India’s Aerospace Technology Growth Options
Advent of aviation opened up new and now dominant dimensions of war. Platforms in the air allow greater intelligence, surveillance, command and control capabilities. Precision delivery of lethal warheads against military and industrial targets and capability to deliver nuclear weapons enforces highest level of deterrence. Speed and accuracy of delivery cut down sensor-shooter time and reduce collateral damage. Stand-off weapon delivery and unmanned platforms have further evolved the air power employment philosophy. Space frontier resulted in the aerospace dimension becoming all powerful.
Many recent wars have been executed entirely from the air and boots in the ground came only when the enemy had been contained. However end-state failures in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan kept putting question marks on air strategy and expenditure-to-returns ratios. With counter insurgency operations, low-intensity wars, urban warfare, hit and run terror dominating the world stage during the last two decades, the world is witnessing changing future of security. Meanwhile air power has become very agile, adaptable and capable but expensive vis-a-vis the targets which are undefined, fleeting and materially inexpensive. The world-wide debate on the software led delays and near unaffordable costs of the F-35 program is indicative of the need to look at the technological challenges to air power.
The classic use of air power in air-land-sea battle will continue to be the major mission. Command of the air will be required for unhindered air and surface operations. Denying the same to the enemy will be critical. While doctrine of deterrence survives, offensive air operations have to be conducted after creating asymmetry. Counter-insurgency, anti-terror, and peace support operations have brought in new Centres of Gravity.
Self-sustenance of air power is dependent on near instant command, control and intelligence capabilities, and much faster logistics support. Rapid response elements at very high readiness are required. ‘ISTAR’, Intelligence Surveillance, Target Acquisition and Reconnaissance remain critical elements and pre-requisites for any military operation. Unmanned systems will take on more and more roles. Multi-sensor fused data can now be used for attacking air targets, maritime vessels, ground installations and field artillery and also shared with other platforms through data-links allowing silent approach and attack. Special Operations have also great significance.
High speed, agile, stealthy platforms with low maintenance and high turn around; more efficient wing-body blended shapes for better flight dynamics and performance; lighter and yet stronger aero structures to make the basic air vehicle weigh less and thus carry more weapon loads; use of easily mouldable layered composites materials to shape complex curvatures and engine intakes; and advances in stealth technologies to counter more sophisticated AESA radars are required. Keeping the costs under control is a challenge. Northrop Grumman B-2 Spirit, Lockheed Martin F-117 Nighthawk, F-22 Raptor and F-35 Lightening II have been examples of run-away costs.
Fighters of the future will travel closer to space at hypersonic speeds; will have conformal weapons; be optionally manned; and have very low radar, sound and smoke reflections. Large transport planes will continue to be built for large scale global mobility and special operations. Some of these will also act as platforms for AEW&C, aerial refuelling, and air evacuation.
Helicopters will have more stealth; will have air refuelling; and greater carriage capacity. Attack helicopters will be very agile and have lethal combination of targeting sensors and weapons. Unmanned systems will cover the entire spectrum of air operations. They will be from Nano-millimetre sized to large scale cargo aircraft/airships.
Avionics and Radars
He who sees the adversary first has a huge advantage of surprise and ability to plan and execute the attack. Avionics include the radar, electro-optical sensors, navigation systems, cockpit displays, flying control and engine signalling, and helmet displays.
Advances in display panels and touch screens and miniaturisation of parts have greatly released crucial real-estate in the cockpit and reduced weight, every gram of which matters to smaller and micro platforms. Data-bus and fibre-optic signalling have not only increased data speeds but also take lesser space. Helmet mounted sights can cue sensors and weapons to target and reduce crucial time in combat.
Electronically steered beams of AESA radars allow simultaneous coverage of many sectors and coupled with rotating antennae increase coverage hemisphere. Hybrid navigation systems allow better position accuracy using best inputs of many sensors.
There are a handful of major aircraft engine manufacturers in the world. Pratt & Whitney, Rolls Royce, General Electric, Safran (Snecma), Lycoming and Russian Lyulka and Tumansky,who, dominate the market. China and India are still evolving their engine design and manufacturing abilities. High-bypass engine technologies have been considerably fine-tuned. Computer control of all engine functions through Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) allows operation close to surge lines. Fuel efficiency, low noise and smoke signature, low radar reflectivity are some of the important traits.
India has been dependent on Russian, French and American engines for long. DRDO’s Kaveri engine has faced major hiccups for nearly three decades. It has now been decided to seek Safran (Snecma) help to recover the nearly dying project.
Computing, Electronic Warfare and Software
High speed computation and miniaturisation of chips has allowed complex algorithms handling. Also computers have allowed Artificial Intelligence (AI) for autonomous decisions; more so in case of unmanned systems. Advances in Electronic Warfare (EW) systems have also been possible due to improved more sensitive antennae but more so because of high-speed computing and advanced software that allows simultaneous handling of multiple pulses and frequencies. Software and high speed computing have also improved aircraft flight control response and in turn flight safety, and also weapon aiming algorithms. While India needs foreign help in design of sensor hardware, great indigenous software and computation skills need to be harnessed.
Days of carpet bombing and accepted collateral damage are long over. Precision, lethality, agility and range are the hallmarks of modern weapons. The Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) use Wire, Radio, Infra-red spectrum, laser illumination, satellite and TV as means of guidance. These are being used across canon projectiles to long range cruise missiles. With changing target profiles to less-defined low cost small bunkers or small groups of terrorists, the target cost to weapon cost ratios now need calculation for long term end-state. Missiles and bombs with multiple warheads allow taking-on many targets in a single mission and thus reduce costs and risk.
Research and Development
Defence capability is the precursor to become a world power. Major world powers spend huge amounts on defence research and development (R&D). They are unwilling to share top end technologies without deriving appropriate costs. Most defence programs have had civilian applications as off-shoots. Good examples are Satellites, Internet, GPS, radars, X-Rays, and many other space and aviation applications. There are very few countries that have mastered the aero-engines, radar, high-end avionics, fly-by-wire, flight control laws, composites and stealth technologies. Responsible nations are expected to abide by Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) provisions.
While countries like China and North Korea are often accused of stealing design data through cyber attacks, but of late China has started allotting huge funds for Defence R&D. China’s 2016 defence R&D allocations were US$ 26 billion, which was 16% of its total defence budget and close to half of India’s total defence budget. India’s DRDO budget this year is just US$2.17 billion which is 6% of the defence budget, and significant part of which goes to salaries and infrastructure maintenance. Lot more needs to be allotted.
Technologies India Must Acquire
Aircraft Manufacture: India had a significant aviation industry at the time of independence. For some reason sufficient funds and aggressive attention was never given to defence production. Notwithstanding, today we have successful design and development programs for fighter aircraft (LCA), helicopters (ALH variants), composite materials and structures, space launchers and satellite, ships, and missiles (BrahMos, Agni, ABM). India is a leading nation in software and computation development. India has mastered the art of license production of aircraft and has a full modern industrial infrastructure. Yet there are many core aviation design technologies which we have still to acquire. In fact we have nearly given up the idea of the Advanced Multirole Combat Aircraft (AMCA) being stealthy. India has still to succeed in making even a commuter aircraft leave alone an IL-76 class heavy lift transport aircraft. It is critical succeed in a medium transport aircraft quickly.
UAVs: China today has become Walmart of UAVs and making unmanned systems of all sizes and is selling the world over. India has still to have a significant UAV program and it is high time they started making these and selling them like motorbikes.
Aero Engines: India has been floundering in making an aircraft jet or piston engine. Our over ambitious go-it-alone approach has not been of help. Finally we have been forced to seek help from Safran (Snecma) to recover the Kaveri engine earlier meant for LCA. HAL and DRDO have made attempts to make modern airborne radars but success has eluded us and we had to fall back to Elta Israel for the interim radar for the LCA.
Avionics: Trans-receiver modules are also critical for AEW&C aircraft. We are now scouting for a partner to make the AESA radar in India. India is still long way to go for electro-optical systems and helmet mounted sights, albeit some work is already on. Similarly we need capabilities in Forward Looking Infra-Red (FLIR) and Laser designation pods. India should be able to make and export fly-by-wire and fly-by-light signalling cables and equipment. India has still to master even aircraft auto-pilots and have looked for foreign support. In days of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Robots, this is a logical first step. EW system technologies are complex and need constant evolution. We are still working to master older technologies. There is a need to work closely on EW hardware. There is very little work going on in DRDO on stealth shapes or materials.
Anti-Ballistic Missile Shields: India needs a very viable Anti-Ballistic Missile shield and lacks in a few core technologies for its radar and missiles. Technologies are also being used to prolong life and ensure cheaper repairs. Low Life Cycle Costs (LCC) will remain crucial. India has peripheral involvement with academia in defence R&D. More serious partnership is required for innovations of core technologies. Paltry amounts being spent on R&D need to go up. The funds have to focus towards areas of critical interest and have to be assigned to selected teams with end-state definition.
Reliance on Imports: India practically imports all its weapons and armaments. Starting for small calibre shells and rifles to heavy projectiles and missiles, all are imported. India even needs to research in Directed Energy Weapons. Also we lack weapon homing-head technologies. We have little capability in anti-radiation weapons. After success of BrahMos there is a need to become self-sufficient on some of these.
Get Act Together - India
India had designed the world’s first, mythical ancient aerospace-craft the ‘Vimana’ that was equipped with deadly weapons like Indra’s Dart. Interestingly, the Dart used a circular reflector that produced a ‘shaft of light’ which, when focused on any target, immediately consumed it, somewhat akin to modern day laser weapons. It is unfortunate that India is today struggling to acquire aerospace technologies. Researchers are already exploring fly-by-wireless options that will reduce weight, life cycle costs, failures and troubleshooting time.
Artificial Intelligence is the disrupter of the future. Intelligent Flight Controls are next where in the engine and flight systems will automatically adjust to on-board mission situations or emergencies to change output. Future of airpower will be of condensed engagement times, more precise and effective weapons, and the likely continuance of the offensive and defensive systems race. Men may or may not continue to fly aircraft, but robotic units of some type are likely to gain in prominence.
The blurring of the strategic/tactical aircraft designations will also continue as airframes increase in flexibility. The future air power must be flexible and ubiquitous. The coercive and deterrent capability would need to enhance through selective use of long range precision strike and strategic surveillance technologies. Air Superiority will remain the main mission with UAVs, UCAVs, satellites, and Cruise Missiles increasingly employed to reinforce the manned aircraft and the missile. IAF would have to build in numbers and India to develop aviation production capabilities.
With bigger Indian private players like Tatas, Reliance, L&T, Mahindras, Adanis and Bharat Forge now investing in defence, new technologies are bound to be developed or imported through joint-venture route. With Make-in-India thrust more companies may set up shop in India. Rafale and FGFA programs will hopefully bring in new technologies.
The time for action has come and the future seems all set to be bright.