Tejas Mk 2 & AMCA Dilemma: Why India Can’t Afford to Choose Just One?

The estimated requirement for the Indian Air Force (IAF) includes a substantial fleet of 170 Tejas Mk2 aircraft, which would be equivalent to six squadrons. Additionally, the IAF has expressed interest in inducting seven squadrons of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

In September of the previous year, the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) granted approval for a substantial funding allocation of Rs 6,500 crore toward the development of the LCA Mk2, an enhanced and more potent iteration of India’s indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, Tejas. However, the release of these funds has encountered delays. Simultaneously, the ongoing endeavour to create a fifth-generation stealth aircraft, known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), has been awaiting official approval for the past three years.

Both the LCA Mk2 and AMCA projects are envisaged to be propelled by the General Electric F414 engine, a sophisticated American afterburning turbofan engine in the 22,000-pound (98 kN) thrust category, manufactured by GE Aviation.

Media reports suggest that General Electric (GE) is open to the possibility of establishing an engine manufacturing facility in India through collaboration with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) or other private entities. However, the clearance from the U.S. government is still pending.

The estimated requirement for the Indian Air Force (IAF) includes a substantial fleet of 170 Tejas Mk2 aircraft, which would be equivalent to six squadrons. Additionally, the IAF has expressed interest in inducting seven squadrons of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Recognizing the considerable economic implications of such a partnership with GE, the Indian government is emphasising the need for technology transfer and domestic engine production.

For a layperson, the question arises: Why does India need both these aircraft?

The Medium Weight Fighter

The Tejas Mk2, as an indigenous, single-engine 4.5-Gen fighter, offers several advantages that make it well-suited for India’s national security and defence needs. Its projected lower operational costs compared to heavier twin-engined fighters in the Indian Air Force (IAF) inventory make it an attractive option. Additionally, its design control residing in India allows for faster modifications and adaptability, a significant advantage in rapidly changing geopolitical scenarios.

By inducting the Tejas Mk2, the IAF would align itself with other major air forces that are either continuing to operate or introducing new fourth-generation single-engine fighters, especially during times of heightened international tensions.

The Tejas Mk2 variant incorporates canards ahead of the wings, giving it a modern and streamlined appearance similar to aircraft like the Sukhoi 30MKI, Eurofighter, or Rafale. Its ability to carry 3.5 tonnes of external drop tank fuel while still accommodating three tonnes of sensors and weapons underscores its versatility and mission capabilities.

Many defence and aerospace analysts believe that the technology derived from the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will play a vital role in future endeavours like the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and other similar platforms. This technology transfer is expected to significantly reduce development time for future projects.

The Tejas Mk2 MWF represents an improved variant of the Tejas LCA, with increased length and wingspan to enhance its payload capacity. Equipped with a delta wing and two nose rudders (canards), it is designed to reduce drag at various angles of attack, further enhancing its performance and agility.

The Tejas Mk.2 is set to be a formidable fighter aircraft with impressive specifications. According to the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), the aircraft will have a maximum takeoff weight of 17.5 tonnes and a payload capacity of 6.5 tonnes. It will be powered by the advanced GE-F414-INS6 engine with electronically controlled operating modes, developed by General Electric (FADEC).

In addition to its powerful engine, the Tejas Mk.2 will be equipped with an array of cutting-edge technologies. These include an infrared target search and tracking system (IRST), a missile attack warning system (MAWS), and an electronically scanned active array antenna (AESA) radar. These advanced systems enhance its situational awareness and combat capabilities.

Moreover, the aircraft will be armed with long-range missiles and heavy precision-guided bombs (PGM), further solidifying its role as a versatile and potent combat platform.

Other reports suggest that the Tejas Mk.2 will be fitted with an airborne radar featuring a 100 km airborne target detection range. A prototype with an antenna sheet (Active Aperture Array Antenna Unit – AAAU) and domestically designed transceiver modules (TPM) has been calibrated for testing. The radar system’s capabilities include air-to-surface mode with high-resolution earth surface mapping, tracking multiple moving targets, and executing electronic warfare functions. These radar enhancements contribute to the aircraft’s advanced capabilities for various mission profiles.

The Indian Air Force’s primary requirements for the Tejas Mk.2 are focused on enhancing its operational range and equipping it with the capability to employ the most advanced weapons systems. To achieve these goals, significant modifications are planned for the aircraft.

One of the key enhancements is the increase in the maximum takeoff weight, which will grow from 13,500 kg to 17,500 kg. This boost in weight capacity is crucial for carrying additional fuel and advanced weapons payloads, extending the aircraft’s operational range and mission capabilities.

The length of the aircraft is also set to expand by 1.35 metres, providing room for more external fuel tanks. This increase in fuel storage, especially behind the cockpit, allows for longer mission durations and greater operational flexibility. However, the extension in length has altered the aircraft’s centre of gravity, necessitating the development of a “front lifting surface.” This adjustment is crucial to maintain stability and control during flight, ensuring the aircraft’s safe and effective operation.

These modifications collectively enhance the Tejas Mk.2’s capabilities, making it a more versatile and capable platform for the Indian Air Force’s evolving needs.

The Need for AMCA

The need for a fifth-generation aircraft in India has become increasingly critical due to the growing capabilities of the Chinese and Pakistani air forces. To better understand what a fifth-generation aircraft is and where India stands in its development, let’s break down the concept in simple terms.

In layman’s language, a fifth-generation aircraft is one that incorporates cutting-edge technologies developed in the early 21st century. These aircraft are considered the most advanced fighters in operation today.

These aircraft don’t have a fixed set of features but are generally a significant leap forward from their predecessors. They rely on digital programs and fly-by-wire technology to effectively address threats on the battlefield.

One of the key distinctions of fifth-generation fighters, often cited, is their stealth capabilities. Unlike fourth-generation jets, which had limited stealth features, fifth-generation fighters are designed to inherently evade detection.

Other notable characteristics often associated with fifth-generation aircraft include advanced avionics systems, the ability to perform multiple roles, and the capability to “supercruise,” meaning they can fly at supersonic speeds without using afterburners.

For example, Lockheed Martin, the company responsible for America’s F-22 Raptor, a fifth-generation aircraft, describes it as having all-aspect stealth, even when armed, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), high-performance airframes, advanced avionics features, and highly integrated computer systems that can network with other elements on the battlefield for situational awareness. These features make fifth-generation fighters highly advanced and capable in modern air combat scenarios.

India’s pursuit of a fifth-generation fighter has been in progress for some time, with the program known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) taking shape since 2010.

The AMCA project is a collaborative effort between the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), involving both public and private sectors. The estimated development cost for this ambitious project is approximately Rs 15,000 crore.

It is projected that India will see its first prototype of a fifth-generation fighter jet, the AMCA, take to the skies by 2028. The AMCA is designed as a 25-tonne, twin-engine stealth fighter aircraft, featuring an internal weapons bay. According to reports, it is expected to be on par with other global fifth-generation fighter jets in terms of capabilities and technology.

One notable innovation in the AMCA is the inclusion of a Divertless Supersonic Intake, a technology developed in India for the first time. The aircraft’s internal weapons bay, with a 1500-kg payload capacity, 5500-kg external payload capacity, and 6500-kg internal fuel capacity, plays a crucial role in reducing the aircraft’s radar cross-section (RCS). A low RCS is a critical aspect of stealth aircraft design, as it makes the aircraft’s radar signature more challenging for radar operators and other tracking systems to detect and engage. This focus on stealth enhances the AMCA’s survivability and combat effectiveness.

The AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) program holds paramount importance for India for several compelling reasons. Firstly, it is instrumental in addressing the critical issue of India’s fighter squadron strength. Presently, the Indian Air Force operates with approximately 30-32 fighter squadrons, which falls significantly short of the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. The development and induction of the AMCA will play a pivotal role in bolstering the Air Force’s operational capabilities, filling the existing gap, and ensuring that India’s airspace is adequately defended.

Furthermore, the AMCA program is of strategic significance as India faces an array of evolving threats. Neighbouring nations, such as China and Pakistan, have been actively enhancing their military and security arsenals. In this rapidly changing security landscape, India cannot afford to remain complacent. The development of the AMCA equips the nation with a cutting-edge fighter aircraft capable of countering modern threats, safeguarding its interests, and maintaining regional stability.

In addition to its military implications, the AMCA project carries substantial symbolic value for India. It underscores the nation’s commitment to self-reliance and indigenous defence production. By successfully developing and deploying a fifth-generation fighter aircraft like the AMCA, India demonstrates to the world that it is not reliant on external sources for its security needs. This not only enhances India’s sovereignty but also showcases its prowess in defence technology, thereby boosting its standing on the global stage. The AMCA program, therefore, serves as a testament to India’s strategic independence and capability in ensuring its national security.

India’s decision to develop and field both the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) and the Tejas Mk 2 underscores the country’s nuanced and strategic approach to addressing its multifaceted defence needs. These two indigenous fighter aircraft represent complementary pillars of India’s airpower strategy, each offering distinct advantages and fulfilling specific operational roles.

The Tejas Mk 2, as a versatile fourth-generation fighter, provides a cost-effective and adaptable solution to bridge the immediate gap in the Indian Air Force’s fighter squadron strength. Its agility and capability to handle diverse mission profiles, along with its established track record, make it an invaluable asset for the nation’s defence.

Concurrently, the AMCA, a cutting-edge fifth-generation stealth aircraft, elevates India’s air combat capabilities to an entirely new level. With its inherent stealth characteristics, advanced avionics, and multi-role capabilities, the AMCA is poised to secure India’s air dominance in high-threat environments, bolstering national security in the long term.