The current Indian strategic thinking does not include a sixth-generation fighter aircraft. Plagued by an indigenous defence industry which struggles to meet deadlines and produce a successful fighter aircraft, India is on a path to developing its fifth-generation fighter aircraft. Additionally, located in a turbulent neighbourhood, India needs to be able to maximise the capabilities of its Air Force. Joining a sixth-generation fighter aircraft programme like the United Kingdom’s Tempest programme or the French and German Future Combat Air System (FCAS) will offer India not only the benefits of being at the forefront of technological advancements, but the knowledge gained can be used to develop India’s indigenous fifth-generation aircraft, which will also strengthen the country’s indigenous defence industry.

Furthermore, it will lead to a broadening of the establishment’s strategic thinking on airpower, and most importantly, could lead to the possibility of India having a sixth-generation fighter aircraft as it becomes a reality. Additionally, with the Indian Chief of Defence Staff recently stating that the armed forces should put their weight behind ‘Make in India’ and indigenous defence production, there have been increasing calls to reduce India’s over-dependence on foreign weapon systems. Joining such a programme could provide the required platform to boost India’s indigenous capabilities.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is one of the largest and most capable air forces in the world. However, the IAF and the Ministry of Defence (MOD) does not seem to be thinking strategically about the future and are plagued by the current condition of India’s indigenous defence industry. India is still inducting the Tejas, an indigenous fourth-generation fighter, developed to replace the out-dated MiG-21, and is in the early stages of developing a fifth-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). In comparison, China has already inducted the J-20, an indigenous fifth-generation fighter into its air force.

Geopolitically, the rapid Chinese defence modernisation and the induction of their fifth-generation aircraft has more to do with the United States than India. However, sharing a disputed border with China and Beijing’s increasingly emboldened foreign policy under Xi Jinping is of concern to India. What is more worrying is the China-Pakistan axis which has kept New Delhi on its toes.

The technology transfer from China, which once allowed Pakistan to go nuclear, has enabled the development of the fourth generation PAC JF-17 Thunder, a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft. Developed jointly by Pakistan and China, the JF-17 is to become the backbone of the Pakistan Air Force with the first squadron officially inducted in 2010. Looking ahead, Pakistan is working towards a fifth-generation fighter – Project Azm, with Chinese assistance.

The technology transfer from China, which once allowed Pakistan to go nuclear, has enabled the development of the fourth generation PAC JF-17 Thunder, a lightweight, single-engine, multi-role combat aircraft

India’s indigenous fighter aircraft industry is not in an ideal scenario for a rising power. The planned induction of a fourth-generation ‘plus’ Medium Weight Fighter, the Tejas AF MK 2 to replace the MiG-29s, Jaguars, and Mirages which will start being phased out from 2035 will not give the IAF the qualitative advantage it requires in the neighbourhood. India’s Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) has said the Tejas MK 2 will enter production by 2025-2026.

However, the defence industry has never been reliable with timelines, and delays will inevitably push the project back by years. The current Tejas MK 1 is even less adequate for India to maintain air superiority in the region and beyond, has received mixed reviews from the MOD, and should be produced for export.

The Indian AMCA project is the fifth-generation fighter aircraft programme being developed by the ADA and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The aircraft is said to be a single-seat, twin-engine, stealth multi-role fighter. The aircraft, along with its naval variants is intended to provide the bulk of tactical airpower of the IAF over the coming decades. The AMCA MK II which would be the successor to the AMCA, will be equipped with engines in the 110 KN class and is envisaged to have sixth-generation characteristics such as the ability to be optionally manned.

The aircraft, along with its naval variants is intended to provide the bulk of tactical airpower of the IAF over the coming decades. The AMCA MK II which would be the successor to the AMCA, will be equipped with engines in the 110 KN class, and is envisaged to have sixth-generation fighter aircraft characteristics such as the ability to be optionally manned.

The IAF risks flying the Tejas MK 2 into the 2070s, making them obsolete.

Looking at China and Pakistan during the timeline of the Tejas MK 2, China will be looking at a sixth-generation fighter aircraft and Pakistan with Chinese help will most likely be developing a fifth-generation fighter. India, therefore, needs to compete directly with its neighbours and not be burdened by the current state of its indigenous aircraft industry, as the country moves towards self-sufficiency in defence. Feasibility of the AMCA project, however, has been questioned as India does not have a robust industrial defence base.

The gap in hardware quality is undesirable for India’s aspirations. With the way things are looking, the IAF will not induct any fifth-generation fighters even by 2035 which is around the time when sixth-generation fighter aircraft will start to arrive. The government in New Delhi, therefore, needs to rethink how it wants to proceed, with decisions made in the next few years being crucial for the capabilities of the IAF along with the indigenous fighter aircraft industry.

With the current state of the defence industry in India plagued by delays and aircraft which are not matching expectations, a coherent strategy towards a sixth-generation fighter aircraft has not yet entered Indian strategic thinking, let alone the specifications which the IAF would require for it. India does not have the technical capabilities, know-how, and experience of building successful proven fighter aircraft from scratch.

It is thus imperative that India joins a sixth-generation fighter aircraft programme to help strengthen the indigenous defence industry and to lay out a sustainable development trajectory for the future of airpower. It is also important from a geopolitical perspective to not get left behind and be playing catch up when India’s neighbours include an increasingly assertive China and Pakistan.

Partnering with the U.K. or France and Germany on such a programme will have numerous benefits including the strengthening of relations between the partner countries. Cooperating with China is not on the table. Subsequently, the United States’ hesitancy towards sharing technology combined with India’s procurement of the Russian S-400 missile defence system will make a partnership impossible. India has also dropped the Russian Sukhoi/HAL fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) partnership citing demanding maintenance programmes, high maintenance costs, and unsuitable levels of stealth.

The Tempest and FCAS programmes, which is open to partners and has proposed to work with other nations to understand their future requirements and identify potential opportunities for collaboration is an optimal solution. India will have opportunities to contribute to and learn how to build successful fighter aircraft. Partnering will also give the indigenous industry access to crucial technologies and shared knowledge like stealth, radars, and engines. The technology and IP transfers will give the indigenous defence industry the much-needed boost it requires to be successfully self-sufficient, and India should capitalise on the opportunity.

These, in turn, should be used for the development of the AMCA. By joining in a software development role, for example, India will be able to extensively utilise its skilled labour force. India can also contribute in areas such ‘The Loyal Wingman,’ as the MOD has begun funding start-ups looking into defence technologies, one of them working on swarming drone technologies. The Indian Navy is also looking at the Ghatak UCAV to be able to fly as an unmanned wingman with its fourth ‘plus’ generation carrier-based fighter slated to be developed under the Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) programme.

The TEDBF is stated to replace the existing MiG-29K fighters in the early 2030s. Enhanced with foreign collaboration, these indigenous technologies will be improved and could add value to the Tempest or FCAS programmes. They should also be integrated towards developing the AMCA. India needs external help for bringing its indigenisation up to standard to achieve true strategic autonomy in design and manufacturing. With numerous ambitious aircraft projects (MWF-MK 2, TEDBF, and AMCA) under development in India, the ADA without having a successful production base is in need of external assistance to be able to continue on the envisioned path, and joining a sixth-generation fighter aircraft programme can be a significant strategic decision towards achieving its goals.

Joining a sixth-generation fighter aircraft programme will thus go a long way for India. It will not only help boost indigenous projects and potentially lead to acquiring a sixth-generation fighter aircraft when it becomes a reality but also for the positive industrial and economic effects that are crucial for a rising power situated in a challenging neighbourhood.

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Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury

Shantanu Roy-Chaudhury has an MPhil. from the University of Oxford, St. Antony’s College, specialising in the International Relations of South Asia. He has previously written for The Diplomat, South Asia Monitor, The Oxford University Politics Blog, and International Affairs Review amongst others. He is currently an Associate at the Albright Stonebridge Group based in New Delhi.

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