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  The IAF’s ‘Generation’ Dream
By SP's Special Correspondent

MCA model
Four years ago, in February 2009, the world got its first glimpse of India’s secretive next-generation fighter aircraft effort. Typically christened with the anodyne ‘Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft’ (AMCA) working title, crowds at Aero India 2009 puzzled at the shiny wind-tunnel model. Four years later, the programme has shaped up in more ways than one. For starters, its design has been refined considerably – a new model representing the aircraft’s refined shape is on display at this year’s show – and the project itself is quietly gathering steam. After all, models and artwork mean little for a fighter programme that is undoubtedly India’s most ambitious. In 2009, when the AMCA model – then just called the MCA – the then Defence Resaech and Development Organisation (DRDO) chief M. Natarajan had said the aircraft would be an advanced fourthgeneration platform, and not a fifth-generation one. Since then, the Aeronautical Development Establishment’s (ADE) sights have been set considerably higher, and the AMCA, as we know it today, is definitely intended to be a fifth-generation platform. Some would say they’re aiming at the stars, as DRDO agencies are typically wont to do. But there is a special recognition this time that the Indian Air Force (IAF) will accept nothing less than a cutting-edge stealth fighter.

But there remain several questions: Why is India spending valuable resources on the AMCA when it is already spending billions on the Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF) the modified Indian variant of the Russian Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA fifth-generation fighter aircraft that is already in flight test mode? Isn’t there an unnecessary duplication of effort? Why is there still a question over whether India is interested in the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning-II? With budget cuts and austerity measures, can India afford to fund two expensive fifth- generation fighter programmes? Are India’s next-generation requirements clearly defined? Will the PMF/FGFA and AMCA occupy similar spaces? How will their roles be separately defined? Is the FGFA truly a “joint” effort, or is it more on the lines of the Su- 30MKI programme? These and many other questions remain without satisfactory answers at this stage. But one thing remains perfectly clear: while the T-50/FGFA is already in flight test (though it won’t be in service before the end of the decade or thereafter), the AMCA is still very much on the drawing board, which perhaps means the aircraft is unlikely to be a reality until well into the next decade. Incidentally, visitors to Aero India 2013 will be treated to models of both the refined AMCA as well as the “modified” HAL version of the PMF/FGFA.

While the PMF/FGFA programme is projected as a joint effort, there should be no real illusions about just how “joint” it is. The Indian PMF will be a Russian platform with a handful of important Indian or Indian-selected/customised systems – much like the Su-30MKI. Therefore, the benefits that accrue to the Indian aerospace establishment in terms of fighter development are not quite solid.

And there is, perhaps, where the AMCA comes in. Built from the ground up by Indian scientists in Indian laboratories, the AMCA will be a fully Indian effort. And like the LCA, will be representative of India building its own platform as a result of circumstances. No country in the world will share stealth technologies. That’s the reality. As it stands, AMCA is a stealthy fifth-generation manned fighter concept intended to produce a potent multi-role platform (with a focus on strike profiles) that will, in time, augment and replace the Indian Air Force’s Jaguars and MiG-27s. The government used to prefer that the AMCA project, headed by scientist Dr A.K. Ghosh, remain below the proverbial radar, but no longer. The government is finally prepared to talk about the project and openly fund it. The secrecy with which the effort progresses have led many to wonder if the AMCA could actually be India’s final indigenous manned fighter aircraft programme. (The question assumes huge importance considering that full scale engineering development (FSED) of the platform could begin within a year.) That notion is supported by two facts: one, the aeronautical establishment will be investing majorly in unmanned combat aerial vehicles (specifically the Predator-like Rustom-H and stealthy flying wing IUSAV) going with doctrine, and two, the fighter types that will be inducted in the next decade – both Indian and foreign – will be templates for improved variants that could be in use for at least the next half-century.

For now, however, the AMCA is a well-defined programme that looks to deliver tangible results in terms of a credible, potent combat aircraft platform on the lines of the Lockheed Martin F-35 Lightning-II. It makes sense, therefore, for the Indian military-industrial complex to develop evolutionary technologies that will find place both on manned and unmanned platforms. On the AMCA, Indian scientists are looking to push the envelope further than they have ever tried to before. Every little bit makes a difference when a legacy leap is at play, which is why, from engine performance parameters to control surfaces to control laws to cockpit ergonomics, everything is up for change.

The obvious evolutions are clear: low-observable shape and airframe materials, extensive use of carbon composites, internal weapons bays, low bypass low-emission engines, modular internals, etc. The deeper you go, the more complicated and revolutionary the plans actually become.

If AMCA Project Director Dr Ghosh meets his objectives, then one of the most compelling aspects of the AMCA will be its cockpit and man-machine interface. To begin with, unlike the decidedly crowded, fourthgeneration cockpit of the LCA Tejas, the AMCA cockpit is being developed with a panoramic active-matrix display, of the kind available on American fifth-generation aircraft. Switches, bezels and keypads stand to be replaced with touch screen interfaces and voice commands. What Dr Ghosh’s team wants is for the future IAF pilot to have a helmet-mounted display system that allows the dispensing of a head-up display (HUD) from the cockpit altogether, a revolutionary concept. The Aeronautical Development Establishment (ADA), which oversees the AMCA programme, has asked private industry in the country to explore the feasibility of creating primary panoramic displays and other avionics displays that would befit a fifth-generation cockpit environment. The cockpit, however, is simply one of what is a hugely ambitious technology wishlist that Dr Ghosh and his team are pinning their hopes on for the aircraft they ultimately produce.

The proposed evolutions begin at the lowest level – system architecture – and will attempt to build a triplex fly-by-light electro-optic architecture with fibre-optic links for signal and data communications, unlike the electrical links on the Tejas platform. Significantly, unlike centralised architecture on the Tejas, the AMCA proposes to sport a distributed architecture with smart sub-systems. Likewise, unlike the LCA’s centralised digital flight control computer (DFCC), the AMCA is likely to have a distributed system with smart remote units for data communication with sensors and actuators, a system that will almost definitely require much faster on-board processors.

Sensors will be a proving ground for just how advanced the AMCA programme is, and will be in reality a test case for future applications on unmanned vehicles. Scientists will be working towards getting the mechanical gyros and accelerometers, standard on the Tejas, to evolve on the AMCA into fibre-optic gyros, ring laser gyros and MEMS gyros. The pressure probes and vanes that make up the air-data sensors will become an optical and flush air data system, and position sensors will be linear/rotary optical encoders. Importantly, actuators – currently electro-hydraulic/direct drive – could be electro-hydrostatic to accrue substantive weight savings on the AMCA. Sensor fusion for an overarching situation picture is something the ADA is already attempting to achieve on the Tejas suite, so one the AMCA it should be a standard requirement.

One of the key areas that India has lagged behind on is control laws. The AMCA should feature highly evolved integrated control laws for flight, propulsion, braking, nose wheel steer and fuel management and adaptive neural networks for fault detection, identification and control law reconfiguration. All of this will cost the country much, but will find valuable applications in the unmanned programmes, particularly AURA. Unlike the Tejas, which features an avionics systems architecture based on functionality-based individual computer systems connected on MIL-STD-1553B buses and RS 422 links, the AMCA’s avionics systems architecture, it is hoped, will feature a “central computational system connected internally and externally on an optic fibre channel by means of multiport connectivity switching modules”. In such a system, functionality will be mapped on resources optimally and reallocated when faults occur. Data communications on the AMCA’s processing modules will be through a high-speed fibre channel bus, IEEE-1394BSTD. The connectivities will be switched by means of a multiport switching matrix, with data speeds of 400 MB/second. In literature made available on the programme, these facets reveal the stunning leap scientists are looking to make with this one manned aircraft programme.

The AMCA is almost certain to have integrated radio naviation systems, where all burdens earlier borne by analogue circuits will be carried out by digital processors. Communication systems will be based on software radio ranging from UHF to K band, with data links for digital data/voice data and video. One of the most exciting new area being exploited for the AMCA is algorithms. While the LCA suite no major decision aid to the pilot, the AMCA commander will have the ability to plan attack strategies, avoidance tactics, retreat strategies and evasive strategies for himself and his partners in the air. Each of these technologies, planned in a manned environment are being evolved and developed for extension to an autonomous unmanned environment as well. Critics would argue that the establishment needs to focus on finishing what it has started before dreaming big. Others would say, it’s better to think big now, than face repeated obsolescence even before your bird flies.

But these are early days, months and years yet. There is a mountain of work to be done, with little time and even less money. The only way, hopefully, is up.


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