On ac­count of the tech­no­log­i­cal, ca­pa­bil­ity and price is­sues, the IAF was clearly un­happy with the plat­form and was keen that the project be called off


FGFA for the IAF

In­dia’s quest for a com­bat air­craft from a for­eign source to en­able the In­dian Air Force (IAF) to foray into the fifth gen­er­a­tion, be­gan on Jan­uary 26, 2007, when Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin vis­ited In­dia as the Chief Guest at the Repub­lic Day Pa­rade in New Delhi. The visit, which was the first by a Rus­sian head of state, went far be­yond be­ing merely cer­e­mo­nial, as a num­ber of agree­ments be­tween In­dia and Rus­sia in the fields of en­ergy, de­fence and space were signed. One of these was the agree­ment for an Indo-Rus­sian col­lab­o­ra­tion project to de­velop a Fifth-Gen­er­a­tion Fighter Air­craft (FGFA), cus­tomised to the needs of the IAF. The agree­ments in the do­main of aerospace and de­fence were extremely im­por­tant for the Rus­sian aerospace and de­fence in­dus­try as well, be­cause Rus­sia was keen to re­main in the num­ber one slot in the world as sup­plier of mil­i­tary hard­ware to In­dia. Besides, In­dia was ex­pected to spend as much as $30 billion on de­fence pro­cure­ment in the 11th Plan pe­riod from 2007 to 2012, a po­ten­tial that Rus­sia would do ev­ery­thing to ex­ploit. Besides, with the breakup of the Soviet Union and the emer­gence of a uni-po­lar world, In­dia was no longer de­pen­dent only on Rus­sia as the na­tion was free to ex­plore other sup­pli­ers as well. This par­a­digm shift would have been a mat­ter of se­ri­ous con­cern for Rus­sia.

The plan drawn up in the di­a­logue in the ini­tial three years be­tween In­dia and Rus­sia, was to de­velop a twin-seat ver­sion

of the Rus­sian T-50 PAK FA for the IAF. The sin­gle-seat ver­sion of this fifth-gen­er­a­tion plat­form des­ig­nated as the T-50 PAK FA was al­ready un­der de­vel­op­ment in Rus­sia. How­ever, the re­quire­ment of the IAF was for a plat­form ca­pa­ble of a carrying heav­ier pay­loads and a larger ra­dius of ac­tion. The ver­sion to be de­vel­oped for the IAF was called the Per­spec­tive Mul­ti­role Fighter (PMF).The project would re­quire an in­vest­ment of $6 billion, with a work-share of 50:50 with the state-owned Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Limited (HAL) as the In­dian part­ner. The time­frame for de­vel­op­ment of the FGFA was es­ti­mated as 10 years. A mem­o­ran­dum of un­der­stand­ing for pre­lim­i­nary de­sign work for the FGFA re­quir­ing an in­vest­ment by In­dia of $295 mil­lion, was signed In De­cem­ber 2010 be­tween HAL and two Rus­sian com­pa­nies Rosoboronex­port and Sukhoi. The pre­lim­i­nary de­sign work phase was com­pleted in 2013; but there­after, there have been no progress in the project.

In De­cem­ber 2014, it was for the first time that the IAF ap­prised the Min­istry of De­fence (MoD) about the in­ad­e­qua­cies in the pro­posed FGFA on ac­count of which it did not con­sider the plat­form suit­able for in­duc­tion. The IAF eval­u­ated the first pro­to­type of the T-50 PAK FA and was of the view that the air­craft had a num­ber of de­fi­cien­cies that were not ac­cept­able to the IAF. Af­ter an in depth as­sess­ment over the next cou­ple of years, the IAF cat­a­logued weak­nesses in the FGFA. Firstly, the AL-41F1 en­gine that was fit­ted on the FGFA was some­what un­der pow­ered to meet with the per­for­mance pa­ram­e­ters of a fifth-gen­er­a­tion plat­form as also was not re­li­able enough. The AL41F1 was not a power plant de­vel­oped specif­i­cally for this fifth-gen­er­a­tion plat­form, but was a mere up­grade of the AL-31 that pow­ers the Su-30 MKI that was a plat­form of the pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion. More im­por­tantly, the IAF felt that the plat­form on of­fer did not have the ca­pa­bil­ity at­tributes that the IAF was look­ing for. Ca­pa­bil­ity of its radar was in­ad­e­quate as it did not pro­vide the de­sired coverage and the IAF would have pre­ferred the new plat­form to be fit­ted with an AESA radar in­stead. The stealth fea­tures of the airframe were badly en­gi­neered and the ca­pa­bil­ity of the air­craft in this re­gard left con­sid­er­able room for doubt. The air­craft needed to be equipped with high tech­nol­ogy ad­vanced sen­sors, bet­ter net­work­ing ca­pa­bil­ity, more ad­vanced com­bat avion­ics and su­per cruise ca­pa­bil­ity. As listed by the IAF, in all, there were more than 40 pa­ram­e­ters re­lated to the fea­tures of the air­craft and its per­for­mance that re­quired im­prove­ment and that it would be the re­spon­si­bil­ity of the Rus­sians to do this.

The IAF also ob­served that con­trary to the agree­ment, there was no trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy as the Rus­sians were re­luc­tant to share crit­i­cal de­sign in­for­ma­tion with In­dia. Besides, work share of HAL was much lower than that orig­i­nally agreed upon at 50:50. The list of im­prove­ments re­quired in the air­craft drawn up by the IAF was in­deed large and would only serve to ag­gra­vate the steep and con­tin­u­ous es­ca­la­tion in the price. This, in all like­li­hood, would ren­der the plat­form un­af­ford­able price wise in the long run mak­ing it im­pos­si­ble for the IAF to in­duct this fifth-gen­er­a­tion plat­form in the num­bers re­quired. The Rus­sians were now de­mand­ing in ex­cess of $7 billion as against the orig­i­nally agreed sum of $3 billion as part of In­dia’s share in the de­vel­op­ment of the FGFA. On ac­count of the tech­no­log­i­cal, ca­pa­bil­ity and price is­sues, the IAF was clearly un­happy with the plat­form and was keen that the project be called off.

Un­for­tu­nately, to­day, both the MoD and the HAL are not pre­pared to ac­cept the IAF’s view­point. While for the MoD, the FGFA project has be­come a po­lit­i­cally sen­si­tive as well as a pres­tige is­sue, for HAL, it was more an is­sue of their sur­vival. Since the Su-30MKI project will be com­pleted in the next few years, the In­dian aerospace ma­jor is look­ing for an­other ma­jor air­craft project for its sur­vival. Given the fact that the ten­der for 126 medium multi-role com­bat air­craft has been can­celled and other projects such as for build­ing sin­gle en­gine com­bat air­craft in In­dia in large num­bers un­der the ‘Make in In­dia’ pro­gramme not mov­ing for­ward, HAL is keen that the FGFA project would come as a saviour and ought not to be can­celled. HAL is also of the view that the ex­pe­ri­ence gained with the FGFA project will ul­ti­mately help de­velop the in­dige­nous Ad­vanced Medium Com­bat Air­craft (AMCA) which is still on the draw­ing board and cur­rently with an uncer­tain fu­ture.

What­ever may be the com­pul­sions, po­lit­i­cal or other­wise, in the fi­nal anal­y­sis, it would not be pru­dent to dis­re­gard the pro­fes­sional as­sess­ment by the IAF to ar­rive at a fi­nal de­ci­sion on the fu­ture of the FGFA project.

The plan drawn up in the di­a­logue in the ini­tial three years be­tween In­dia and Rus­sia, was to de­velop a twin­seat ver­sion of the Rus­sian T-50 PAK FA for the IAF.

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