After years of stalled negotiations with Russia, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is pulling the plug on an 11-year collaborative effort to develop and produce a fifth-generation fighter that would be used by both countries. The IAF opted to walk away from the project due to lingering differences over developmental costs, technology capabilities, and other points of contention – particularly what it feels is a lack of sufficient stealth for a fifth-generation aircraft.
Though Indian officials have stated that they might revisit the project at a later date or simply purchase the aircraft off the shelf once it has been inducted into service with the Russian Air Force, it appears likely that time and cost pressures have combined to push the IAF in a different direction.
The IAF is sorely in need of modern replacements for its aging platforms and seeks a stealth combat aircraft to comprise part of the high end requirement of its multi-role array of jet fighters. Therefore, leaving the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program – code-named Project 79L Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMRF) by the Indian Ministry of Defense – renders the IAF short a declared requirement.
With the IAF in need of covering a lot of ground quickly in order to make up for a shortage of numbers – plus the stated requirement of a stealth fighter with advanced combat avionics, sensors, and radars – there is now a lot of pressure for the service to find a solution within the next 5-6 years as platform retirements begin to shrink an already-stressed fighter fleet.
Recognizing this reality, the IAF appeared inclined to cut the cord with the Sukhoi Su-57 (T-50 “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation,” or PAK FA) platform developed by Russia in order to move in a different direction. This being India, however, the question now arises as to how fast the country can conduct the process of identifying and procuring a fighter to meet its requirements – particularly with the government stressing indigenization under its “Make in India” industrial procurement policy.
The FGFA project dates back to an initial announcement on October 20, 2007, made shortly after New Delhi and Moscow signed an intergovernmental agreement exempting the program from normal procurement rules.
Though a collaborative preliminary design contract worth $295 million was signed between India and Russia in December 2010 (with the design work wrapped up in June 2013), the two sides thereafter remained at loggerheads over issues such as cost; technology sharing; access to the Russian T-50 PAK FA prototype; and concerns over the engine type, weapons carriage system, and other technical detail concerns. The IAF, unimpressed with the PAK FA prototype, demanded that roughly 50 different improvements be made to the model, including a 360-degree radar and more powerful engines. Yet the Russian side stated that the plane met its needs.
While the IAF grew increasingly disenchanted with the project, so too did state aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The Indian participant in the industrial side of the project, which was partnering with Russia’s Sukhoi, HAL, felt it was not slated to receive sufficient work share (reportedly just 15 percent) in an estimated $25 billion program for which India was expected to foot half the bill.
Meanwhile, facing the prospect of two floundering major fighter projects in the case of both the FGFA and the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) procurement of the French Rafale, the Indian Defense Ministry placed fresh impetus on the FGFA project in 2015.
By December of 2015, Indian and Russian negotiators had reached an agreement in principle under which each side would contribute $4 billion (with $1 billion put up front by each side) toward the program’s research and development costs over seven years. This workshare agreement was expected to yield technology dividends for India on the back end while featuring as many as 40 elements that are updated and improved over the Russian version. Furthermore, the aircraft would be tailor made to meet Indian requirements.
All in all, this appeared, in theory, to meet all the Indian requirements.
The hope was then that the long-pending R&D contract could be inked no later than October 2016, at the Indo-Russian summit talks held in Goa. But as is often the case with all such high-end, expensive (and industrially complex) Indian defense projects, an agreement failed to be officially signed, and finalization of an agreement remained “just around the corner.”
Instead, India headed into 2017 without any agreement firmly in place to move the project forward.
By February 2017, Russian officials were stating that the FGFA would be a “completely new aircraft” not linked to the Sukhoi T-50 PAK FA program, but merely an aircraft that would build upon some of technologies within the latter platform.
Later, in March 2017, Indian officials announced that their side would only join in on the project if India were provided a full-scale technology transfer – including the aircraft’s valuable stealth capability. The Indian default position stemmed from the legacy Sukhoi Su-30MKI program, where, through India’s industrial end of the purchase, HAL received Sukhoi kits for assembly but failed to glean the know-how to manufacture the model on its own.
India thus sought the source codes for use in future upgrades that would include integration of its own weaponry, plus the added knock-on effect from FGFA work that would aid in the development of its own Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) project.
For its part, Russia remained noncommittal about the Indian demands.
This brings India – and the IAF more directly – to a crossroads in which the only other fifth-generation fighter option appearing on the horizon is the F-35 Lightning II from U.S. manufacturer Lockheed Martin. While the aircraft is pricey and presents a whole new level of aircraft maintenance requirements for India’s support structure to absorb, the likelihood that the U.S. administration would be willing to sell the aircraft to India appears high. But the double issue of a high price tag and building the necessary support infrastructure presents the Indian side with a formidable hurdle.
Meanwhile, the other viable option – waiting until the Russians bring the Su-57 into serial production and full Air Force operational service – requires further time and strategic patience, and would also involve an off-the-shelf procurement that the Indian government is unlikely to desire without concurrent industrial/technological trade-offs.
For now, the IAF appears stuck without an affordable, viable solution that its stretched budget could meet without forsaking other capitalization requirements. And the Indian government and Defense Ministry – hoping to harness high-end technologies through the now-defunct collaborative arrangement in order to advance their defense aerospace sector – find themselves without an essential wellspring of advanced cooperative learning for their aerospace designers.
Unless New Delhi is willing to downscale the IAF’s high-end requirements in the form of an industrial technology transfer arrangement with Sweden’s Saab for the non-stealthy Gripen E (as Brazil has done), or potentially piggy-back on Japan’s still-undefined next-generation fighter project, the likelihood is that its evolving strategic alignment with the U.S. will continue to grow via a limited procurement of the F-35.