In August 2008, right about the time the Indian Air Force had decided to officially kickstart procedures to get the Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) off the realm of theory, then Chief of Air Staff Fali Major happened to bump into DRDO chief M Natarajan and then HAL chairman Ashok Baweja at an industry suppliers function in Bangalore. The Chief was mildly irritated that both Baweja and Natarajan had provided media sound-bytes and interviews suggesting that the MCA would have "fifth generation technologies". He impressed upon both gentlemen, over tea, that if the MCA went the LCA way, it would be not just unacceptable to the air force, but an act of criminal disregard for the country's security. "Give the air force a bloody first-rate fourth generation aeroplane. That is the job before you," he said.
Two months later, in October 2008, the name of the MCA programme was changed (on recommendation to the Secretary, Defence Production) to "Next Generation Fighter Aircraft", though MCA continues to be used alternatively without any particular distinction.
As per official documentation by the IAF, it wants the MCA to be a twin-pilot configured multirole stealth aircraft capable of "close air support, all weather interception, air defence suppression, long-range strike, electronic attack, limited command & control and reconnaisance" -- that's the profile from an official IAF wishlist to the ADA last year. That might roll right off the air force's tongue, like off a brochure, but they're deadly serious. Putting all speculation to rest when it officially began dialogue about the MCA in 2008, the IAF said it was not willing to look at a strike aircraft with other capabilities. It wants a fully multirole (preferably, swingrole) aircraft for the job.
As we speak, a joint committee of several bodies involved with the NGFA is finetuning the configuration of the final jet, before work begins on building a tech demonstrator, three prototype vehicles and two production series trial jets -- the wind tunnel model unveiled at Yelahanka in February 2009 is largely what the aircraft will look like, though there are three other variants that have not been displayed yet. A twin-engine delta planfrom version, which was a direct derivative from the LCA, has since been shelved -- low observable requirements demanded a fully new airframe approach, which finally ended in the design that people got to see at Aero India 2009. While the wind-tunnel model, fabricated by a Bangalore-based engineering firm, is the product of an ADA/HAL study, there will be dramatic changes yet to the aircraft's intakes (utterly radar friendly, according to the IAF), vertical stabilisers and dorsal section, say sources.
Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, in his first interaction with the ADA last year, seemed to nitpick on indigenous radar capability, more than anything else when it came to the topic of the MCA. Sources say he was deeply incensed when given a brief on the Multi-mode Radar (MMR), pioneered by the Electronics Research & Development Establishment (LRDE) for the LCA Tejas programme. In a chat with the director of the ADA, he said the next aircraft that the agency designed and built, needed to be centred around an Indian active array combat radar. In fact, the LRDE has already proposed a second radar (deriving from the MMR) for the MCA, with technological spin-offs currently being gleaned from its partnership with Israel's Elta. But Naik didn't buy that. He said it didn't matter what the DRDO was learning from who at this stage. When it came down to putting the nails in, he said he wanted a fully Indian radar on the MCA.
While configuration fructifies, the following work has begun on the MCA in full earnest: DARE, Bangalore has appointed a special team to begin identifying avionics and cockpit packages for the first prototype vehicle, and will supply this in published form to the ADA by July 2010. This will include cockpit electronics, cockpit configuration, man-machine interface, mission console systems and computers/software with a focus on data fusion and modular architecture. The LRDE will, in about the same time frame, provide a separate project proposal for an all new radar, to be re-designated for the MCA, as a derivative of the MMR currently being completed with technology from Israel's ELTA. LRDE will independently look in the market for a partner for active array technology, though it communicated to ADA in June 2009 that it had sufficient R&D available to build a reliable AESA prototype with assistance from Bharat Electronics Ltd and two private firms based in Hyderabad.
There is a collossal amount of work going on as far as materials is concerned for the MCA/NGFA. With the IAF unmoving in its demand for an aircraft that has stealth characteristics built into it from the drawing board forward, the DRDO has powered teams within its materials laboratories in Pune and Hyderabad to come up with new composities, low observable materials fabrication techniques, and of course, radar-absorbent control surface aggregates, airframe materials and paints. This is, of course, completely separate from design characteristics, including internal weapons, fresh leading edge innovations and a sustainable stealth maintenance footprint.
The most crucial part of the programme is of course the engine. The Kaveri-Snecma turbofan is being counted upon vigorously to be ready to power prototypes of the MCA by the middle of this decade. There is no Plan-B just yet as far as engines go. However, technologies such as single crystal and nickel-based superalloys in turbofans are still some way off as far as Indian development is concerned -- the IAF wants the use of both to be a given in the engines that power the MCA.
According to the ADA, the government will look to purchase upto 250 MCAs when its done and ready -- not just as a replacement to the MiG-27s and Jaguars, but to complement the MMRCA fleet that will hopefully be half-inducted by then. A proposal in 2008 suggested that the MCA be used as a technology feeder platform to the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), but after hectic representations by DRDO and HAL, with support from the IAF, it was finally decided that the MCA would continue as a fully separate aircraft programme.
The official CAD images above, from the Advanced Projects & Technologies (AP&T) directorate of India's Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) provide further perspective on the low-observable design elements that are known to be going into India's Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), known for a while now to be a stealth aircraft concept. Serpentine air intakes (with minimum flow distortion and robust pressure recovery) and internal weapons bays, depicted in the images above, are some of the most critical nose-on low observability design elements going into the programme.
As part of the multidisciplinary design optimization (MDO) currently on for the AMCA -- a wind tunnel model of which was first publicly displayed at AeroIndia 2009 -- that design-based stealth features will include further optimized airframe shaping, edge matching, body conforming antennae and a low IR signature through nozzle design, engine bay cooling and work on reduced exhaust temperature. RAMs, RAPs, special coatings for polycarbonate canopy and precision manufacturing will all be part of the effort to make the AMCA India's first stealth airplane.
With aerodynamic design optimisation near complete, the AMCA's broad specifications are final. The aicraft will have a weight of 16-18 tons [16-18 tons with 2-tons of internal weapons and 4-tons of internal fuel with a combat ceiling of 15-km, max speed of 1.8-Mach at 11-km. The AMCA will be powered by 2 x 90KN engines with vectored nozzles. For the record, the official ADA document that will finally be processed this year by the government towards formal project launch describes the AMCA as a "multirole combat aircraft for air superiority, point air defence, deep penetration/strike, special missions".
If the specialised team led by Indian aerospace scientist Dr AK Ghosh achieves what it has set out to (a huge IF, with all due respect), then one of the most dramatic aspects of India's concept fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) will be its cockpit and man-machine interface. For starters, unlike the cluttered, resoundingly less-than-fourth-generation cockpit of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA Tejas), the AMCA cockpit could have a panoramic active-matrix display. Next, switches, bezels and keypads could be replaced with touch screen interfaces and voice commands. Finally, what the team wants is for the AMCA pilot to have a helmet-mounted display system that allows the jettisoning of a HUD from the AMCA cockpit altogether. Some pretty hardcore stuff. But the idea is this -- if India is building its own fifth generation fighter aircraft (not to be confused with the Indo-Russian FGFA/PAK-FA), and believes it can deliver, then aim for the damn stars. I've got my hands on AMCA documents that provide the first detailed view of just how ambitious the programme actually is. Let me run you through some of them.
The AMCA team has already 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. But the cockpit is just one of an ambitious official technology wishlist for the AMCA.
The envisaged changes begin at the very basic -- system architecture -- and look towards a triplex fly-by-light electro-optic architecture with fiber optic links for signal and data communications, unlike the electric links on the Tejas platform. And unlike centralized architecture on the Tejas, the AMCA proposes to sport a distributed architecture with smart sub-systems. Similarly, unlike the LCA's centralised digital flight control computer (DFCC), the AMCA could have a distributed system with smart remote units for data communication with sensors and actuators, a system that will necessitate much faster on-board processors.
Next come sensors. The mechanical gyros and accelerometers on the Tejas will need to evolve on the AMCA into fiber optic gyros, ring laser gyros and MEMS gyros. The pressure probes and vanes that make up the air-data sensors will evolve into an optical and flush air data system, and position sensors will be linear/rotary optical encoders. Significantly, 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 goes without saying.
The AMCA could 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.
I'm leaving out stealth from this piece, as I already covered it here in June, including internal weapons bays. And I've reported on the AMCA radar here.
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 will feature a central computational system connected internally and externally on an optic fiber channel by means of multiport connectivity switching modules. In such a system, functionality will be mapped on resourcred optimally and reallocated when faults occur. At least, that's the idea. Data communications on the AMCA's processing modules will be through a high-speed fiber channel bus, IEEE-1394B-STD. The connectivities will be switched by means of a multiport switching matrix, with data speeds of 400MB/second.
The AMCA could have integrated radio naviation systems, where all functions earlier done by analogue circuits will be shifted onto the shoulders of digital processors. Communication system will be based on software radio ranging from UHF to K band, with data links for digital data/voice data and video.
Algorithms will evolve substantially too. While the Tejas features almost no decision aid, the AMCA pilot could have at his command the ability to plan attack strategies, avoid strategies, retreat strategies and evasive strategies for himself and his buddies. Limited fault recording and limited coverage in the maintenance and diagnostics algorithms on the LCA will evolve into far more advanced ones allowing extensive coverage.
This is an official technology wishlist for the AMCA. If it sounds far-fetched and overreaching -- and it well may -- it still provides a glimpse into what the programme is looking at for what will undoubtedly be India's most ambitious indigenous aerospace venture. Before I forget, here's a nice little slide illustrating the AMCA's envisaged operational envelope (subject of course to change).