Saturday, January 31, 2015

State Of Play: Three Years Since India Chose Rafale

There are few things like defence procurement that make the passage of time seem nothing. So it shouldn't shake anyone up that its been three years today that the Indian government chose the Dassault Aviation Rafale in the final downselect of the medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) competition. The M-MRCA competition has acquired mythological status now. It has its own folklore, its own (sometimes apocryphal) anecdotes of the twists and turns. The years have almost completely transformed the programme and how it is perceived. The wisdom of years usually provides insight. The galling thing about the M-MRCA is that it has lost none of its capacity to enthral, mystify, perplex. I've already told you what currently stalls negotiations between India and, well, France. So, as we head into air show month and mark three years since the M-MRCA downselect, here's 5 developments that, in their own way, tell you where things are:

New Timeline Graphic Reveals Sukhoi's FGFA Vision

This fascinating new timeline infographic apparently from Sukhoi Aviation Corp. for the first time details its vision for the PAK-FA T-50 programme, starting from the baseline T-50 prototypes currently in flight test, right down to upgraded airframes beyond 2020. The big takeaways:
  1. The FGFA for India is designated the Su-50E and described as an 'export version' of the Su-50. That's 144 of the single-seat version. That pretty much confirms where things stand. The graphic mentions June 2016 with the Su-50E. Don't think they mean deliveries.
  2. The graphic mentions the Su-55 FGFA (this will be the India's Prospective Multirole Fighter), a twin-seat jointly developed configuration that was part of India's original plan, but fell through after the IAF decided it would go with just 144 single-seat types. So, that 144 single-seaters, modified for export to India, and 40 twin-seaters jointly developed with India. (But the PMF model unveiled at Aero India 2013 was a single-seat jet. So.)
  3. The graphic also for the first time reveals the Su-50EK and Su-50ES, export versions of the fighter aimed at South Korea and Iran.

Milestone Launch: Agni V Missile Tested From Canister

India's Agni V ballistic missile -- its longest range nuclear delivery system -- was tested today from a canister launcher in a cold launch configuration at the Wheeler Island test range off the country's east coast. Awaiting details, but these images released officially pretty much suggest that it went well. I'll update this post with technical specifics later in the day, but suffice it to say at this point that the leap such a capability provides to the nuclear command, military planners and missile unit personnel in terms of transportability, logistical flexibility and preparatory stealth is milestone stuff.

The test is being seen as a grateful sayonara to Dr Avinash Chander, chief of the DRDO, and widely regarded as the engine of the Agni programme during a critical phase, and during his own leadership of the Advanced Systems Laboratory (ASL). Today is Dr Chander's last day in office (I had interviewed him when he took over in 2013), following the curtailment of his extended tenure by the government.

OFFICIAL STATEMENT: India’s ICBM Agni 5 was successfully test fired from a canister today 31 Jan 2015 at 0809 hrs. It was a historic moment when for the first time in India, an ICBM about 17m long and weighing  over 50 ton majestically rose from the confines of its canister. At the predetermined moment, having risen to about 20 meters height, it’s first stage motor ignited lifting Agni 5 into the sky. The flight continued on its predetermined path during which the second, all composite light weight motor, followed by the third, innovatively designed conical all composite rocket motor propelled the missile into space taking it to a height of more than 600 km. The missile, after reaching peak of its trajectory turned towards earth to  continue its journey towards the intended target with a speed now increasing due to the attraction of earth’s gravitational pull and its path precisely directed by the advanced on-board computer and inertial navigation system. As the missile entered earth’s atmosphere, the atmospheric air rubbing the skin of the missile during the re-entry phase raised the temperature to beyond 4000 degree Celsius. However, the indigenously designed and developed carbon-carbon composite heat shield continued to burn sacrificially protecting in the process the payload, maintaining the inside temperature below 50 degree Celsius. Finally, commanded by the on-board computer with a support of highly accurate ring laser gyro based inertial navigation system, the most modern micro inertial navigation system (MINS), fully digital control system and advanced compact avionics, the missile hit the designated target point accurately, meeting all mission objectives.

Ajit Doval, National Security Advisor congratulated Dr Avinash Chander and the Mission team for the successful launch, over a tele-conversation. Congratulating team Agni, Air Chief Marshal Anup Raha, PVSM, AVSM, VM, Chairman Chiefs of staff committee and Chief of Air Staff, who had witnessed the entire launch operations from the  control room called it a great achievement. Lt Gen Amit Sharma AVSM, VSM, Cdr in Chief  Strategic Forces Command, also present on the occasion,  called it a fantastic achievement.

Addressing the gathering and project team, a happy and satisfied Dr Avinash Chander, Secretary DDR&D, SA to RM and DG DRDO said, “This is a momentous occasion. It is India’s first ever ICBM launch from a canister and is a  giant leap in country’s  deterrence capability”.  He termed it a copy book launch with entire command network functioning in loop. Dr Avinash Chander congratulated the entire DRDO community for the tremendous efforts put in by them in making the country self reliant in the area of long range missile systems. He thanked them for demonstrating such a great success on the last day of his work in DRDO. Dr Avinash said, “I cherished every moment of my service in DRDO and I thank you all for the relentless support given to me all through. I am leaving with a great satisfaction of equipping the country with such advanced missiles. I wish the entire DRDO community a great future”.

Earlier, announcing the success of the mission, Dr VG Sekaran, Mission Director, Prog. Dir. Agni and DG Missiles and Strategic Systems said “All mission objectives have been achieved, down range ships have confirmed final splashdown, the mission is a great success and it is a momentous occasion”. A jubilant Dr Rajesh Kr Gupta, Project Director Agni5, described the success as “historic achievement; a dream fulfilled”.

The Ships located in midrange and at the target point tracked the Vehicle and witnessed the final event.  All the radars and electro-optical systems along the path monitored all the parameters of the Missile and displayed in real time. The earlier two flights of Agni 5, fully successful were in open configuration and had already proved the missile. Today’s launch from a canister integrated with a mobile sophisticated launcher, was in its deliverable configuration that enables launch of the missile with a very short preparation time as compared to an open launch. It also has advantages of higher reliability, longer shelf life, less maintenance and enhanced mobility.

Dr G Satish Reddy, DS & Director, RCI, Dr Manas K Mandal, DS & DG LS, Dr GS Malik, CCR&D HR, Dr Tessy Thomas, Director ASL, Dr PS Subramaniam DS & PGDCA and Dir ADA, Dr Manmohan Singh Dir VRDE, Shri Manjit Singh, Director TBRL and Dr SK Patel, Director Quality Reliability and Safety were among other senior DRDO scientists present on the occasion.

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

LCA Tejas Notches Up Crucial Cold Start Test Point

Some good news in from the Tejas Programme currently fighting to finish high-altitude cold weather test points in Leh, Ladakh. Here's the full DRDO statement just in: [With] three consecutive start-ups of its engine after overnight soak in extreme cold (around -15ÂșC) conditions of Ladakh, that too without any external assistance, Tejas, the Indian Light Combat Aircraft has achieved yet another and a rare distinction. Starting the fighter aircraft under such extreme condition without any external assistance or heating is a technology challenge. The requirements become further stringent when the starting is to be done three times consecutively with a partially charged battery. Team LCA led by AERD&C of HAL, and members from ADA, NFTC, IAF, CEMILAC and DGAQA have succeeded in achieving this. “The team LCA has achieved a technological breakthrough”, stated Dr. PS Subramanyam PGD (CA) & Director, ADA.

The engine starter is developed indigenously by HAL Aero Engine Research and Design Centre (AERDC), Bangalore. Prior to aircraft tests, the Jet Fuel Starter (JFS) was extensively tested on test rig to meet starting conditions across the operating altitudes including Leh (10,700 ft.) and Khardungla  (18300 ft.). The control software of JFS was fine tuned to work at all operating altitudes with no adjustments from cockpit. GE-F404-IN20 engine start up control schedule was also varied with several control patches to establish reliable [start].

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Big Upgrade: Indian PM To Inaugurate Aero India 2015

In what will be a significantly upgraded profile for India's big aerospace show, Prime Minister Narendra Modi is all set to inaugurate Aero India 2015 on February 18. The biennial show is traditionally kicked off by the incumbent Defence Minister. This time, Prime Minister Modi is said to be interested in getting his 'Make in India' message more play at the show, and will send out the message in his inaugural speech.

Over the last few weeks, the PM hasn't let it rest. He's brought up the 'Make in India' message during meetings with the Russian defence minister, U.S. President and virtually anyone else looking to sell India stuff. Several decisions taken by his new government reflect the drive too -- most prominently the scrapping of a near-complete light helicopter competition. Vendors and firms have been quick to reconfigure and course-correct their own campaigns so they fit easier with the new government's too-loud-to-miss call for local investment. It'll be most interesting to see what firms doing and looking to do aerospace business in India think of the drive. More here soon.

Sunday, January 25, 2015

Straight Up: What India & The U.S. Achieved On Defence Today

As expected, India and the U.S. today renewed for 10 years their framework agreement on defence (till 2025) "which will guide and expand the bilateral defence and strategic partnership over the next ten years."

A new agreement signed on Jan 22 was revealed today: the India-U.S. Research, Development, Testing and Evaluation (RDT&E) Agreement to facilitate cooperation in defence research and development.

In terms of tangible deliverables, the two countries today made progress under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), identifying four 'pathfinder projects' to pursue co-production and co-development in. The two countries today formalised co-development & co-production understandings on the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven hand-launched surveillance UAS and roll-on/roll-off modules for the Lockheed-Martin C-130J Super Hercules, currently being processed through an inter-university competition in India. The other two pathfinder projects, both in an advanced stage of definition, include aircraft carrier technology (specifically a working group on EMALS) and possible cooperation on development of jet engine technology.

Quoting from the joint statement, "The Leaders also acknowledged the need for the two-way defence engagement to include technology cooperation and collaboration, co-production and co-development. To this end, the President and the Prime Minister emphasized the ongoing importance of the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI) in developing new areas of technology cooperation in the defence sector including through co-development and co-production and the Prime Minister welcomed the U.S. Defense Department’s establishment of a dedicated rapid reaction team focused exclusively on advancing DTTI. The Leaders expressed confidence that continued DTTI collaboration will yield additional joint projects in the near future."

The two leaders agreed that the navies of both sides would continue discussions to identify specific areas for expanding maritime cooperation, and reiterated their commitment to upgrading their bilateral naval exercise Malabar.

Finally, the two sides also launched a knowledge partnership in defence studies "expressing a shared desire to pursue collaborative activities between the United States and Indian National Defence Universities."

Spotted: New Model Of India's 5th Gen AMCA; To Be Official Project Soon

This photograph from January 17, shows Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar scoping out what appears to be a new scale model of India's Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), its fifth generation strike jet concept. Putting aside how this photograph tragically chops off the AMCA's nose, it appears that the design hasn't significantly changed since the concept's last 'outing' two years ago. The four-poster tail and X-15-like low aspect trapezoidal planform appear untouched from the last time anyone got a chance to see the concept design.

Things started with a compound trapezoidal configuration first revealed six years ago. Then came a pure trapezoidal with Hornet-like leading edge extensions in 2012. A little tinkering, and a year later the AMCA's designers appear to have arrived at a final shape, with its almost diamond-like trapezoidal wing config. 

After years of wind tunnel models, design tinkering and fine-tuning of stealth characteristics, this year is truly (and hopefully) the word go. The Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) will, by August this year if everything goes to plan, look to obtain official project sanction from the MoD and funding to the tune of $800 million for the preliminary engineering & development phase.

It's well known that the AMCA's tech dem vehicles will be powered by turbofans from abroad, not a modified/uprated version of the Indian GTX-35VS Kaveri, though successor programmes by the DRDO's engine research house GTRE in Bengaluru are aimed in part at powering post-prototype airframes of the AMCA in the 2020s.

I hear Parrikar, an engineer and technocrat himself, was brusque on Jan 17 when he met with programme chiefs at ADA in Bengaluru, where that photo above was taken. Told about import content on the LCA Tejas (hovering around the 60% mark), the minister said anything close to that figure would be unacceptable on the AMCA. He laid it out that the government was willing to pay special attention to the AMCA if it could be a worthy and continuous mascot for the Prime Minister's 'Make in India' ideal -- a sort of touchstone for local development, testing and manufacturing prowess.

The folks at ADA and other agencies may have been shaken up by the minister's terse manner, but the message is an important one. From where the programme stands, it may seem impossible for it to gallop along with what the government, for now informally, wants from it. But if that's the kick in the aft section that a crucial aerospace programme of strategic importance needs, then bring it on.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

BREAKING: 1st Air-Launched BrahMos Test In March

The BrahMos-A, a modified version of the Indo-Russian supersonic missile configured for air-to-ground delivery, will be test-fired for the first time in March this year from an Indian Air Force Su-30MKI. Russian Defence Minister Sergei Shoigu who visited the BrahMos Aerospace complex in Delhi today was briefed on preparations for the test.

Monday, January 19, 2015

Retrospective: When The LCA Was Named Tejas

  • Cougar

  • Lions

  • Snowalker

  • Howling

  • Sunbathing

  • Howling

  • Howling

  • Howling

  • Howling

  • Howling

These photos from May 2003 when then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee officially christened India's Light Combat Aircraft 'Tejas', an odd choice of name for a fighter jet, given that it means radiance or brightness. Other names that made it to a shortlist at the time included Jatayu and Garuda, both powerful birds from Indian mythology. Prime Minister Vajpayee is said to have insisted on Tejas. And that was that.

With the first Tejas now in IAF hands, and with more to follow this year to form the first squadron (first in Bengaluru and then moved to Sulur, Tamil Nadu) it'll be interesting to see if the government gives the Tejas a Hindustan Fighter 'HF' designation, or let it remain just 'Tejas'. The idea came up in 2009, but was brushed aside at the time, perhaps rightly, as the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and IAF were battlint it out over what was acceptable for initial operational clearance of the platform. The last fighter that India built indigenously was the HF-24 Marut. Platforms under current development in country include the HJT-36 and HTT-40 trainers. I'm not making this up: when the only discussions on an 'HF' designation came up five years ago, the DRDO felt 'H' implied HAL, and therefore wasn't appropriate. Either way, like I said, it should be interesting to see if the aircraft gets a fighter designation..

Saturday, January 17, 2015

Yes, It's A Big Deal: IAF Gets First Tejas Fighter

With the media shut out, HAL quietly handed over the first series production Tejas light combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force today, marking the beginning of what will hopefully be a long series of handings over over the next few decades. With the Tejas still months away from final operational clearance, today's ceremony -- and it really was a ceremony -- was mostly for the cameras (which weren't there, so who was this for?). But seriously. For all the symbolism that today's 'handing-over' was about, I'm not about to rain on the programme's parade. Not today.