Wednesday, May 29, 2024

‘Made In India’ Aerospace Capabilities

By Air Marshal SBP Sinha (r.)

Powerful Armed Forces is a national security imperative. As per Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) Yearbook 2019, India imported platforms, weapons and systems worth MUSD 33,032 amounting to nearly ₹25 Lakh Crore worth of foreign exchange between 2010 and 2019. Add to this the additional cost incurred on procurement of their spares and maintenance paid in foreign currency over the decade. The biggest risk in sustaining the capabilities of Indian Armed Forces and to India’s National Security emanates from its heavy reliance on imports. It is enormously expensive to sustain 2nd largest Army, 4th largest Air Force and 7th largest Navy through imports. Capability gaps existing amongst Indian Armed Forces can primarily be attributed to their heavy import dependency over last many decades.

India has been one of largest arms importers as after independence it relied on imported platforms, weapons and systems, many of which were also licence manufactured. India has licence manufactured 18 different types of aircraft and few types of aero-engines over last 80 years without having built a credible aerospace sector. Licence manufacture through Transfer of Technology (ToT) helped India obtain manufacturing technology akin to ‘Build to Print’ along with maintenance technology. No Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) or country will easily share ‘KNOW HOW’ and ‘KNOW WHY’ of any top of the line aircraft, weapon or system. Further, the OEMs can neither be held/made responsible for certification nor for quality assurance during licence manufacturing in India as it falls outside their jurisdiction. Majority of the spare parts for all licence manufactured aircraft and aero-engines are still being imported and not produced in India.

All fighters and attack/armed helicopters come with proprietary weapons and sensors integrated by their OEMs, whose replacement is associated with very complex and costly processes. Integrating Indian weapons and systems on imported platforms is a technological nightmare due to very serious issues linked to licences, interfaces and access to software, therefore, imports to support imported platforms will continue throughout their entire life. Consequently, with every foreign procurement India inherits life-time dependency on foreign OEMs for spares, integration of new weapons, systems and mid-life upgrades. Even though the initial procurement may be through a multi-vendor or Government-to-Government process for better price discovery but thereafter, the life-cycle maintenance comes at a very high cost due to becoming a captive customer. 

Dedicated defence Research & Development (R&D) and manufacturing over last few decades has started showing positive results and India is now becoming increasingly capable of developing indigenous state-of-the-art aircraft, weapons and systems with technologies that are possessed and closely guarded by only a handful of developed countries. In recent years India has developed admirable technological and industrial competence and capacities for R&D and manufacture of fighters, helicopters, avionics, air-to-air missiles, air-to-surface weapons, surface-to-air missile systems, electronic warfare systems, airborne and ground-based radars, networking and communication systems. There is great scope for their indigenous production as Indian industry is now capable of delivering contemporary state-of-the-art equipment. Indian proficiency in aerospace technologies today provides the option to build capabilities in aerospace sector indigenously. With the options provided by indigenously designed, developed and manufactured ‘Made in India’ aerospace equipment, time is now ripe for India to review and judiciously reassess the need for their imports in the future.

Fighter aircraft development is an extremely complex process requiring cutting-edge technologies in numerous fields. HF-24 ‘Marut’, 1st Indian fighter, flew its maiden flight on 17th June 1961 and its manufacturing was closed after inducting 147 fighters without any follow-up plan for another fighter. Government’s clearance for the Technology Demonstrators development project for the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) on 23rd June 1993 sowed the seeds for extensive R&D in aerospace sector. Dedicated efforts by Defence Research & Development Organisation (DRDO) and Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) helped India leap-frog and catch-up with latest cutting-edge 4th generation fighter technologies.

‘Tejas’ LCA flew its maiden flight seven and half years later on 4th January 2001. Tejas is a multi-role fighter with unstable aerodynamics, digital quadruplex fly-by-wire flight control system, advanced avionics, glass cockpit, open architecture mission computers, air data computer, large percentage of composite structures, computer based management of electrical, hydraulic, fuel, braking and environment control systems. In the process, India also built a very robust flight-testing system capable of flight testing and certifying 4th and 5th generation fighters along with test facilities required to design and qualify various linked technologies.

Together with maturing new technologies for Tejas, DRDO carried along the Indian industry to reach a level of manufacturing that adheres to very stringent quality assurance requirements so essential for aviation equipment. By cost, Tejas has 61.8% indigenous equipment. On the other hand, 181 of 344 Line Replaceable Units are indigenous and another 48 are at different stages of indigenisation and certification. The indigenous content will gradually improve in every succeeding fighter type being developed indigenously. To ensure high production rate, all fighters including Tejas Mk-1A are being designed with modular structures to enable simultaneous manufacturing of modules by different agencies. Highly controlled production standards coupled with very stringent manufacturing tolerances will ensure seamless mating of modules in quick time in the premises of the lead integrator.

Tejas highlights the success story of R&D, production and induction of an Indian 4th Generation fighter into Indian Air Force (IAF). First Tejas Mk-1 squadron was formed in 2016 and the second in 2020. Tejas Mk-1 has demonstrated excellent capabilities in both air-to-air and air-to-ground roles during IAF exercises. In February 2021, order was placed for 83 Tejas Mk-1A, which will be formidable in Air Defence role with Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missiles and capable of delivering all conventional bombs, laser guided bombs and smart stand-off precision weapons with pin-point accuracy on surface targets. Software Defined Radios (SDR) will make it fully compatible with IAF’s net-centric operations.

It will be air-to-air refuelling capable and have improved survivability with modern Radar Warning Receiver (RWR), Self-Protection Jammer (SPJ) and Counter Measure Dispensing System (CMDS) to dispense chaff and Infra-Red flares. Its preparation time between missions will reduce significantly due to provision of ‘Trigger & Lock’ panels as against earlier screw panels along with provision of additional access panels to help in easy checking of components. On-Board Oxygen Generation System will eliminate the requirement of complex oxygen replenishment process before every sortie. Health & Usage Monitoring System will help in preventive identification of defects and their resolution before they could impact operations and/or flight safety. Technologies matured for Tejas will form the baseline for future Indian fighters and shorten their development cycle.

LCA Mk-2, under development, is a bigger and more potent Indian 4++ generation multi-role fighter designed to replace Mirage 2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar. It will have retractable air-to-air refuelling probe, closed-coupled canards and 11 weapon stations to carry 6.5 ton weapons and will be fully capable of executing all roles related to Air Defence, Interdiction, Offensive, Maritime and Strategic Strikes. It will have indigenous state-of-the-art AESA radar, Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) for passive detection, Unified Electronic Warfare Systems (UEWS) – a smart combination of RWR and SPJ, Missile Approach Warning System (MAWS) and CMDS. It will have glass cockpit with one Large Area Display (LAD), wide angle Head Up Display (HUD) and Helmet-Mounted Display System (HMDS).

Multi-Sensor Data Fusion will prioritise information from all sensors to display simple command and control inputs to pilot for enhanced situational awareness. A more powerful aero-engine together with improved aerodynamics enables LCA Mk-2 rapid acceleration and enhanced manoeuvrability. A large number of technologies to be used in LCA Mk-2 are at very advanced stages of development, therefore, it is possible to undertake its concurrent development and production to enable early induction. First LCA Mk-2 protype is planned to roll out in 2022, undertake its maiden flight in 2023 and it will be ready for production in 2026. LCA Mk-2, except for its aero-engine will be the first indigenous fighter to have fully indigenous design, airframe, sensors, avionics, electronic warfare suite and weapons.

Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), under development, is India’s Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). So far, only USA, Russia and China have developed FGFA. AMCA will be a twin-engine fighter designed primarily for stealth to penetrate deep inside enemy territory to attack heavily defended targets. AMCA will include very advanced stealth technologies like serpentine air intakes, internal weapons bay, conformal antennas, flushed air data system, retractable air-to-air refuelling probe and multi-sensor data fusion with capability to operate in net-centric environment. AMCA will have super-cruise capability to fly at supersonic speed without afterburners. It will be fully capable of executing all roles related to Air Defence, Interdiction, Offensive, Maritime and Strategic Strikes. It will carry 6.5 ton weapons in the non-stealth role. It will have indigenous state-of-the-art AESA radar, IRST, UEWS, MAWS and CMDS, which are being developed, validated and certified through the LCA Mk-2 project.

There is a generational leap from Tejas Mk-1 to AMCA in terms of capabilities and technologies. It will have glass cockpit with one LAD, wide angle HUD and HMDS. Multi-Sensor Data Fusion will prioritise information from all sensors to display simple command and control inputs to pilot for enhanced situational awareness. AMCA is being designed in two variants wherein AMCA Mk-1 will be powered by two F414-GE-INS6 aero-engines that also power the  LCA Mk-2 whereas AMCA Mk-2 will be powered by two indigenously developed more powerful aero-engines to be developed in partnership with a reputed international aero-engine house as part of ‘Make in India’ initiative wherein an identified Indian ‘Development cum Production Partner’ (DcPP) will manufacture the aero-engines to be airworthiness certified within 9-10 years to meet AMCA program schedule.

Aero-engine development will enable indigenous engine design, development, production, Maintenance, Repair & Overhaul (MRO), product support and product upgrade capability within the country making India self-reliant in the very specialised aero-engine technology segment. Further, it will provide dual-use aero-engines technology for both civil and military aircraft and help diffuse high-end technology to other sectors such as space and automotive sectors. In fact, AMCA Mk-2 will be the first fighter to have fully indigenous design, airframe, sensors, avionics, electronic warfare suite, weapons and aero-engines. First AMCA prototype is planned to roll out in 2025, followed by its maiden flight in 2026 and it will be ready for production in 2032. AMCA Mk-1 will require to incorporate two minor changes to install the more powerful indigenous aero-engines, which are replacement of air intake modules and minor increase in length to accommodate a marginally longer jet pipe. 

HAL has designed and manufactured over 300 Advanced Light Helicopters (ALH) ‘Dhruv’ in Mk-I, II, III versions and Mk-IV – ‘Rudra’, the weaponised version, with many more on order. Dhruv ALH is being operated by Indian Army, Navy, Air Force, Coast Guard, few foreign countries and many civil operators. Dhruv uses composite materials to the extent of 29 % by weight and 60 % by airframe’s surface area with a four-blade composite main rotor. Mk-1 has conventional cockpit while Mk-2 onwards have glass cockpit. It is equipped with four-axis Automatic Flight Control System, Weather Radar, Modern Avionics and is cleared for all weather day-and-night flight operations. All military versions of the Dhruv are also equipped with self-protection EW suites. Dhruv operates at high altitude in support of Indian Army in Siachen sector. Light Combat Helicopter (LCH), an Indian multi-role attack helicopter, designed and manufactured by HAL started getting inducted in IAF in 2021.

Both Indian AF and Army have ordered the LCH. LCH evolved from Dhruv ALH and has the highest flight ceiling amongst all attack helicopters in the world. LCH is equipped with Glass Cockpit, Integrated Avionics & Display System combined with a Target Acquisition & Designation System. Helmet Mounted Sight is used for targeting and weapon launch. Its self-protection EW suite comprises of RWR, MAWS, Laser Warning Receiver and CMDS. Its onboard sensor suite consists of CCD camera, Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) imaging sensor, Laser Range Finder and Laser Designator for target acquisition under all-weather conditions even at night. Induction of Light Utility Helicopter (LUH), designed and manufactured by HAL, is planned to begin in 2022 in both Indian AF and Army. HTT-40 Basic Trainer Aircraft designed and manufactured by HAL is at advanced stage of flight testing and certification and would shortly get inducted in IAF in large numbers. 

Astra Mk-1 is India’s 1st Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVR AAM), which has been developed by DRDO. Astra initially uses ‘inertial mid-course guidance’ through a secure data-link from mother aircraft followed by ‘active radar homing’ by its seeker for terminal guidance. IAF’s validation trials brought out that the kill range of Astra Mk-1 exceeds 100 km, which is better than the kill ranges of most BVR AAM currently held by our adversaries. Astra Mk-1 has been integrated on Su-30 and is being integrated on Tejas, upgraded Mirage 2000 and MiG-29. Astra Mk-2 has enhanced kill range of over 150 km, one of the highest amongst all BVR AAM available across the world, by using a two-pulse propulsion wherein the second pulse lights up after the burn out of the first pulse. Astra Mk-2 trials are progressing successfully and it will become operational in 2022. Astra Mk-3 uses a Solid Fuel Ducted Ramjet (SFDR) propulsion to further increase the kill range to nearly 300 km and significantly enhance the ‘No Escape Zone’. SFDR propulsion has been successfully tested and validated on Astra Mk-3 launched from the ground and its flight trials on fighters will commence in 2022. Astra Mk-3 will be a game changer and its potent capability will decisively tilt BVR air combat in India’s favour.

A wide range of air-to-surface weapons developed by DRDO are at various stages of integration on fighters and helicopters. Air-launched version of BrahMos, the fastest supersonic cruise missile in the world, has been successfully integrated on Su-30 to strike targets at supersonic speed up to a range of 450 km. Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW), a deep-penetration and high explosive glide bomb designed to target runways, aircraft shelters and reinforced structures on an airfield from a large stand-off distance with great precision to put airfields out of action has been successfully developed and is being integrated on Jaguar and Su-30. Long-Range Bombs designed for high speed and low-drag, and equipped with range extension kits can be released from large stand-off range of over 100 km to keep the fighter well outside the firing envelope of surface weapons when releasing the bombs.

Long-Range Bombs have been successfully developed and validated and are now being integrated on various IAF fighters. DRDO is developing a family new generation air-to-surface, long range, precision, stand-off supersonic missiles viz. RudraM-1, 2 and 3 with strike range up to 500 km to be carried on various IAF fighters. Flight trials of RudraM-1 and RudraM-2 are underway while that of RudraM-3 are planned to start in 2022. All these missiles carry multiple seekers for accurate targeting and carry Passive Homing Head to target emitters in the Anti-Radiation Missile role. Dhruvastra is a helicopter launched anti-tank missile equipped with Imaging Infra-Red seeker with both ‘Lock-On After Launch’ and ‘Lock-On Before Launch’ capabilities, which is being integrated on the ALH. Stand-off Anti-Tank (SANT) is a helicopter launched anti-tank missile equipped with active radar seeker having a range between 15 to 20 km with both ‘Lock-On After Launch’ and ‘Lock-On Before Launch’ capabilities, which is being integrated on the Mi-35. 

Surface-to-Air Missile (SAM) Systems covering a wide range have been developed by DRDO of which some have been operationalised while others are at various stages of development and trials. IAF has inducted few squadrons of Akash Short Range SAM having a kill range of 28 km. Squadrons of Medium Range SAM having kill range of 70 km are operational in IAF and Navy while many more are on order for all three forces. Akash New Generation (NG) SAM, an improved version of Akash SAM, is being developed with active radar seeker and an enhanced kill range of 50 km. DRDO has initiated a project to develop Long Range SAM that can target airborne threats up to 370 km. All these SAM systems incorporate advanced automated Air Defence functionality. 

Electronic Warfare (EW) Self Protection Suites being developed by DRDO are capable of providing requisite EW armour to fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft that includes state-of-the-art RWR, Radar Warning Jammers, SPJ, UEWS, Escort Jammers, MAWS, chaff and infra-red flare cartridges, both ground-based and airborne electronic and communication intelligence gathering systems. 

India has become self-reliant in both airborne and ground-based radars with DRDO having developed and validated all required technologies. DRDO developed radars are largely responsible for the greatly improved Indian Air Defence Ground Environmental System (ADGES). The indigenous radars are networked with the Integrated Air Command and Control System of IAF to provide air situation picture of the entire Indian airspace including island territories. Indian radars include Rohini and Ashwini low level transportable radars, Aslesha low level light weight radar, Arudhra medium powered radar. Further, DRDO is currently developing Extended Range Medium Powered Radar, Mountain Radar, UHF Radar and Foliage Penetration Radar. Uttam AESA radar being developed for Tejas MK-1A, LCA MK-2 and AMCA is at advanced stage of flight testing and certification. IAF already operates Netra Airborne Early Warning & Control (AEW&C) aircraft equipped with indigenous radar and sensors and more advanced versions of AEW&C are being developed to further enhance airborne surveillance capabilities.

Notwithstanding the procurement cycle specified in Defence Acquisition Procedures, there is equal amount of delay even in acquisition of indigenously designed and developed products due to the requirement/practice of obtaining two distinct approvals; initially for the R&D phase and later for the Procurement phase after completion of successful trials. Long delay in induction of indigenous products helps neither the Armed Forces, nor the industry and nor the R&D organisations as it makes the entire process cumbersome and the product gets outdated/obsolescent in this long drawn process. ‘Strategic Partnership Model’ professed as a panacea for problems encountered thus far with ToT over last so many decades is nothing but another form of ‘Licence Manufacturing with ToT’ albeit with private sector companies instead of Defence Public Sector Units wherein the ‘KNOW HOW’ and ‘KNOW WHY’ will remain with the OEM. 

Capabilities of Indian Armed Forces need to better or at least match the capabilities of its adversaries. Notwithstanding, the capability development roadmap of Indian Armed Forces also needs to be dovetailed with the progression of indigenous R&D and manufacturing. HQ IDS is in the process of preparing an Integrated Capability Development System (ICADS) to streamline the capability development process of Indian Armed Forces synchronised with the available budgetary support. ICADS needs to include long-term plans for indigenous capabilities by focusing on R&D for new platforms, technologies and critical systems to minimise imports. Even most advanced and industrialised countries take 15 – 16 years from first flight of a fighter to start of its induction. Further, conceptualising a fighter on an average takes between 5 to 8 years. Accordingly, ICADS needs to provide for at least a ’15 to 20 Year R&D and Induction Cycle’ for indigenous fighters, weapons and systems as all IAF fighters except Rafale and LCA will be due for retirement between mid-2030s to early 2040s. A short ICADS cycle will force India to perpetually remain in an IMPORT-TRAP with respect to fighter acquisitions.

No country with an R&D base, industrial competence and capacities similar to India imports defence equipment like India. OEMs from whom India imports, are where they are primarily due to the support they receive from their Government and Armed Forces. If supported by the Government and Armed Forces, Indian industry could help induct over few Lakh Crore worth of state-of-the-art aerospace equipment over next 15 to 20 years. There is need to generate specialisation and centres of excellence amongst the Indian industry. Considering the size of Indian Armed Forces, two or more specialist industries will be required in every product segment to meet the demands. The process of identifying production agency based on ‘lowest bid’ needs to be replaced by a process to select production agency based on its specialisation. Placing orders for indigenous platforms, weapons and systems would infuse greater confidence in Indian designers, developers and manufacturers.

IAF project teams with domain specialists, test pilots and flight test engineers are involved in all indigenous aerospace product R&D, testing, certification, performance validation and manufacturing thereby ensuring continuous quality check and performance evaluation. With close collaboration of existing experienced design centres of DRDO, the first cycle needs to be initiated to provide an opportunity for the indigenous industry to kick-start, grow and thereafter improve with time. Further, Indian industry needs lay greater emphasis specifically on quality, precision and finish in manufacturing to compete with imported products. Indian dream of ‘Make for the World’ can only come true after Indian Armed Forces start inducting ‘Made in India’ defence products in true spirit of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ and in support of the ‘Make in India’ campaign.

Indigenous procurement will contribute immensely to the Indian economy unlike now where the money goes abroad, save enormous foreign exchange outflow and generate huge employment opportunities. The foreign exchange saved through indigenous procurements could help import capabilities that are not indigenously available like flight refuelling aircraft, high-end remotely piloted aircraft, specific high-technology weapons etc. For IAF to become more powerful and atmanirbhar in the near future, there is no option but to induct indigenous platforms, weapons and systems. Considering the ‘Made in India’ aerospace capabilities existing in India today, it is time to start planning for equipping the IAF in the long-run only through harnessing Indian R&D and industrial capabilities. 


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