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AMCA Lacks Key Attributes Required to be a 5th-Gen Fighter Jet: India’s Indigenous Aircraft Trails Behind F-35 and J-20

India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), after 15 years of being on the drawing board, is scheduled for its maiden flight within four years. DRDO anticipates getting approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) to create the 5th generation fighter based on a timeline that forecasts the first flight in 2027 and squadron induction in 2035. Many fighter jet fans may find the timeline improbable. It’s possible that everyone involved in the process of seeking CCS approval knows that the timeline is unattainable.

In 2019, the timeline was first presented to the Indian Air Force (IAF). The IAF’s top leadership, while enthusiastic about supporting a homegrown stealth fighter, regarded the timeline as ambitious. In July 2020, the IAF referred to the timeline as “very tight.” However, senior officials at DRDO and HAL disregarded the IAF’s concerns. In January 2021, the Chairman & managing director of Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, R Madhavan, stated that the plane’s prototype would likely be ready by 2026, with production beginning by 2030. In September 2021, Girish S Deodhare, Programme Director (Combat Aircraft) & Director, ADA, projected that the first flight would take place in 2025.

He stated, “We are moving to a critical design review by the middle of next year, with the rollout scheduled for 2024 and the first flight planned for 2025.” Dr. AK Ghosh, project director of AMCA, said during DefExpo-2022, “Once the project sanction is received, the first prototype can be rolled out in three years, and the first flight in one to one and half years after that.” In November 2022, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari, advised prudence and recommended foreign partnerships as a fallback option for developing alternative systems & sensors if indigenous development falls behind the timeline.

On February 14, 2023, DRDO chairman Samir Kamat stated that the first flight of the AMCA “may take seven years, and the induction can be done in ten years from now.” The AMCA anticipated for induction by 2035 will be a 4.5 generation fighter rather than a 5th generation fighter. The AMCA is proposed to be developed in two phases, with the AMCA Mk-1 powered by the US GE-414 engine. AMCA Mk2 will feature an advanced, more powerful engine to be developed with an as-yet-unnamed foreign partner. AMCA Mk-1 will lack at least three defining 5th generation fighter engine features: supercruise, supermaneuverability, and sensor fusion. In addition, AMCA Mk-1 will feature limited stealth. While upgraded 4th generation fighters, such as Su-30MKI and LCA Mk-1A, feature varying degrees of sensor fusion, it is inadequate to provide situational awareness. DRDO is still working on developing capable RF, IR, and Optical sensors. It will be a while before they can field Stage 3 and Stage 4 situational awareness.

Based on their track records, there can be little doubt that DRDO and HAL will have to delay timelines and seek performance concessions due to technology shortfalls during the AMCA project. The IAF needs operational stealth fighters and counter-stealth AD radar systems within the next five years to deter adversary adventurism, not when the projected timelines are breached.

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