Fifth-generation fighter aircraft possess advanced avionic systems, the ability to ‘supercruise’ and have stealth features unlike any other in operation today. India hopes to join the small club of countries — the US, China and Russia — that can design and manufacture these combat planes
India’s plan to get a fifth-generation fighter jet is slowly turning into reality. On October 8, India Air Force Day, Air Chief Marshal Vivek Ram Chaudhari had said that work on the fifth-generation fighter aircraft programme called the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft had progressed and induction of the AMCA was likely to commence 2035 onwards.
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India’s need for a fifth-generation aircraft has intensified in recent times owing to the growing strength of Chinese and Pakistani air forces.
Here’s a better understanding of what exactly is a fifth-generation aircraft, its features and where India stands on the development of this fighter jet.
What’s a fifth-generation aircraft?
In layman’s language, the fifth-generation aircraft is one that includes major technologies developed during the first part of the 21st century. They are considered to be the most advanced fighters in operation.
Defence experts state that there is no defined features of this type of aircraft and is considered to be a step above the current planes. They are designed to operate with the help of digital programs and fly-by-wire to counter the threats they counter on the battlefield.
In the minds of most, it’s stealth that primarily sets fifth-generation fighters apart from their predecessors. Unlike the fourth generation jets that were provided some limited stealth capabilities, evading detection is an intrinsic part of fifth-generation fighter design.
Other elements that are often touted as fifth-generation specific include advanced avionic systems, multirole capabilities, and the ability to “supercruise,” or fly at supersonic speeds without having to engage afterburners.
Lockheed Martin, the company behind America’s F-22 Raptor — a fifth-generation aircraft, describes the fighter jet as having all-aspect stealth even when armed, Low Probability of Intercept Radar (LPIR), high-performance airframes, advanced avionics features, and highly integrated computer systems capable of networking with other elements within the theatre of war for situational awareness.
Which countries have fifth-gen fighters?
As of now, there are only three countries that have designed and built fifth-generation aircraft: the United States, China and Russia.
The US undertook the Advance Tactical Fighter program in the mid-1980s. In 2005, the first fifth generation fighter jet the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor was introduced by the United States Air Force (USAF).
The F-22 Raptor is single-pilot operated and is highly manoeuvrable stealth-featuring fighter equipped with state-of-the-art weapons and electronics. It has supercruise at Mach 1.8, which means it can fly at Mach 1.8 without the use of afterburners.
Even though, the US has the F-22 Raptor, it began another fifth generation fighter – The F-35 Lightning II in 2015. Designed and built by Lockheed Martin, the aircraft is similar to the F-22 in terms of stealth and having top modern weapons. There are three variants, F-35A, F-35B and F-35C. The US operates all the three variants. Italy, Japan and South Korea operate the F-35A and F-35B. Australia, Belgium, Denmark, The Netherlands, Norway and Poland operate the F-35A.
Graphic: Pranay Bhardwaj
The other country that has displayed its capability in building a fight-gen aircraft is China with its Chengdu J20 aircraft.
Manufactured by Sichuan province-based Chengdu Aircraft Industry Group, the plane also known as the ‘Mighty Dragon’, is a twinjet all-weather stealth and is considered to be China’s most advanced fighter jet.
Russia’s fifth-gen fighter jet known as Sukhoi Su-57 was introduced into service in 2019. A single- seater jet, it is armed with air-to-air, air-to-ground, anti-ship as well as anti-radiation missiles.
Other countries such as South Korea and Turkey are also developing their own fifth-generation aircraft. According to reports, at least 40 of South Korea’s KAI KF-X is to be delivered by 2028 and a total of 120 aircraft is to be deployed by 2032.
Turkey is expected to induct its TAI TF-X planes by 2030.
What about India’s fifth-gen aircraft?
India’s plan for a fifth-generation fighter has long been in the pipeline. Known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme (AMCA), the idea for India to design and manufacture such an aircraft took flight in 2010.
India’s fifth-gen aircraft is to be produced by a public-private joint venture between the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The development cost is estimated to be around Rs 15,000 crore.
As recently as 3 November, it was reported that the Critical Design Review (CDR) process for the same is slated for December. Following this, the project requires the approval from the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS).
AMCA project director AK Ghosh was quoted by news agency PTI as saying that once the project sanction is received, the prototype would be rolled out in three years. “The first flight can be expected in one to one-and-a-half year after that,” Ghosh was quoted as saying.
By this estimate, India’s first 5th-gen fighter jet prototype will take flight by 2028.
The AMCA will be a 25-tonne, twin-engine stealth fighter jet with an internal weapons bay. In fact, Ghosh was quoted as saying that the AMCA will be comparable to other global fifth generation fighter jets.
Moreover, the AMCA will also include a Divertless Supersonic Intake, which has been produced in India for the first time, as per a report by The Hindu.
The internal weapons bay, which will have a 1500-kg payload, 5500-kg external payload and 6500-kg internal fuel capacity, can reduce the aircraft’s radar cross-section (RCS). A low RCS is crucial for stealth aircraft as its radar signature will be more difficult for radar operators and other assets to identify, track and engage.