In the “attack fighter” category too, out of five products worldwide, China’s share stands at two — SAC J-18 and SAC JH-7.
The recently-concluded Aero India 2019 in Bengaluru undoubtedly appeared subdued for two reasons. The first, of course, is that it was truncated. India is perhaps the only major country which believes, wrongly, in hosting two air shows — one military and the other for civil aviation. This is simply due to lack of cooperation among the various stakeholders, and the competing interests at work. Nowhere else in the world, such as at Farnborough (UK), Le Bourget (France), Dubai or Singapore are the biennial air shows “divided/truncated” in this manner, into military and civilian, with expensive logistics and added paraphernalia duplicated. India needs to realise, the sooner the better, that an air show is meant to demonstrate and market the latest technology, as well as to facilitate commercial contracts and an investment by those responsible for the management of companies in the defence and aviation sector to strike deals and make money, thus boosting the national economy.
The second factor was the “two accidents” — in the air and on the ground. First, the mid-air collision of fighters led to the death of an ace Air Force pilot and the second, a catastrophic fire, destroyed over 300 parked vehicles (though without any human casualty), adjacent to the sole “operational runway” where flying displays were being held with thousands of spectators thronged on the ground and all around.
That said, it’s now challenging times for future show organisers of the military Aero India 2021, minus civil aviation, the visible presence of the latter in the arena notwithstanding.
Coming back to brass tacks, the best part of Aero India 2019 was undoubtedly the impressive display by India’s indigenous fighter aircraft Tejas, with the full support extended to it by the top brass of India’s defence forces for induction into frontline squadrons. No doubt the Tejas has taken time to bloom — a long 36 years, having being conceived in 1983 — but one does have a sense of fulfilment owing to the craft’s aerial display and reported research and development on its future sustainability through upgrades, as is the practice followed across the world. From all accounts, as well as through first-hand personal experience, Tejas seems an extremely effective aerial platform for multi-role tactical battlefield scenarios in the “under-10 ton class” fighter, like the MiG-21 with a maximum takeoff weight varying between 8.2 tons and 9.4 tons, depending on the mission sortie objective.
Despite Tejas’ impressive performance, it is important to remember that an indigenous power plant is sine qua non for the craft; as on it depends the quality performance of a combat machine. Hence, there is a need to constantly strengthen, and recalibrate the design, research and development of indigenous engine production and technical parameters. Absolute top-of-the-line indigenous machines is India’s priority as the aero-engine thrust, measured as/in “pound static”, of the engine/power plant requires ceaseless upgradation. All the more as things are changing fast on the technological advancement of combat aircraft design and development, leading to enhanced payload and complex operational requirements, thereby creating and unfolding new issues on man-machine interfaces in the air.
The importance of the single-engine Indian-made Tejas further emanates from the fact that of 24 multi-role fighters produced around the world today, six are built by China — single-engine CAC J-10; twin-engine CAC J-20; twin-engine SAC J-15; twin-engine SAC J-11; twin-engine SAC J-16 and twin-engine SAC FC-31 Gyrfalcon.
In the “attack fighter” category too, out of five products worldwide, China’s share stands at two — SAC J-18 and SAC JH-7. In comparison, the United States makes four types of multi-role fighters — the twin-engine F-15E (Eagle); twin-engine F/A-18 E/F (Super Hornet); single-engine F-16 (Fighting Falcon) and the latest product, the single-engine F-35 Lightning II.
The above-mentioned Chinese scenario, therefore, reconfirms the supreme necessity of indigenous engine power to increase the overall combat capability of fighter aircraft; and the Chinese model too deserves a closer look by those, like India, who aspire to deploy state-of-the-art technologically-driven fighter engines. Like Beijing, India too needs to identify and develop quality and enhance thrust for the engine power of fighter combat to succeed in any conflict.
Thus, first and foremost, Tejas being a single-engine aircraft, (unlike the twin-engine Marut, which India manufactured in the 1970s), it has to make its dry power a minimum of 25,000 pounds static and 28,000 pounds static with afterburner to enable it to be counted upon in the world’s fighter market. Hence, today’s “Production Mark 1: 19,000 pound static General Electric F404-GE-IN20 afterburning turbofan with full-authority digital engine or electronic control (FADEC)” must try to upgrade several notches to make the Indian aircraft available for a broader and bigger clientele, besides making its utility felt over the long term. Nevertheless Tejas today, without doubt, has fulfilled several major parameters of flight-testing that go on to make a fighter successful both in substance and utility to the military. The future upgradation of Tejas could well look into an engine having (regular and reserve) power for multi-mission objectives with full armament payload in longer range, with a quicker turnaround time. Engines rule the roost, and India’s agenda stands clearly defined. Power to the aircraft’s engine gives power to the nation’s force.
Besides Tejas, what caught this writer’s imagination at Aero India 2019 were two other HAL products — the 3-ton class single-engine light utility helicopter (LUH) for high-altitude missions in the Himalayas; and the 5.8-ton advanced light helicopter (ALH) Dhruv MKIV (Rudra), with a 6,000m service ceiling and a four-hour endurance capacity. The only critical issue among the gaps — that is, the power plant — remains to be finalised as without a strong, powerful, reliable engine matching the weight and payload to fly smoothly across India’s terrain, it will be stressful to make missions successful. Professional competence of the air warriors needs to be interfaced with the craft’s technical capability in the air. However, the overall performance of both indigenous helicopters so far has been excellent, which is a good sign.
Finally, a few words about the next Aero India in 2021. One can only hope that the authorities do not attempt to shift the venue from Bengaluru due to two accidents. Second, the sooner the two separate civil and military air shows are merged into one, the better for all. Air show investment worldwide is usually high on economics, trade, commerce and profitability, and low on political showmanship and bickering between politicians. Air shows are meant to showcase the nation’s achievements and not for squabbling between the stakeholders.
The writer is an alumnus of the National Defence College of India and the author of the recently-published China in India. The views expressed here are personal.