Attributes of Modern Fighter Aircraft

Sub Title : Combat aircraft are no longer just about speed and aerobatics; EW suite, AI and the armaments they carry on board are some of the more important attributes

Issues Details : Vol 17 Issue 3 Jul – Aug 2023

Author : Air Marshal Anil Chopra PVSM, AVSM, VM, VSM

Page No. : 42

Category : Military Affairs

: August 2, 2023

To become a global power, India must prioritize its aircraft technology roadmap. This entails identifying and prioritizing critical technologies and establishing dedicated task forces to drive their development. India should leverage the country’s top talent for technology development and manufacturing. Operational requirements of a modern combat aircraft have evolved in tune with other operational parameters. EW Suite, AI, stealth and on board armaments are more important than speed and acceleration which were priority attributes just a decade ago.

Combat aviation continues to remain the most preferred means of prosecution of war. The one who controls air and space will control all operations in the air, on surface and sub-surface. Military aviation also continues to see the fastest growth of technology. While the combat aircraft features such as agility (speed, manoeuvrability), remain important, but have become less consequential. Occasions for close-combat engagements are reducing. Long-range beyond-visual-range (BVR) combat requires sensors and weapons that allow ‘see first, shoot first, hit first’ ability. High exposure close air support can now be taken on by drones and unmanned platforms. Long range precision strike ability has become more important. Exposing expensive manned aircraft to mobile potent air defences will be risky. Air denial rather than air superiority will be easier to achieve. Contested dense environment would require electronic warfare and cyber warfare superiority. Information superiority and shortened decision loop will decide the victor.

Stealth, integrated sensors, and secure data-linked communications, would be more important. Investments in Intelligence, Surveillance, and Reconnaissance (ISR), Directed Energy Weapons (DEW), hypersonic platforms and weapons, cyber warfare capabilities, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) would be required to outdo adversaries. Manned Unmanned Teaming will bring greater and faster effects at lower cost.

Gen-Next Fighter Aircraft

The future fighter aircraft technologies will enhance survivability in contested well defended environment, and yet deliver arsenal for effect-based results. Integration with other aircraft will require secure, high-bandwidth, data-links, connecting sensors across platforms and terra-firma in multiple domain environment. Intelligent usable data without information overload often termed “data-to-decision” (D2D) capability will be crucial. Systems-of-systems approach would greatly enhanced situational awareness, operational reach, and survivability. AI will support multiple data assessment and high speed decision making, and autonomy. Helmet-mounted or even eye-retina displays will endeavour to give the pilot and systems operator an all hemisphere picture, allowing more complete threat assessment and attack/response options.

The new aircraft will feature next-generation avionics, more efficient thrust-vectoring engines with in-built super-cruise, advanced stealth features, conformal weapon bays with extended long-range weapons with high degree of post-launch autonomy. Improved on-board power generation and capacity will support powerful electronic warfare systems and DEW. All systems will talk to each other. The aircraft will have a powerful health monitoring and diagnostics suite and self-healing options. At the design board stage itself the airframe shaping, composite materials, emissions absorbing paints, specially designed engine inlets and exhausts, and more passive sensors and concealed emitters will support low radar cross section (RCS) over cross-section of all frequencies without trading any flight performance.

Plug-and-play interchangeable hardware will have appropriate software. 3D tools will be used for both design and manufacture processes. The sixth-generation fighters would have self-healing structures, breakthroughs in propulsion, materials, power generation and weapon technology. Modern glass cockpits greatly improve situational awareness and Helmet Mounted Displays allow sensor and weapon cuing.

Aerial Weaponry and Counters

Evolving aerial weapons would have greater autonomy, cruise farther and have high no escape zones. Hypersonic cruise missiles (HCM) have already been used in combat in Ukraine. Hypersonic Glide Vehicles (HGV) and HCMs will defeat air defences and bring game changing vulnerabilities to strategic targets and large ships and aircraft carriers. Large platforms like AEW&C and FRA will kept farther away from tactical area through long-range missiles. Future on-board mini-missiles could shoot down incoming air-to-air and surface-to-air missiles and act as self-defence for the aircraft. New turret systems are being designed to allow high-energy lasers to engage enemy aircraft and missiles above, below and behind the aircraft. High-energy laser weapon pod for fighters will be uses for offensive attacks.

Drones and Manned Unmanned Teaming

Drones and uninhabited systems are already flying in large numbers and more action in unfolding. Dual use (optionally manned) aircraft are evolving. Autonomous UAS are operating from aircraft carriers. Next generation UAS will be able to take an all roles of ISR, surface strike, air defence, aerial refuelling, and air delivery. By mid-2040’s, it is envisaged that every aerial mission could be flown unmanned. Aerial drone swarms operating in mutual coordination, flying synchronously, and performing operational tasks has been repeatedly demonstrated, including by Indian manufacturers. The swarm could overwhelm the defences by numbers. Drone counters include both “hard kill” and “soft kill” are already evolving. These could be small arms fire, electro-optical weapons such as lasers, data-link jamming, electronic or cyber-attack, and directed energy weapons like microwave. A drone swarm may be engaged by a counter drone swarm. Manned and unmanned aircraft teaming will exploit the advantage of human in the loop with strength of numbers to take on well-defended target systems.

Long Endurance Long-Range Missions

Humans have to prepare for long-range, long-endurance operational missions that would involve weapon delivery and aerial engagements. All major air forces including the IAF are flying such missions supported by FRA and AEW&C. Smart drugs and hybrid supplements increase endurance, stamina, physical strength, and alertness levels and regulate the sleep and waking hours and pilot could keep awake for days. Trans-dermal nutrient delivery system will provide just enough nourishment to keep the body going. Light-weight helmets with visor displays for integrated information from all sensors for weapon cueing and shoot command are already in place. On-Board Oxygen Generation System (OBOGS) will be required.

Airborne Radars in High ECM environment

Modern AESA radars should be able to operate in heavy Electronic Counter Measures (ECM) environment. In order to reduce the size, weight, power and cost of AESA radars, small computer-controlled solid-state transmit/receive module (TRM) are put together in an array, using multiple-input multiple-output (MIMO) technology. AESA brings beam forming and beam steering agility thus permitting better tracking of very fast supersonic cruise missiles and aircraft.  Antenna can also take on multiple tasks at the same time. To avoid the spectrum congestion at lower microwave frequencies, many applications have moved beyond 20 GHz. Millimetre wave radars can give much better resolution because of ultra wide bandwidths, and lower ground clutter, and they also give the benefit of smaller size. Modern AESA radars use Gallium Nitride (GaN) power transistors that are able to operate at higher power levels and higher frequencies, more efficiently.

Passive Sensors

Unlike radars, Infrared Search and Track (IRST) systems are passive, and do not radiate, and as such don’t expose own location. The system is dependent on energy emitted by the target, the detection range is not as high as a radar. Current technology typically allows detection ranges of as high as 100 km. The IRST is connected on the data sharing bus, and sensor data can be shared with other sensors on-board the aircraft or with external platforms on the ground control. The new concept is to have a universal podded IRST that give flexibility to match the sensors to the mission quickly.

High Mission Turn Around

High mission rates are possible through better online aircraft health monitoring. Real-time aircraft systems data is connected to the fleet data bases through Wi-Fi or Satellite communications. The systems are combined with machine learning, IoT-enabled sensor technologies, and other sophisticated data processing systems. They incorporate fault diagnostics using artificial intelligence. Technology will allow predictive maintenance solutions. Online real-time monitoring reduces turn-around maintenance time, and improves aircraft utilisation rate. It could in the long run reduce the ‘Life Cycle Cost’.

With greater usage of composite, self-healing materials, repairs have become faster. A pocket of epoxy resin and a hardener, could be installed near pre-assessed vulnerable parts of the aircraft airframe. At the time of damage, the contents of the pocket could be automatically or manually released to fix the crack or damaged part. Robots will support aircraft inspection and maintenance tasks. Newer systems have redundancies and designed for low mean-time-between-failures (MBTF) to ensure maximum airtime and minimum logistics requirements. Ukraine war has exposed risk for supply chain disruptions and need for indigenous industry to support aircraft and systems production and/or through international partnerships.

AI Supported Autonomy and Flight Safety

AI will support autonomous operations, and intelligent navigation. AI helps the aircrew in high speed multitasking. It will support weapon selection and firing solutions. AI enhances flight safety.  Human-AI teaming would help enhance multi-layer capabilities for handling many undefined combat situations in hostile environment.

Aircraft Engine Technology

Future engine technologies must support reduced development cycle, evolve means to reduce engine weight, improve engine propulsive efficiency and better SFC, improve reliability and maintainability, and reduce life cycle costs. The gas turbine engine must have higher compressor pressure and engine bypass ratios to improve pressure recovery. New materials would be lighter and withstand higher temperatures. Better turbines machining would also reduce weight and blade balance. The carbon-fibre blades are being used. Full computer controlled “smart engines” and use of magnetic bearings, will also improve engine operations. Additive 3D manufacture will reduce production time and cost. It will also reduce maintenance time. The variable cycle engines are so programmed that it selects the high-thrust mode when maximum power is required, as would be during take-off or fast acceleration, and high-efficiency mode during cruise, for fuel savings and best range. Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) involves digital computer management and control of all engine systems and performance. New engines will use advanced engines with Adaptive Versatile Engine Technology for longer ranges and higher performance. Bio-fuels will be increasingly used. The future will see increased use of electrical power for aircraft propulsion and various subsystems. Hybrid-electric aircraft are already evolving.

Automation Safety Issues and Management

Automation in modern cockpits supports many flight assist features. They help reduced-visibility take-offs, and landings. It also supports multiple systems monitoring, failure alerts, and suggests remedial pilot actions. Automation also assists system health diagnostics. It also relieves pilots from boring repetitive tasks and allow crucial parameter monitoring. The negative fallouts of automation are that it results in declining pilot flying skills. Automatic system disengagement due to failure state may be missed by the aircrew and have adverse consequences. Diagnostic systems have limitations for dealing with multiple failures and there may be situations that may require deviations from pre-fed Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs). Unanticipated situations requiring manual override of automation and can induce peaks of workload and stress. Automation dependency, inadequate systems knowledge and a lack of manual flying and aircraft management competence are a deadly cocktail combination. Automation failure may also take the aircraft to a flight state from where it will become more complex for pilot to recover. Many pilots get so used to automation, that they may become reluctant to take over manually. A 2013 report by the FAA found that in more than 60 percent of the cases in 26 automation failure related accidents over a decade, pilots made errors after automated systems abruptly shut down or behaved in unexpected ways. This is also applicable to fighter aircraft cockpits. Low level, dark-night missions deep into the sea can be very demanding and at times disorientating. Automation management is thus very important for modern aircraft.

Merging of Air and Space Domain

Space will greatly support ISR, accurate navigation and targeting, and secure communications. More and more platforms and weapons are now transiting between atmosphere and space in the same mission. The near-space is an area for increased action. The air and space management is quite similar in nature and can become a single command and control entity. Soon hypersonic and aerospace planes will be a reality. The two domains have been merged under the air ministries or air forces in USA, France, and the UK among some others.

Technology Impact Summary

As militaries keep driving technologies, the future will involve more wireless systems. Future warfare will increasingly be through uninhabited systems. Lighter, longer lasting batteries will greatly support automation. Tele-presence will support single-pilot operations, and along with AI it will keep enhancing decision making. AI will also support actions to prevent catastrophic events or accidents. 360 degree virtual-reality systems will help improve situational awareness. 6G technologies will make things even faster, which will be crucial for large volume of data exchange.

Aerial Technology Status: India

India has already mastered most of the basic aircraft building technologies. India is essentially at 4.5 generation stage in most areas. In some others they are gradually catching up. LCA Mk 1 is 4th generation aircraft, the Mk 2 will be 4.5 generation aircraft. India has also mastered the composite materials and production technologies. Some other metal alloys, special metals, and single-crystal blades etc. are work still in progress. For some time the AESA radar will continue to be produced through a joint-venture with Israel. The electronic Warfare suite will initially have foreign elements, and later move to a joint venture route. India will be dependent on foreign aero-engine through joint-venture “made-in-India” route. Most other avionics are being built in India, some with foreign help. We are gradually coming of age in aerial weapons. Hypersonic technology is work in progress. The LCA Mk 1A and Mk2 will have greater indigenisation and more operational capabilities. The aircraft production rates are still very low and these must go up considerably. Significant private sector participation has begun. Private companies are making the LCA front, central, and rear fuselage.

The design of India’s 5th generation aircraft, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), has reportedly been frozen after Critical Design Review (CDR). Metal cutting will begin after Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) approval soon. AMCA will continue to fly with foreign aero-engines for some time. The specifications drawn are among the best globally. India will need foreign help for stealth and some other technologies if reasonable timeframes have to be maintained. As on date the first flight of AMCA is officially planned in 2025. A more realistic timeline would be 2028-2030.

India’s Aviation Technology Growth Strategy

India has two neighbours, both adversaries, having modern air forces. China is pulling ahead in all aerospace technologies and already has four brigades of fifth-generation fighter aircraft. They are flying home-build large transport aircraft with FRA and AEW&C variants. A stealth bomber (H-20) is getting ready. They are an exporter of fighters (JF-17), trainer aircraft (K-8) and a variety of UAVs.

Major countries are already working on sixth generation aircraft technologies with “Air Dominance” as the theme. Terms like “a network of integrated systems disaggregated across multiple platforms” are being used. These fighter will have “enhanced capabilities in areas such as reach, persistence, survivability, net-centricity, situational awareness, human-system integration and weapons effects. They will be able to take on adversaries equipped with next generation advanced electronic attack, sophisticated integrated air defence systems, passive detection, and integrated self-protection, DEW, and cyber-attack capabilities. They will be able to operate in the anti-access/anti-denial (A2/AD) environment of 2030–50 timeframe.

If India aspires to be a global power, it must get its aircraft technology road-map right. India needs to identify and list the critical technologies and make dedicated task-forces to drive them. The best talent in the country must be tapped for technology development and manufacture. Many Indian start-ups and other private companies are manufacturing major components and sub-systems for global aviation majors. Private sector is in a better position for joint-ventures. A pert-chart must define clear timelines so that the final aerial platform is not delayed. Time to act is now, lest India gets left far behind.