The first two days of each Aero India show is normally packed with press conferences by key government and military officials. At Aero India 2015 in Bengaluru on Thursday, the heads of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), and the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) aerospace chief talked about the air force of the future.
IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, said, even in the best case, the air force would take 16-17 years to achieve its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. This, too, only if the contract for 126 Rafale fighters was quickly inked, the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) developed without further delay, and the smooth development of DRDO's fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
"It is very difficult to give an exact time-line for these aircraft, but it should take four-five years beyond the 14th Plan (2022-2027) to build up the strength of the IAF to the authorised level of 42 squadrons," said the IAF chief.
IAF currently has 35 operational fighter squadrons, and another 11 would retire by 2018. Neither AMCA nor FGFA are likely to appear in squadron service before the mid-2020s, and the Tejas Mark II would also be operationalised only by the start of the next decade, Raha explained.
Significantly, given the dark clouds that Business Standard has reported over the proposed purchase of the Dassault Rafale (February 15, Rafale proposal "effectively dead" as defence ministry discovers Dassault bid not cheapest) Raha declared for the first time that it did not matter which medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) was procured.
Besides the French Rafale, built by Dassault, the other MMRCA that IAF had found suitable for procurement is the Typhoon, built by European consortium, Eurofighter GmbH.
DRDO's aeronautics chief, Dr K Tamilmani, described the AMCA programme, which it will spearhead after guiding the Tejas Mark I to squadron service.
Revealing that the basic design of the AMCA had already been frozen, Tamilmani claimed DRDO already had the basic technologies needed, but these needed to be adapted to higher performance requirements.
"We have to introduce three technologies on AMCA that are not there on light combat aircraft (LCA): stealth; thrust vectoring engines; and supercruise (the capability to fly at supersonic speeds without engine afterburners.) We are working on all three areas already."
Two of these three capabilities - thrust vectoring and supercruise - depend upon high-performance engines, and the DRDO will import the AMCA's engine.
Says Tamilmani: "By late-2019, I will need an engine to be integrated onto the AMCA. We are discussing with multiple engine vendors - Rolls-Royce, GE, Snecma. We could buy an upgraded version of an existing engine, with its output enhanced to 110KiloNewtons. The vendors need three years to develop that."
Current engines - including the American GE F-414, which India is already buying for the Tejas Mark II fighter - have thrust ratings of 90-95 KiloNewtons. That means the AMCA engines would require significant uprating.
Tamilmani opines that buying an American engine provides a trouble-free route, given the experience of the Tejas project.
"With the government-to-government route with the US now open, we would be happy to use the GE F-414 engine. We have been working with the smaller GE F-404 on the Tejas for a long time and have seen no problems," he said.
The DRDO aerospace chief spelt out detailed timelines for the AMCA. By next year, he would arrive at a budgetary requirement. This is being formulated with care, "because we cannot keep going back for funding again and again", he said.
By late-2019, the aircraft would require to be mated with an engine, and the first flight planned for early 2020.