The Omni Role Combat Aircraft or ORCA is a proposed land-based variant of Twin Engine Deck based fighter jet that is under development for the requirement of Indian Navy. The design of twin engine deck-based fighter jet unveiled during aero India 2021 suggests that fighter will have frontal shape optimization for reduced radar cross-section. Canards for better agility in air, along with diverter-less supersonic inlet (DSI).
The current fleet of the Indian Airforce (IAF) has a good mix of the fighter jet for multiple roles. In future IAF plans to reduce the number of types to optimize the logistics and training. Tejas Mk1 and Tejas Mk1A will replace the Mig21 Bison of the current fleet. Tejas Mk2 will replace the Jaguars, Mirage 2000 and Mig29. Rafale and MRFA will complement it. The current fleet of Su30 after upgrade will serve the service for another 15-20 years.
IAF also plans to induct Advance Medium Combat Aircraft (An Indigenous Fifth Generation fighter jet program) in its fleet. A fifth-generation fighter jet has inherited challenge of maintenance and cost of operation. Considering the futuristic requirement of Indian Airforce ORCA can bridge the gap between AMCA and Tejas Mk2.
4.5 Generation Fighter Jets are here to stay
Today 4.5 Generation fighters are on the pinnacle of technology inheritance. The jets draw lot of technology from the “Fifth Generation Fighter jets”. The systems are perfect balance of technology and kinematics. In addition to this, the systems are easier and cheaper to maintain and mass produce. The sheer ease in maintaining these fighter jets make them a perfect candidate for “workhorse” operation.
The futuristic technology like AESA radar (GaN in Future), Sensor Fusion, combat air teaming and smart weapons increases the utility of these fighters. This is why experts say, “the 4.5 Generation fighters are here to stay”.
Combat Air Teaming is the future
The futuristic warfare will be based on the teams of man and machines driven by Artificial Intelligence. The wingman drones, UCAVs, Drone Swarms and Smart Weapons will form a team along with a manned mothership. Recently during aero India 2021 HAL presented a 1:1 model of its CATS (Combat Air Teaming Systems) Warrior, CATS Hunter, CATS Alpha and CATS Infinity. These systems will enhance the utility of the current 4.5 generation fighters significantly. The warfare will be taken into the enemy territory without manned systems crossing the enemy lines. The jets with larger payload can make a larger team in air resulting comparatively better performance
Curious case of F35
Recently US Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. Charles Brown Jr. talking to media stated that they are looking at a “clean-sheet design” to replace 100s of ageing F16. The Joint strike fighter was supposed to replace the F16, though without a serious competitor F35 is over-kill in most of the missions that USAF flies today. The cost of the baseline F35 is brought down significantly but to maintain this fighter jet the money required is comparably higher (for obvious reasons).
The Indian Airforce requires 42 squadrons to protect its airspace in today’s context. Though this requirement will change in coming years. Considering the aspiration of India to be a major regional power in future, this number is slated to go up. IAF cannot have a fleet of just 5th Generation fighter jets, even USAF with such huge budget is feeling the pressure. As acknowledged by Gen. Charles Brown Jr, the current 4.5 generation jets like F16 cannot be upgraded with the latest software sensors and other components. A clean slate design looking into future is needed to compliment the fleet of fifth generation fighter jet. The statement is not just applicable to the USAF, but this is applicable to any aspiring military power in today’s context.
Getting the right balance
The right approach is to find the correct balance between the cutting edge 5.5 generation fighter jets and 4.5 generation workhorses. If one applies 80-20 rule, 80% of the missions can be executed by a 4.5 generation fighter jet with its aerial team in just 20% of the total expenses. Every penny saved in the operation is extra penny for better technology and capacity enhancement.
In todays time when the budget is not unlimited like “cold war”, a balanced approach will yield results that can shift the strategic balance in the long term.
Rafale / MRFA
The Indian airforce has been vocal about its requirement of medium category fighter. The 36 Rafale acquired from France under government to government deal are not enough to meet the requirement of the service. IAF plans to acquire another 110, “Rafale like fighter” (in words of COAS RKS Bhadoria). This is to meet the operational requirements of the Indian airforce.
The MRFA is getting complicated with every passing day. Jets like F15-EX and Su35 are air dominance multirole systems. F/A-18, Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon are medium category multirole fighters. Gripen E and F-16 are lower medium category single engine fighter like upcoming Tejas Mk2. To get a level playing field for all these contenders, IAF will have to undergo an extensive exercise. As IAF will be operating 36 Rafale already from the current deal, the Rafale will bring the logistical commonality.
However other than a follow-on order on current 36, there is only one assured way to acquire more of these fighters. The TEDBF will take its first flight in the year 2026. If MRFA gets signed by 2023 then the first jet from this venture will be available from 2028 onwards. However, the only difference is MRFA will enter the service in 2028 (RFI requests first jet in 5 years, though off the shelf units in 36 months) but TEDBF/ORCA will not be available till 2031.
Timeline – Too late?
The twin engine deck-based fighter will take its first flight only in 2026 and induction by 2031. Converting a deck-based fighter into land-based system is much similar and faster than other way around. However, this conversion will only begin after initial testing of the Naval prototype. Though the aircraft will take its first flight in 2026, the fight profile verification may require a year or two. So, the verified design for the conversion will be available by 2028.
Using the design and making the prototype will require another year and then the testing cycle will start. The typical testing cycle of a modern-day fighter jet is around 5 years. So, the aircraft will be available in 2033. IAF cannot wait till 2033 for the MRFA requirement and they will have to acquire another fighter for that requirement.
Su30 Replacement / Complement
Currently IAF operates ~272 units of Su30 MKI (pre-including the 12 units that will made to sustain the Nasik production line). IAF will upgrade this fleet to the Super Sukhoi standards and keep it operational for another 15-20 years. The Initial units may start retiring somewhere in 2035-36. Though around same time AMCA will entering the service of IAF, though these jets aren’t the replacement of Su30 MKI but AMCA with a twin engine 4.5 generation fighter can fill in the shoe easily. This 4.5 generation fighter jet can be omni role combat aircraft. By this time, HAL will deliver the TEDBF for the Navy and same production line might be used to roll out ORCA. So ORCA “Makes Sense”.