While negotiations with Dassault for the purchase of Rafales dragged on, India launched discussions on an ambitious project of developing an advanced combat aircraft in collaboration with Russia. While Rafale deal has reached a conclusion, at least for now, the negotiations on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are far from over.
During the Aero India Airshow that took place in Bengaluru in Karnataka in February 2015, Russia was confident that the long-delayed agreement with India on the joint production of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) could be signed before the end of the year. After a month, in March, India told Russia that once the contract is signed, it wants deliveries of the FGFA (a derivative of Sukhoi’s T-50) to begin in 36 months, instead of the 94 months envisaged earlier. The Indian government asked Russia to speed up the development process of the FGFA and agreed to drop some crucial conditions in return. For instance, India is also no longer insisting that all aircraft required by Indian Air Force (IA F) to be built in India by defence public enterprise Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL ). “We have agreed to a lesser work share for a realistic contract, with the initial lot of the FGFA being imported and the rest being made in India under technology transfer,” a defence source told a daily.
In order to expedite the deliveries of the FGFA, pretty much like the Rafales, India has opted to get the initial aircraft in fly-away condition, rather than insist on Make in India as goes the latest campaign of Prime Minister Narendra Modi. One of the main reasons for this is the severe shortfall of fighters in the IAF. The Indian Air Force has been struggling to build enough squadrons to counter threats from Pakistan and China. India requires at least 44 squadrons but has only 34 active squadrons. Fourteen of those are old and are set to be taken out of service this year. So, India has no option but to speed up the deal with its defence ally Russia.
Though the two countries signed an initial contract in 2010 to build the FGFA programme, they have not yet been able to agree to the final terms of the contract. The reasons are many – delays, costs overrun and unsteady technology. Last year, a prototype of the plane caught fire during a demonstration flight for technical evaluation, causing heated arguments between India and Russia. And in March, Russia finally admitted that they were having serious problems with their new ‘fifth generation’ T-50 stealth fighter. The admission came in the form of a decision to cut the number of production T-50s to be built by the end of the decade from 52 to 12. The IAF officials have been criticising the progress of the T-50 program for over a year.
The Russian problems were not new because it was in late 2013 that Indian pilots and aviation experts who had examined Russian progress noted that the T-50 as it was then put together was unreliable. The Russian radar, which promised so much, according to the Indian experts, has delivered insufficient performance. The experts also noted that the T-50s stealth features were unsatisfactory. Instead of answers to these questions, the Indian defence sector got excuses and promises until early 2015. And, Russia insisted that this is a misunderstanding, until now. Now the Russians are trying to portray the T-50 as a specialist aircraft to be built in small numbers.
A twist in the tale
Due to delay in the Rafale deal, India was all set to sign a deal with Russia for FGFA; however, Modi’s visit to France in April 2015 brought a twist to the story, when he announced that India was ready to buy 36 ‘ready-to-fly’ Rafale jets. One side, the government extended defence ties with France while signing the Rafale deal; on the other side, a report in business daily Business Standard, stated that India’s defence ministry is cold-shouldering Russian requests to continue negotiations on a “R&D Draft Contract”, which will govern the partnership to develop a futuristic, fifth-generation fighter. A letter from Russia’s powerful export agency, Rosoboronexport, points out that India’s defence ministry has not responded to Russian requests dated February 9 and March 3, which “suggested holding of the negotiations in February and March of 2015.”
But it does really threaten the FGFA. Arup Raha, air chief marshal has the answer, saying that Rafale cannot be replaced with the Russian combat aircraft because the IA F needs both. “In MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, refers to Rafale) and the FGFA, the requirements are slightly different. And they have their own capabilities. They complement each other but do not replace each other.”
Ajai Shukla, a defence columnist, wrote in a daily, “Indo-Russian project to develop FGFA is dying of neglect. Why is the FGFA important, more so than the Rafale? It is a fifth-generation fighter, which makes it operationally more capable than contemporary fourth-generation fighters like the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. In a war with China, stealthy Gen-5 aircraft would be ideal for missions deep into Tibet, evading China’s radar network, to destroy the Qinghai-Tibet railway and roads leading to the Indian border – to prevent China from quickly switching troops around on its superior border infrastructure.”
Laxman Behera, Analyst with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi, says, “The Russians want to export their ‘fifth generation fighter’ to India. With the Indian participation, Russia now has the billions of dollars it will take to carry out the T-50 development program. India is not just contributing cash but also technology and manufacturing capability. India is too heavily invested to easily withdraw from the T-50 effort, but that might change if it becomes obvious that the T-50 development is going to get a lot more expensive and take a lot longer.” Meanwhile, it has been in the news that the fifth generation fighter is expected to be delivered from 2017 onwards with the IA F expected to induct over 300 aircraft in the next two decades.