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The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft is in an advanced stage of development but manufacturing is a long way away

Come December and India’s fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), is expected to get a go-ahead from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), the country’s top body on security matters. The project is in its last leg of securing approvals before entering the manufacturing stage. The AMCA will put India in a select group of countries with super-cruise and stealth aircraft capabilities, the others being the US, Russia and China.

The Prime Minister’s Office (PMO) is in favour of the project and assures all necessary approvals. However, it has some concerns over the engine development roadmap for Indian fighter jets. The PMO believes that India’s fighter jet programme cannot remain dependent on foreign-made engines. The PMO’s apprehensions were addressed last month by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), which is developing the AMCA.

ADA is making efforts to join hands with at least three foreign players—France’s Safran, US’s GE and the British Rolls Royce—to co-develop fighter jet engines in India. The first 40 jets of AMCA would fly on GE-414 engines. The next version of the aircraft, AMCA Mark 2, will fly on an engine co-developed in India.

India has plans to locally develop a new engine, with 110kN Class thrust, for the AMCA Mark 2, which is expected to go into production from 2035. This is to meet the requirement of super-cruise.

The GE-414 engine can achieve up to 95-98kN thrust. The same engine has been selected for the indigenous LCA Mk 2. In September, the CCS had approved Rs 6,500 crore in additional funds to fast-track the development of an upgraded version of the LCA Mk2. While India has shown its mettle in developing nuclear submarines, aircraft carriers or even fighter jets, an indigenous combat jet engine remains elusive.

Defence scientists are awaiting a green signal from the CCS as the AMCA project is behind schedule. The jet is in an advanced stage of development with the critical design review completed.

Stealth aircraft are designed to avoid detection by enemy radars or their air-defence systems. Their ’First Look, First Kill‘ concept will allow AMCA pilots to spot an enemy plane first, fire a missile and destroy the target without the adversary ever knowing about it or being able to react.

Fifth-generation aircraft are designed for ‘low observability’, a feature not available in any aircraft of the Indian Air Force (IAF), including the Rafales. The feature makes the aircraft difficult to detect, and the enemy gets no reaction time even when it becomes close.

In 2009, the Union government had given a meagre Rs 90 crore for a feasibility study—followed by an additional Rs 447 crore—for designing India’s future fighter jet. The AMCA has a budget of Rs 15,000 crore for development of the prototype. Even after the CCS nod, it will take at least four years to manufacture the first aircraft under the AMCA programme. ADA has a 10-year roadmap for making the first five prototypes and flight testing.

Union minister of state for defence Ajay Bhatt informed Parliament earlier this year that the fifth-generation fighter aircraft are costlier than the fourth-generation aircraft due to their special features. However, since AMCA is an indigenous project, it will be less costly than similar aircraft available in the market. Defence scientists claim that the basic aircraft—without weapons package, maintenance cost and upgrades specific to India—may cost around 50-60 per cent cheaper than what is available in the market. “However, when the life-cycle cost is assessed, it will definitely be cheaper by around 70 per cent,” said a scientist.

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