The Indian Air Force alleges Russians reluctant to share critical design information, besides technical and cost issues
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 20th Jan 14
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has done a stunning about-turn, sharply criticizing the showpiece Indo-Russian project to co-develop a futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). Even as New Delhi and Moscow finalise a $6 billion deal to co-develop an FGFA that will have capabilities tailor-made for India, the IAF has alleged that the Russians would be unable to meet their promises about the FGFA’s performance.
So vital is the FGFA to the IAF’s future that Defence Minister AK Antony has publicly rejected any prospect of buying the American fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, declaring that the FGFA would suffice for India. In 2007, New Delhi and Moscow highlighted the fighter’s criticality in an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) for the project. Indian scientists say the expertise gained from the FGFA will provide crucial momentum for developing an all-Indian fifth generation fighter, designated the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Yet, with so much riding on the FGFA, the IAF has taken aback the MoD with its complaint that it would not be good enough. On December 24, in a high-level meeting in New Delhi that was chaired by Gokul Chandra Pati, the Secretary of Defence Production, top IAF officials argued that the FGFA has “shortfalls… in terms of performance and other technical features.”
Business Standard has reviewed the minutes of that meeting. The IAF’s three top objections to the FGFA were: (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information with India; (b) The fighter’s current AL-41F1 engines are inadequate, being mere upgrades of the Sukhoi-30MKI’s AL-31 engines; and (c) It is too expensive. With India paying $6 billion to co-develop the FGFA, “a large percentage of IAF’s capital budget will be locked up.”
Top MoD sources worry that the IAF is deliberately undermining the FGFA in order to create the financial space for buying 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated $18 billion, an acquisition that has run into financial headwinds because of budgetary constraints. In Oct 2012, then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, announced that the IAF would buy only 144 FGFAs instead of the 214 fighters that were originally planned.
On January 15, the IAF renewed the attack in New Delhi, at a MoD meeting to review progress on the FGFA. The IAF’s deputy chief of air staff (DCAS), its top procurement official, declared that the FGFA’s engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered, India’s work share too low, and that the fighter’s price would be exorbitant by the time it enters service.
The MoD and HAL have been addressing the IAF’s objections about the FGFA. Russian officials have already clarified that the Sukhoi T-50’s current engine, the AL-41F1, is a temporary solution to allow the flight-test programme to continue. A new engine that is currently being developed in Russia will eventually power both the FGFA and PAK-FA.
Officials also point out that the FGFA will eventually field radar far superior to the one that the T-50 prototypes currently sport. The Russian Air Force wanted a conventional radar for their PAK-FA fighter, which looks only towards the front. The IAF, however, demanded two additional radars that look side-wards, allowing the pilot all-round vision, and greater awareness of the airspace around him. Now the Russians too are veering around to a similar requirement.
Asked for comments, the IAF has not responded. The MoD and HAL, who were requested for comments via email, have also remained silent.
While the MoD, HAL and the IAF continue discussions; Russia is going ahead with developing a fifth generation fighter. The Sukhoi Design Bureau has already designed and done 300 test-flights of the T-50, the stealth fighter that Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) plan to refine into the FGFA within 8 years from the time the deal is signed. The Russian Air Force, which has less ambitious specifications than the IAF, hopes to induct into service its own version of the T-50, the PAK-FA (Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation”) by 2017-18.
After the IGA of October 2007, a General Contract was signed in December 2008 between HAL and Rosoboronexport, Russia’s defence exports agency. This umbrella contract described general principles of cooperation, such as work share, cost sharing, and whether the FGFA could be sold to third countries. In December 2010, a Preliminary Design Contract (PDC) was signed. This allowed the two countries to draw up the FGFA’s basic configuration, select the systems and equipment that would go into it, and do wind tunnel studies. The PDC phase was completed in June 2013, and now the crucial R&D phase is being negotiated. This will encompass the actual design and development of the FGFA.