment of the Air Force to the Aatmanirbharta (self-reliance) agenda. “However, we would prefer key technologies to be indigenous to avoid any foreign dependence during the life cycle of the platform,” he told BW Businessworld.

The IAF’s fighter fleet modernisation plan hinges critically on the ability of the DRDO-ADA and the indigenous Defence Industrial Complex to deliver the AMCA and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Mk-2 in time. The promise so far has been to start the manufacturing process for both the fighters by about 2030. 

Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari expressed the same anxiety with respect to the LCA Mk-2. “LCA Mk-2 was initially planned to be rolled out in 2018. CCS (Cabinet Committee on Security) approval for the design and development of the aircraft has been granted recently.  Readiness for flight testing is envisaged by 2024 followed by induction from 2030-31.  This is an aggressive timeline and we hope that ADA and HAL will be able to meet it,” he stated. 

A big worry for the IAF is the countdown to the phase-out of the MiG, Jaguar and Mirage-2000 fleets by the mid-2030s and the need to not just replenish the retirements but also move closer to the required numbers. Against an approved squadron strength of 42 fighter squadrons, the IAF numbers stand at 31 squadrons at the moment.

The challenge for it is to ensure a fighter squadron strength of about 35 by 2035-36 in the face of the depletions on account of the retirements of the legacy aircraft amidst a decisive policy shift away from import of military equipment and reliance on indigenous design, development and manufacturing. Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari has repeatedly stressed that the requirement for 42 fighter squadrons is non-negotiable for ensuring preparedness for facing a two-front military challenge. 

The three residual MiG-21 Bison squadrons will be phased out by 2025. This will set the stage for the staggered retirement – or number plating - of the six ageing Jaguar squadrons, a process that is programmed to end by 2031-32. Thereafter, the MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 fleets will start getting phased out. 

Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari also listed the IAF’s expectations of the public sector HAL. “HAL should look at setting up a robust framework for support and sustenance of all its platforms.  This would require an increased engagement with MSMEs and other private enterprises to ensure a complete supply chain. We also hope that the LUH (Light Utility Helicopter) and IMRH (Indian Multi Role Helicopter) programmes will progress as per the defined timelines,” he stated.