India held captive by Russia in FGFA strike fighter race
London, UK – 17 January 2013
By Tanvi Mishra
FGFA delay reveals Indian dependence on Russian aerospace
Even as Russian President Vladimir Putin’s visit to India last month resulted in the signing of ten bilateral documents, the thirteenth India-Russia summit failed to finalise the research and development contract for the FGFA (fifth-generation fighter aircraft programme) – dealing a blow to its postponed development and highlighting India’s vulnerability and dependence on foreign aerospace technology.
The R&D contract, reportedly worth USD 11 billion (GBP 6.8 billion), will chalk out details of work-share and the total development cost of the wider joint PMF (Perspective Multi-role Fighter) programme. It will also form the basis for the delivery of three prototypes – the first in 2014, then the remaining two in 2017 and 2019, respectively.
The Preliminary Design Contract (PDC) for the project, amounting to USD 295 million (GBP 183 million), was signed during Russian Prime Minister Dmitry Medvedev’s visit to India in December 2010. It provides for the development of 214 fighters – 166 single-seat and 48 twin-seat jets – by 2019. After the first delay that pushed the deadline to 2020, another announcement made it clear that the final delivery of the platform would be postponed till 2022.
India cut the number of aircraft in 2012 to 144 single-seat fighters and scrapped plans for twin-seat fighters stating time and budget constraints as primary reasons. Despite this alteration, the Sukhoi – Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft is set to be India’s biggest ever defence investment.
Despite critical setbacks for India’s next generation fighter programme, the decision to jointly develop the aircraft has reinforced an Indo-Russian alliance dating back to the Cold War era and strengthened bilateral defence cooperation between the two economies.
Banking on Russian technology transfer
State-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) defended the partnership, telling DefenceReport that “Russians have a proven track record of successful development of aircraft and, FGFA technology being a highly sensitive and advanced technology, it was logical for India to partner with Russia considering strategic relationship between the countries over the past decades.”
The US’ efforts in 2011 to secure Indian participation in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter Programme proved unsuccessful, and marked a turning point in India’s next generation fighter procurement plans.
According to Laxman Behera, a military and defence expert at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA), India rejected the offer owing to cost limitations along with the US’ policy of secrecy regarding technology transfer, among other factors.
“So far, we don’t have any (technology) sharing partnership with the US. So Russia fits really well into India’s plan to acquire technology from outside and it has been quite supportive, and since it is a licensed manufacturer here, there will be some technology transport to the Indian companies, particularly HAL which will be leading the Indian side,” Behera told DefenceReport.
Although the exact roles of the participating agencies are yet to be defined, it is known that India’s Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) will assist HAL on the Indian end while working with Russian prime Sukhoi to develop the strike fighter. HAL will be responsible for the “programme management and design for the FGFA” and Sukhoi will be “operating under the aegis of Rosoboronexport as the nominated Lead Designer-Lead Executer.”
HAL said that DRDO will be assisted by the Council of Scientific and Industrial Research and other Defence Public Sector Units (DPSUs) depending on their areas of expertise.
In addition to the benefit of sharing equal workspace with Russia, developing a fifth-generation aircraft is a motivation, in itself, for India. With China having tested two stealth platform designs already, the pressure on India is silently mounting – a concern about which HAL spokesmen spoke very openly. Of equal concern is the steady advancement of western air combat and air-to-ground strike capability.
“The international military fighter scenario towards the end of the decade is tending to a situation where a number of countries are likely to possess the fifth-generation (sic) F-35. The others operating would be fourth generation aircraft modified to the extent possible with contemporary technologies,” HAL spokesmen said.
But HAL – and the Indian MoD – is equally concerned about the surface to air picture in coming years, especially considering the visible and growing Chinese R&D in medium and high altitude surface to air missile (SAM) technology.
“The ground threat environment is likely to advance rapidly, wherein conventional aircraft of 1990’s technology would not stand a fair chance. Therefore, a need to develop a Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft for the Indian Air Force was felt and the PMF programme was conceptualised.”
4.75 – Spelling out FGFA limitations
The focal point of the Sukhoi-HAL FGFA has been its branding as a fifth-generation fighter jet, characterised chiefly by what designers say are its low observable characteristics, its advanced avionics and supersonic cruise capability. According to HAL, the Indian FGFA will also include “super manoeuvrability, enhanced situational awareness and networked centric warfare capabilities” among a range of other “stealth” capabilities being specifically engineered to meet the Indian requirement.
But aerospace experts say the platform still falls short of earning the ‘fifth-generation’ label. Senior Indian defence journalist Ajai Shukla confirmed that the jet would have an advanced design, but countered that, “based on photographs, based on analyses and videos, based on the performance it gave at the Moscow Air Show, I would say that it feels more like a little way short of a fifth-generation as of now. It’s more like 4.75.”
Shukla added that flight testing would expand a critical window for manufacturers to make performance and aerodynamics changes in order to boost FGFA’s capabilities.
Comparisons are also being drawn between the Indian FGFA and China’s Chengdu J-20. Seemingly smaller than its Chinese counterpart, the FGFA is likely to serve as an “air superiority fighter” and Shukla said that based on its size, the Chengdu “seems very much like a strike aircraft – it will pack a lot of ground-strike weaponry and seems too large to be an air-defence fighter.”
While critics also point to China’s J-15 and J-31 strike fighter development as a crucial step beyond India’s current air combat capability, Indian developers have placed their hopes in the FGFA as a capable counterbalance to newest China’s air-to-air threat. But the biggest challenge for India in fielding a viable next generation strike fighter will be managing its partnership with Russia, on which it is still critically dependent for technology transfer.
Feature photo / “PAK FA prototype tests in Russia” – Sukhoi
Inset photo / “PAK FA flight test” – Andrey Belenko