The Jaguar fighter aircraft has been a dominant asset in Indian Air Force’s (IAF) fleet for decades. With the unveiling of the Jaguar upgrade suite, designated as Jaguar MAX (Mothership for Augmented Xploitation), the fighter is being kept relevant, even after 40 years since its induction.
The plan to retire the aircraft, used only by the IAF, has been put on hold. India has adopted the Jaguar fighter-bombers to deliver nuclear gravity bombs, making them an essential part of its nuclear triad.
It has also purchased two simulators from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for this fighter jet.
The IAF had decided to retire the fighter jet starting in 2023. However, the Aero Show 2019 showcased the Jaguar upgrade suite, hinting that there might still be some time before the IAF could finally bid farewell to this fighter.
The Jaguar Max program, also known as the Display Attack Ranging Inertial Navigation-III Plus (DARIN III+) or post-DARIN-III includes new avionics, a cockpit, and a model of the heavily armed upgraded Jaguar (Jaguar MAX) ground-attack aircraft which are being offered for the Indian Jaguar S/M/B (I) fleet.
Jaguar MAX is understood to be the mother of all upgrades that have so far been given to this aging aircraft. Veteran Jaguar Pilot Squadron Leader Vijainder Thakur (retd) said in a tweet that the MAX concept was a post-DARIN-3 upgrade proposal that “stretches credulity”.
The Jaguar MAX includes an Elta EL/M-2052 Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, an AESA-based wide-band jammer, a combined interrogator transponder, a flight management system, a configurable cockpit with a larger area display, a voice command system, a helmet-mounted display, an L-band datalink for long-range missions, a GAGAN/GPS/GLONASS-aided INS (with IRN (optional), as noted by Janes.
EurAsian Times takes a deep dive into the relevance of Jaguar, as well as the upgrades that have been unveiled. We spoke to the Squadron Leader Vijainder K Thakur (retd), a veteran who piloted the fighter jet.
The veteran pilot said in his tweet, “Considering also that HAL has made no headway with augmenting Jaguar engine thrust by fitting the @Honeywell Aero-engine. The MAX concept is not based on threat perceptions; rather, it is based on imagined HAL capabilities a la a school science project!”
The aircraft keeps losing thrust with time and has lowered capacity by 15-20% due to an antiquated engine that needs replacement due to substantial wear and tear. The aircraft is also under-equipped to carry out its combat missions effectively, as previously noted by EurAsian Times.
Jaguars fly low and fast, delivering ordnance in a single pass before returning to base. These operations require increased engine power, which the plane has been losing for several years. The IAF, which had earlier planned to go for an engine upgrade, abandoned the program due to cost-related concerns.
Speaking to EurAsian Times, the veteran pilot says, “In August 2019, there was a report that re-engining of Jaguar has been frozen. Without a more powerful engine, the MAX concept would be a nonstarter.
As to the school project reference — a school project demonstrates only the science behind a concept, not the technology required for its manufacture for end-user consumption.”
The Jaguar MAX is expected to carry and launch a variety of next-generation air-launched weapons, including a gliding, heavy-weight new-generation precision-guided munition, five sensor-based multi-warhead anti-tank smart bombs, a new-generation laser-guided bomb, 16 gliding, lightweight smart anti-airfield weapons, a sea-skimming anti-ship missile, two new-generation short-range air-to-air missiles.
However, the engine is still a sore point in the aircraft’s functioning and there is little detail on how the aircraft will achieve these capabilities. Furthermore, the retired Squadron Leader, who is also an avid military watcher, asserted that he wasn’t sure if HAL was even persisting with the concept as there has been no update.
Jaguar Is Here To Stay
According to Thakur, Jaguar is still relevant as it has excellent cockpit visibility that makes deep ingress in adversary territory below radar detection range. He said that the aircraft has an excellent combat range on account of the low fuel consumption.
The avionics have been continuously upgraded to improve the accuracy of navigation and weapon delivery. A lot of good weapon systems have been integrated with the aircraft. Thakur added that Jaguar is an inexpensive platform compared to fighters like the Rafale.
“Upgrades to the Jaguar have added weight, as a result of which the aircraft has become underpowered for medium-level operations. The impact of the additional weight on low-level performance is minimal.
Being twin-engine, the aircraft is safer to operate than aging single-engine fighters like the MiG-21 Bison. A lot depends on the availability of spares — but it’s open for discussion if the purchase of 31 Christmas Tree Jaguars from France can keep the fleet operational for another five years or more?” he argued.
In recent years India has purchased old and grounded Jaguars as well as Mirage 2000 fighters primarily to make use of spares for maintenance. These decisions have been questioned by military experts and policymakers as spending limited resources to keep the old fighter jets flying.
However, it is only indicative of the Indian resolve to keep these jets operational in the foreseeable future.
Furthermore, the IAF is currently acquiring two Fixed-Base Full Mission Simulators (FBFMS) for Rs 357 crores ($47M) from HAL, which includes a five-year complete maintenance contract. The simulators will be stationed at the Air Force bases in Jamnagar and Gorakhpur, where fighter pilots will receive advanced training.
The subsequent upgrades and new plans for the Jaguar could be a potential response to an ever-changing security environment. The aircraft also recently participated in the ‘Vayu Shakti’ exercise conducted in March this year, alongside Rafale and Sukhoi Su-30.
Jaguar MAX & AMCA
Thakur said in his tweet, “My skepticism aside, there’s some thrill in reading what HAL imagines the MAX would wield. Remember, it would also wield HAL’s Unmanned Wingman concept that I tweeted about earlier, the design of which is a blatant copy of the Kratos Valkyrie XQ-58A Low-Cost Attritable Aircraft.”
The EurAsian Times had earlier reported that a few days after the AMCA stealth fighter entered the production phase in March, HAL revealed an in-development loyal wingman project.
Both aircraft are scheduled to take their test flight in 2024. The project, known as the Combat Air Teaming System (CATS) ‘Warrior,’ began in 2018 and was unveiled at Aero India 2021.
CATS will include a manned fighter aircraft that will serve as the system’s “mothership”. There will be a swarm of UAVs and UCAVs that will be controlled by the mothership. CATS’ Warrior’ will be one of the UCAVs or loyal wingmen of the system.
There has been some speculation that the Jaguars would be retired as soon as India’s indigenous fifth-generation stealth fighter is inducted into service.
Currently, the IAF is already short of the sanctioned strength and it is believed that keeping archaic aircraft such as the Jaguars, Mirage 2000 and MiG-21 Bison has been a part of a strategy to have as many planes as it is possible.
“The AMCA will not enter service before 2040, assuming it does enter service. The loyal wingman concept paradigm would require India to acquire digital twin-based design & development capability which would, in turn, enable us to rapidly develop low-cost drones to undertake different tasks”, says Thakur.
He added, “I believe India is at least 10 years away from digital twin-based design capability. The gaps between Indian capability and ambitions are chasms. Jaguar Max operating with traditionally designed drones could be used for concept incubation.”
While the AMCA is still several years away from being officially inducted into service and India’s operational preparedness has been challenged by a belligerent China since the 2020 conflict broke out, a Jaguar MAX concept, if followed through, could work as a force multiplier.