An IDC Analysis 

(With inputs by Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 24 May 2004

India's Air Defence System (ADS) is in the final stages of ordering and so the time is right to contemplate the design for our future stealth medium combat aircraft (MCA) –– possibly a naval strike-fighter to operate from the aircraft-carriers.

Media reports indicate that the concept studies on a twin-engine MCA were undertaken for induction around the year 2015. It is likely to be a stealth strike-fighter optimised for the air-to-surface role. Reportedly the only components common with Tejas the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will be part of the wing, the Kaveri engine, and an array of proven systems and subsystems.

The proven LCA delta wing gives good performance and its aerodynamics are now well understood to justify retention, however a higher wing loading has been preferred. The fly-by-wire (FBW) controls in combination with a delta platform have certain advantages, especially in terms of high fuel storage, increased manoeuvrability, less control surfaces and low radar cross section (RCS). The instability which occurs during low-altitude penetration with significant payloads are minimised, thus the crew does not come under undue strain during long-range missions. The MCA will additionally use a radar-absorbent material (RAM) coating to reduce RCS.

The MCA will have a Maximum Take-Off Weight (MTOW) of about 18 tons. With the emphasis on stealth, the MCA will have two small, outward-canted fins and the Kaveri engines will be without afterburners to minimise IR (Infra-Red) signature. For partial compensation for lack of afterburners, the Kaveri engines on MCA will have a slightly higher dry thrust than the LCA engine. These engines will also have thrust-vectoring (TV) nozzles for manoeuvring. Thrust-vectoring engines may prove to be invaluable to MCA. Apart from letting it use shorter airstrips for landing and take-off, TV engines will prove to be of immense value in dodging incoming enemy beyond visual range (BVR) air-to-air missiles (AAMs) at extreme ranges.

A super-cruise capability of supersonically sustained flying without use of afterburners is not being sought for the MCA. But super-cruise capability is critical to compound the tracking problems of enemy ground-based defences. Moreover super-cruise capability will by default increase the range of air-to-ground and air-to-air ordnances permitting more stand-off distance to ensure survival of the MCA platform. This aspect is useful since MCA may have to fulfill risky SEAD (Suppression of Enemy Air Defence) missions and have to destroy enemy high-value thus well-protected military, commercial and industrial assets. A decent ranged ALCM (Air Launched Cruise Missile), perhaps a further development of Indo-Russian BrahMos should be a top priority. MCA should be a twin-seat design for optimum distribution of pilot-workload during critical and psychologically demanding missions.

Also for stealth reasons, external conformal fuel tanks will be mounted above the wings, as is being considered for the LCA. Conformal fuel tanks increase mission range to a considerable degree while the MCA will be free to manoeuvre to the full. Stores will be carried externally, however, possibly conformally under the wing and fuselage, and will therefore increase RCS until released. This aspect is less than ideal and provision should be made for internal weapon bays to carry weaponry in missions that demand extreme stealth attributes. Additional stores should be semi-recessed under fuselage either in conformal style or laterally.

It is too early and speculative to go to details regarding avionics. An ASEA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar will be obligatory. ASEA beams are difficult to detect while they can detect hostile emissions and neutralise them with their jamming transmitter. For passive navigation and attack high-quality Forward-Looking Infra Red (FLIR) and Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) will be necessary. Combination of ASEA radar, IRST and FLIR will ensure that MCA will remain aware of potential air-threats even while firmly focused on air-to-ground missions.

The EW (Electronic Warfare) suite should contain in addition to standard RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) and chaff/flare dispensers, towed decoys and directed-energy weapons to snap the guidance of incoming AAMs. With wide choice of guidance methods for future AAMs like active-radar, infra-red, imaging infra-red and passive homing, drastic countermeasures become obligatory.

As a bold step the MCA may be designed from outset as a naval strike-fighter with reinforced airframe and undercarriage and “arrestor-hook”. The thrust-vectoring engines by default will permit shorter take-off and landing-approach speeds. It will provide our Naval Air Arm the flexible Nuclear-delivery platforms if situation demands. MCA will in addition be able to make instantaneous post-attack assessment and may be recalled or redirected to a different target even while it is enroute to its targets. In an “all-out” nuclear scenario usually the naval stealth SSBN (Submarines, Ballistic missile armed, Nuclear powered) and Nuclear strike-fighters from mobile aircraft-carriers hold the key to massive punishing retaliation. Land-based versions of naval-MCA could also be developed with relative ease.

History points out that it is difficult for land-based fighters to adapt to a maritime role, but naval fighters can easily be adapted for land based applications. This trend continues and United States F-4 Phantom and French Rafale are glaring examples. If all goes well, the LCA and the MCA, along with the indigenously developed advanced light helicopter (ALH) Dhruv, is to put India on the map as a major aerospace manufacturing nation. It should also silence a section of media that repeatedly negatively criticize our defence research scientists and professionals.

Indigenous capability and self-reliance has many-fold benefits. A solid foundation on our own capability can be set up. Sanctions do have only a marginal effect and can be ignored. Interestingly foreign collaborations are easy to attract if strong indigenous capability is built up as resources can be shared.

Those who negatively criticize our indigenous capability and production are either ignorant or choose to ignore the fact that after USA, India has the largest pool of scientists and qualified technical brains and personnel in the world. The United States does not suffer from such illusions. The projected transfer of “dual-use” high technology between United States and India in fields of peaceful nuclear research and space exploration through “glide path” program, indicates the deep American respect for Indian human resources, technical ability and knowledge absorption.

It is natural to harbour trust and reliance on branches of our Armed Forces along with our defence research scientists and personnel. For their part the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and associate organisations should enter into reciprocal joint-development of military hardware and software with established overseas consortiums for speedy delivery of items to our defence services.

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