Hap­pen­ings at the Aero In­dia 2017 sig­ni­fied the next chapter in the Indo-Rus­sian fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft (FGFA) saga. Whether it will now move faster than the snail’s pace is yet to be seen. Speak­ing to the me­dia on the side­lines of the Aero In­dia 2017 ex­hi­bi­tion Vik­tor N. Kladov, Direc­tor of In­ter­na­tional Co­op­er­a­tion and Re­gional Pol­icy, Rostec, stated, “We are talk­ing of new de­sign and jointly de­vel­oped fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter jet. It will have a new en­gine with fifth gen­er­a­tion fea­tures”. He added, “We are not talk­ing about the PAK-FA (a Rus­sian built pro­to­type of the FGFA).”

Trust the hype in the In­dian me­dia head­lin­ing that “Rus­sia has up­graded its of­fer to In­dia on re­viv­ing the stalled FGFA project by putting on table a joint de­sign and de­vel­op­ment of a brand new fighter jet with a new en­gine”. This of­fer has been there all along and in fact re­ported by the same In­dian me­dia in yesteryears. Kladov also met De­fence Min­is­ter Manohar Par­rikar dur­ing the Aero In­dia ex­hi­bi­tion. Par­rikar had stated on Fe­bru­ary 14 that the Min­istry of De­fence (MoD) had con­sti­tuted a team to look into var­i­ous as­pects of the FGFA and it was likely to sub­mit its report within a month. A year ear­lier, our me­dia had re­ported that In­dia has been push­ing for talks with Rus­sia for FGFA while the Rus­sian me­dia had said that both coun­tries were fi­nal­is­ing the R&D de­sign con­tract with both coun­tries putting in $4 bil­lion each for the FGFA de­vel­op­ment. The R&D de­sign con­tract was to be signed in 2016 in all prob­a­bil­ity, and that In­dia is go­ing in for an FGFA that would be a ‘vari­ant’ of the Rus­sian sin­gle-seat FGFA, termed Sukhoi T-50 or PAK-FA. The pre­lim­i­nary de­sign of the In­dian FGFA has al­ready been worked out at a cost of $295 mil­lion, Rus­sian de­vel­op­ers hav­ing in­cor­po­rated over 40 mod­i­fi­ca­tions that In­dia wanted.

Rus­sian me­dia had also re­ported that Rus­sia has al­ready per­mit­ted the In­dian Air Force (IAF) test pi­lots to fly the pro­to­type FGFA. Now our me­dia says that since en­gine of the Rus­sian T-50 called PAK-FA (Prospec­tive Air­borne Com­plex of Front­line Avi­a­tion) pro­gramme, is not fifth-gen­er­a­tion, so In­dia had al­ready told Rus­sia dur­ing 2016 that it wanted a new en­gine and the plane must have su­per-cruise abil­ity, a 360-de­gree radar abil­ity, added stealth fea­tures among 40-odd other mod­i­fi­ca­tions, that was the ‘vari­ant’ that had al­ready been agreed upon in gen­eral last year, al­beit it was largely a new fighter. The me­dia had also at­trib­uted the de­lay in pro­gress­ing the Indo-Rus­sian FGFA project to the Rafale deal not hav­ing been fi­nalised with France. If true, this was il­log­i­cal as the Rafale deal only was for 36 air­craft while the IAF is fac­ing enor­mous crit­i­cal­ity in fighter air­craft.

In 2015, the Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on De­fence had in­formed the Par­lia­ment that the sit­u­a­tion of the equip­ping of the IAF was very grim and the na­tional se­cu­rity was be­ing com­pro­mised with IAF down to just 25 fighter squadrons against a sanc­tioned strength of 42. This report by the Par­lia­men­tary Stand­ing Com­mit­tee on De­fence was pre­ceded by a report by the Comptroller and Au­di­tor Gen­eral of In­dia (CAG) tabled in the Par­lia­ment point­ing out sev­eral crit­i­cal­i­ties in op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­i­ties not only of the IAF but also the Army Avi­a­tion Corps (AAC), fo­cus be­ing on poor ser­vice­abil­ity of Su30MKIs and AWACS, plus the ob­so­lete Chee­tah / Chetak he­li­copter fleets: ser­vice­abil­ity of over 210 x Su-30MKIs of 272 jets con­tracted from Rus­sia for over $12 bil­lion was just around 55-60 per cent against min­i­mum 75 per cent de­spite the first such fighter in­ducted 19 years ago and 14 x MiG squadrons were to be pro­gres­sively re­tired.

The over­all cost for pro­duc­ing 127 x FGFA in In­dia is es­ti­mated to be around $25 bil­lion, which was in news last year. What Kladov also stated was, “We have de­signs and plans…but we can­not com­mit our­selves un­less we see a will­ing­ness to con­tinue [from In­dia]”. Dur­ing the last visit of Na­tional Se­cu­rity Ad­vi­sor Ajit Doval to Rus­sia, he was ap­prised about the ex­tra­or­di­nary de­lay from the In­dian side in ink­ing the Kamov 226T util­ity helicopters to be man­u­fac­tured un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ pro­gramme. It is ev­i­dent from hap­pen­ings in re­cent months that de­spite the Prime Min­is­ter’s push and ex­hor­ta­tions for ‘ease of busi­ness’, the red tape has re­fused to re­duce espe­cially in mat­ters of de­fence. Rus­sia’s re­cent lean­ings to­wards Pak­istan could also have raised ap­pre­hen­sions in the minds of pol­icy mak­ers. But ul­ti­mately, what mat­ters is na­tional se­cu­rity; the crit­i­cal­i­ties of the IAF are enor­mous and the FGFA un­der ‘Make in In­dia’ will re­quire large ges­ta­tion pe­riod. China has al­ready un­veiled its fifth-gen­er­a­tion stealth fighter.

In­ter­ven­ing in the de­bate re­lat­ing to MoD’s func­tion­ing in Ra­jya Sabha on May 8, 2012, leader of the op­po­si­tion, Arun Jait­ley (now Fi­nance Min­is­ter) had said, “To an­a­lyse these se­cu­rity vul­ner­a­bil­i­ties of the coun­try, the geostrate­gic re­al­i­ties of In­dia have to be re­assessed. Our de­fence pre­pared­ness to­day must be in­te­gral to these changed re­al­i­ties.” There is plenty of rhetoric of this type by politi­cians while in op­po­si­tion, but when it comes to de­liv­ery when in power, all that said is con­ve­niently for­got­ten.

Two suc­ces­sive ‘neg­a­tive’ de­fence bud­gets in In­dia un­doubt­edly make China and Pak­istan happy but are we as a na­tion alive to the geostrate­gic re­al­i­ties of the en­larg­ing China-Pak­istan threat? As for the FGFA, we must get on with the project with­out wast­ing any more time.

Ul­ti­mately, what mat­ters is na­tional se­cu­rity; the crit­i­cal­i­ties of the In­dian Air Force are enor­mous and the FGFA un­der ‘Make in In­dia’ will re­quire large ges­ta­tion pe­riod



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