In the 1994 movie ‘The Shawshank Redemption‘ banker Andy Dufresne (played by Tim Robbins) said: “Geology is the study of pressure and time. That’s all it takes really: pressure and time“. Chipping away with a small rock hammer for 19 years, Andy bore a tunnel through Shawshank penitentiary and made good his escape.
Cut to 2007. I was attending the international seminar that precedes India’s biennial air show Aero India. It was early days for the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) to be developed with Russian collaboration. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) at that time had no expertise in designing 5th-generation fighters, tilting the collaboration heavily in Russian favour. Yet, there was much excitement for a project that looked like the next big thing after the hotly-contested Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Somebody from the audience asked then Sukhoi General Director a pointed question: “What are your plans for India’s fifth generation fighter aircraft?”
The Russian technocrat paused for a few seconds, then gave a short, measured response: “I hope such plans are mutual”. A small round of applause followed.
Anybody who has dealt with Indian defence R&D projects, particularly in the aerospace domain, will realize that exuberance often runs aground on the reef of budget realities and a taciturn defence establishment. Projected costs of FGFA ballooned to over $10 billion for five aircraft, making it as attractive as Shawshank prison. Ten years and $295mn down, IAF managed to extricate its tail out of the program.
Two years later, in Aero India International Seminar 2009, then Director of Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) Mr. PS Subramanyam stated that they were working closely with IAF to develop a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA). The rest of the FGFA saga can be read on Wikipedia here. To cut a long story short, two-thirds of Andy Dufresne’s prison stay is over, still no FGFA.
AMCA – At a glance
Starting 2010, IAF had indicated key design drivers for the AMCA and drawn ADA into the loop. Today, a small geographically-dispersed but well-networked project team in ADA is giving shape to India’s own FGFA – the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Notable features that make the AMCA a 5th generation fighter are summarised below:
- 5th generation twin-engine multirole fighter with “some 6th-gen technologies” (as wished by ACM Bhadauria)
- Advanced stealth features through design and materials
- Aircraft with Artificial Intelligence (AI)
- Multi-sensor data fusion (MSDF) and 3D audio for enhanced situational awareness
- Advanced cockpit with large area display (LAD), touchscreen and 3D display for excellent user interface
- Quadruplex digital fly-by-wire control system with HOTAS-configured side stick controller and unified throttle
- Automated takeoff and landing (ATOL), automated missions and auto air-to-air refueling (Auto AAR)
- Voice-activated commands
- Imported F414-GE-INS6 engines with 98 kN dry thrust for first two squadrons; indigenous 110 kN engine for next five.
- Supersonic cruise on dry thrust (only with 110 kN engines)
- Internal carriage of precision weapons (for stealth & supercruise)
- Super-manoeuvrability through thrust-vectoring (unlikely in initial batch with 98 kN engine)
The AMCA is a DRDO project headed by its Bengaluru-based research wing Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA). A public-private partnership between DRDO, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and a private Indian company is expected to be formalised upon receipt of government sanction. The program will spawn a host of tier 2/3 suppliers and sub-vendors downstream. It is understood that sanction from Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is being pursued by DRDO. There was hope before the pandemic that DRDO will be able to get this approval by end-2020, opening the road for a big dollop of funding. Post CoViD-19, with economic downturn and the Indo-China face-off at Ladakh imposing additional costs on the defence budget, signing big cheques for a developmental project will not be easy for any government.
DRDO project with private industry participation
This article will skip technical dissection of the AMCA, many of which are available online, based on limited information in open domain. The project is closely guarded by DRDO; to an extent where even HAL is kept in the loop only on “need to know” basis. As of Oct 2020, Outstanding Scientist Dr AK Ghosh & his team of about two dozen scientists from ADA is steering the project from the leafy ADA campus at Bengaluru. A couple of IAF test pilots and flight test engineers from ADA’s National Flight Test Centre (NFTC) are involved in shaping the UI and an intense flight test programme (about 1700 sorties) to follow. Their energy level, enthusiasm and optimism about the AMCA is almost infectious. Many batons will be passed before the AMCA takes to the skies.
ADA’s NFTC and HAL’s Flight Operations share the same building. These walls have grown ‘thicker’ over the years. Interaction between IAF officers in NFTC and retired (HAL) test crew across this ‘wall’ remains a critical umbilical.
Contrary to popular perception, it is not “HAL AMCA”. As of now, only a few modules such as landing gear, AAR probe, some parts of the composite structure, etc. have been outsourced to HAL. Top HAL sources this author reached out to declined to comment on the AMCA as it is a “DRDO program”. My messages and mail to Project Director Dr AK Ghosh did not elicit any reply. There are unconfirmed reports that ADA may shift the AMCA project out of Bengaluru (to Sulur?). Whether this is for convenience or to maintain “social distancing” from HAL, we don’t know yet.
For a national project of this magnitude, with long-term implications for ‘atma nirbharta’ (self-reliance) in aerospace manufacturing, many technical, cultural and socio-economic challenges line up ahead. Even as we vest responsibility in surmounting technological challenges with ADA’s designers, some ‘soft’ issues merit attention:
The preliminary design of AMCA is understood to be ready as on date. ADA is reportedly targeting 2025 for first flight of the prototype. HAL hopes to commence production by 2028 (though there’s not much under their control right now). LCA Tejas that first flew in 2001 was inducted into service 15 years later. Tejas took 15 years from preliminary design to first flight of prototype; but that can be ascribed to post-Pokhran sanctions, learning curve, etc.
To a keen observer, AMCA timelines (even considering project sanction and funding in 2021) sound overly optimistic, given concurrent programs like Twin-engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF), LCA Mk 2, and Omni Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) also vying for attention and resources. Though some osmosis / synergy between these projects is but expected, ADA and the lead integrator’s capacity will surely be tested with so many developmental projects running concurrently. The first casualty will be timeline.
This is an unfortunate ‘damned if you do; damned if you don’t’ scheme we have curated for ourselves. Projection of a realistic timeline is often untenable and may force user services to import. On the other hand, DRDO/DPSU holding services hostage to a constantly slipping timeline erodes operational readiness.
Notably, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria has publicly thrown his weight behind the AMCA saying “DRDO must deliver”. It will be interesting to see who will hold them to account after he retires.
Trust deficit in Indian system
Largely owing to a legacy of ‘over-promise & under-deliver’, the services, DRDO and PSUs function under a serious trust deficit. “Truth doesn’t get funding”, a senior officer opined. ADA’s public pronouncements on the AMCA display a high level of confidence, possibly drawn from the LCA experience. However, reality may pan out differently when we jump one generation higher, adding HAL and private industry, without addressing deep-rooted biases and decision-making systems used to working in a climate of mistrust.
Air Marshal Philip Rajkumar (Retd), veteran test pilot, founder-director of NFTC and author of two books on the LCA pointed out four key areas around which the success of AMCA will pivot:
- Conflict resolution between stakeholders (DRDO, IAF, HAL, private partner)
- Astute project management
- Creation of an integral, permanent cadre of flight test crew (TPs & FTEs) within DRDO/ADA
- Successful testing and timely delivery of the indigenous 110 kN engine
“All stakeholders must come to a common understanding about project timeline, technical aspects, financial resources and key decision points. LCA happened because a bold investment was made. If the government resorts to drip feed funding, the project will sputter along without much success. The need is for a big bang investment”, Air Marshal Rajkumar added from his LCA experience.
Autonomy in decision making
Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, test pilot, Kargil War veteran and former AOC-in-C Western Air Command sounds a similar caution. He along with Sqn Ldr Uday Shankar were the first IAF crew deputed ex-ASTE to form NFTC inside the circular ADA building in 1994. He recalls how the initial support from British Aerospace (BAE), Lockheed Martin Control Systems (LMCS), General Electric and — most importantly — the subsequent withdrawal of all American support in the wake of 1998 Pokhran blasts, were crucial to LCA’s success. Pathfinding scientists like Srinath Kumar, Shyam Chetty and Girish Deodhare (now Director ADA), and many others were harnessed by the Program Director Dr. Kota Harinarayana who had direct access to then DG, ADA. That degree of autonomy in finance & decision making was crucial for LCA, as it would be for the AMCA, Air Marshal Nambiar feels. While celebrating the many successes of LCA, he rued disappointments like LCA’s long list of deficiencies from ASR 2/85, shifting timelines of LCA Mk2, poor product support and under-developed supply chain management, lack of a robust ILS, maintenance issues and production quality of LCA, etc. Nambiar hopes these lessons will get the attention of our decision makers on AMCA and will result in selection of appropriate choices for making up the deep deficit in fighter squadrons (30 against 42 as of 2020).
Production engineering standards
One of the critical weaknesses in Indian DPSU manufacturing is production engineering — the ‘last mile connectivity’ and ‘quality control’ that makes the whole greater than the sum of its parts. This assumes even greater importance when we enter the domain of stealth where such deficiencies will hurt. Look at what’s at stake — serpentine air intakes, wing-fuselage blending, internal weapon bays, planform alignment, etc., all of which contribute to ‘stealth’. The services have been grudging the production engineering standards of HAL for long. The penchant to take shortcuts, attention to detail, aesthetics, reliability of mechanical systems, maintainability and serviceability — all need quantum improvement. The AMCA, like the LCA, will be a “piece of cake” to fly, as per a test pilot involved with the program. Sound production engineering should pass on the same delight to maintainers on ground too without which it will become a white elephant too stealthy to get airborne.
No discussion on LCA is complete without mention of Dr. Kota Harinarayana who spearheaded the LCA campaign through its most crucial phases. His visionary leadership and credibility powered the program. No 1000-mile screwdriver from Delhi could interfere with the program without getting past him. Same can be said for Kelly Johnson. Lockheed Martin’s Skunk Works® that has won seven Collier Trophies delivered the SR-71 ‘Blackbird’ with “small empowered teams, streamlined processes and the culture that values the lessons learned when you are bold enough to attempt something that hasn’t been done before”.
As the AMCA evolves, it will face many hurdles, idiosyncrasies, pet-peeves and diverse — often contradictory — requirements. India needs its own Kelly Johnson — or a person with similar traits — to navigate the program through this minefield. Sadly, our past forays into indigenous design & development of aircraft and helicopters have violated almost all of Kelly’s 14 Rules & Practices. This leads us back to the original question — who is the headmaster of ‘Project AMCA’? Does he command respect from all stakeholders?
Key questions before we cut metal
If all goes well, metal cutting for AMCA may commence as early as 2021. This will pitchfork India into an exclusive group of 3-4 countries that design, develop and operate 5th generation fighters. This is certainly something every Indian can be be proud of. Presently, Lockheed Martin’s F-22 Raptor, F-35 Lightning II and Chinese Chengdu J-20 are the only combat-ready FGFA. The technological landscape of future war is rapidly evolving with Beyond Visual Range missiles, Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles (UCAV), ‘loyal wingman’, optionally piloted fighters, swarm drones, etc. Lessons from Balakot should not fade away too quickly.
Before we conclude, take a moment to read this introduction about USA’s Defence Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA):
“DARPA explicitly reaches for transformational change instead of incremental advances. But it does not perform its engineering alchemy in isolation. It works within an innovation ecosystem that includes academic, corporate and governmental partners, with a constant focus on the Nation’s military Services, which work with DARPA to create new strategic opportunities and novel tactical options. For decades, this vibrant, interlocking ecosystem of diverse collaborators has proven to be a nurturing environment for the intense creativity that DARPA is designed to cultivate.
DARPA comprises approximately 220 government employees in six technical offices, including nearly 100 program managers, who together oversee about 250 research and development programs.”
Now take a long breath and ponder if DRDO is poised to become India’s DARPA. Having taken responsibility for the lion’s share of India’s future air power with the AMCA, LCA Mk2, TEDBF, ORCA, etc. user services have now — for better or worse — walked into a party hosted by DRDO (and funded by services) with no clear exit plan should the script go awry. Every rupee invested should lead to timely and credible outcomes. While nobody contests the long-term goal of self-reliance, it may be a good point to reflect on whether singular dependence on ‘DRDO/HAL with private Indian partner’ is the best model for filling critical capability gaps. Which single agency will be answerable and accountable for the lofty promises made? What competition or existential threats do these entities face? What is their incentive for timely delivery and proof of product? What is the penalty for failure?
These questions must haunt us as we fawn over the AMCA mock-ups that will be paraded at Aero India 2021.
If geology is the study of pressure and time, the story of India’s 5th generation fighter can ill-afford to be “the lack of pressure and abundance of time”. We don’t need a Chinese knock on the LAC to remind us that the little rock hammer must work.
While on the subject, do also reflect on who the Indian Kelly Johnson should be. For AMCA to reach full operational clearance without four dozen concessions, another Kota Harinarayana must rise from the masses.
(An edited version of this story was first published by The Quint as a 2-part series. You can access it here.)
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. Views expressed are personal except where cited, and written with a view to introspect and encourage positive changes. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Cover photo courtesy student & defence enthusiast Kuntal Biswas. He uses his skills to “build a good public perception of indigenous defence industry”. He can be reached on Twitter @Kuntal_biswas. Images used with permission.