After two years on the shelf, India’s new United Progressive Alliance government is dusting off a plan by the state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to build a fifth-generation fighter, dubbed the Medium Combat Aircraft.
Sources in the Ministry of Defence said the government was prompted to revisit the proposal by reports that China was accelerating a similar program of its own. Defense planners said they feared Pakistan eventually would gain the capability with China’s help.
The government also is expected by January to announce that the long-anticipated Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) will be developed by Hindustan Aeronautics, Bangalore.
A senior planner in the ministry said the Medium Combat Aircraft and AJT programs not only will supply the Air Force with much-needed combat capabilities, but also help India move away from being dependent on foreign contracts for local industry.
A key sticking point in the government’s Medium Combat Aircraft plan, however, is that the Air Force would rather buy its next-generation combat aircraft from overseas markets. One service official said the Air Force has not had a good experience with the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft program, which is behind schedule by more than 10 years. The Light Combat Aircraft now is slated to go into service in 2010.
Requirements To Come
That may be one reason why the service has yet to identify requirements for the Medium Combat Aircraft. When the program was proposed, a government decision was put on hold pending the requirements, ministry officials said.
For the AJT, on the other hand, the Air Force has said it needs more than 100 aircraft.
Air Force sources said the ministry and DRDO should stay focused on completing the design and development of the Light Combat Aircraft, rather than embark on yet another program like the Medium Combat Aircraft.
One defense analyst agreed. “It is important to increase the indigenous element in weaponry, but the past history of indigenous defense development efforts are not very encouraging,” said Bhim Singh, retired Air Force wing commander and defense analyst.
Singh was referring to the Light Combat Aircraft and the Arjun main battle tank, which has taken more than 30 years to develop.
The DRDO proposal to design and develop a Medium Combat Aircraft, with construction of two prototypes, would cost $1.5 billion. The project would be led by the DRDO’s Aeronautical Development Agency.
Revisiting the MCA Plan
The Medium Combat Aircraft would be inducted around 2015 to replace the Air Force’s aging Jaguar and Mirage fighters.
“The twin-engined Medium Combat Aircraft will be a stealthy generation-5 combat aircraft optimized for strike missions,” a DRDO official said. He said components common between Medium Combat Aircraft and Light Combat Aircraft will include part of the wing, the DRDO’s Kaveri engine, and some systems and subsystems. It will weigh around 12 metric tons and cost more than $40 million.
If the proposal is approved by the government, the first flight could take place by 2010, the DRDO official said. An announcement is expected by early next year. Hindustan Aeronautics proposed to the government last year that it develop an AJT by making some changes to its homegrown Intermediate Jet Trainer, the HJT-36, which is now in testing.
“We are awaiting clearance from the Indian government on the proposal for developing and producing advanced jet trainers,” said Hindustan Aeronautics Chairman Nalini Ranjan Mohanty. “Only some modifications in the wings of the HJT-36 are needed to convert it into an advanced jet trainer.”
The HJT-36, with a price tag of $5.2 million, is expected to be in service by 2007. The Air Force has placed an initial order for 12 planes, but requires more than 50.
Advanced Jet Trainer Program
The initial stage of the AJT program would cost around $220 million, said Ashok Baweja, Hindustan’s director for design and development, and each aircraft would cost about $21.7 million.
This AJT project is in addition to the deal India signed earlier this year for the procurement of 66 Hawk-100 trainers from BAE SYSTEMS, London. That $1.7 billion contract includes pilot training and production of 44 of the BAE aircraft at Hindustan Aeronautics facilities.
Ashok Baweja, director for design and development at Hindustan Aeronautics, said that once the Air Force’s order is filled, his company will explore the export market for its AJT.