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India, Russia close to PACT on next generation fighter

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Late last year, a defence ministry delegation to Sukhoi’s flagship aircraft facility in Siberia became the first Indians to set eyes upon the next-generation fighter that is slated to form the backbone of the future (IAF). In that first meeting, carefully choreographed by Sukhoi, the new fighter, standing on the tarmac waved a welcome to the Indians, moving all its control fins simultaneously.

The effect, recounts one member of that delegation, was electric. The senior IAF officer there walked silently up to the aircraft and touched it almost incredulously. This was the T-50, the first technology demonstrator of what India terms the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). Senior defence ministry sources tell Business Standard that — after five years of haggling over the FGFA’s form, capabilities and work-share — a detailed contract on joint development is just around the corner.

The contract, which Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) will sign with Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), will commit to building 250 fighters for the IAF and an equal number for Russia. The option for further orders will be kept open. and will be equal partners in a joint venture company, much like the Brahmos JV, that will develop and manufacture the FGFA.

The cost of developing the FGFA, which would be shared between both countries, will be $8-10 billion (Rs 37,000-45,000 crore). Over and above that, say IAF and defence ministry sources, each will cost Rs 400-500 crore.

Sukhoi’s FGFA prototype, which is expected to make its first flight within weeks, is a true stealth aircraft, almost invisible to enemy radar. According to a defence ministry official, “It is an amazing looking aircraft. It has a Radar Cross Section (RCS) of just 0.5 square metre as compared to the Su-30MKI’s RCS of about 20 square metres.”

[That means that while a Su-30MKI would be as visible to enemy radar as a metal object 5 metres X 4 metres in dimension, the FGFA’s radar signature would be just 1/40th of that.]

A key strength of the 30-35 tonne FGFA would be data fusion; the myriad inputs from the fighter’s infrared, radar, and visual sensors would be electronically combined and fed to the pilots in easy-to-read form.

The FGFA partnership was conceived a decade ago, in 2000, when Sukhoi’s celebrated chief, Mikhail Pogosyan, invited a visiting Indian Air Force officer out to dinner in Moscow. Boris Yeltsin’s disastrous presidency had just ended, and Russia’s near bankruptcy was reflected in the run-down condition of a once-famous restaurant. But, as the IAF officer recounts, the vodka was flowing and Pogosyan was in his element, a string of jokes translated by a female interpreter.

Late that evening Pogosyan turned serious, switching the conversation to a secret project that, officially, did not even exist. Sukhoi, he confided to the IAF officer, had completed the design of a fifth generation fighter, as advanced as America’s F-22 Raptor, which is still the world’s foremost fighter. Russia’s economy was in tatters, but Sukhoi would develop its new, high-tech fighter if India partnered Russia, sharing the costs of developing the fighter at Sukhoi’s plant, Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Organisation (KnAAPO).

Reaching out to India was logical for Russia. During the 1990s — when thousands of Russian military design bureaus starved for funds, and a bankrupt Moscow cancelled 1,149 R&D projects — India’s defence purchases had kept Russia’s defence industry alive, bankrolling the development of the Sukhoi-30 fighter; the Talwar-class stealth frigates; the Uran and Klub ship-borne missiles; and the MiG-21 upgrade.

But co-developing a fifth generation fighter is a different ball game, financially and technologically, and India’s MoD hesitated to sign up. Meanwhile enriched by hydrocarbon revenues, Moscow gave Sukhoi the green light to develop the FGFA, which Russia terms the PAK-FA, the acronym for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literally Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation).

Today, Russia is five years into the development of the FGFA. In November 2007, India and Russia signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement on co-developing the fighter, but it has taken two more years to agree upon common specifications, work shares in development, and in resolving issues like Intellectual Property Rights (IPR).

The prototype that Sukhoi has built is tailored to Russian Air Force requirements. But the IAF has different specifications and the JV will cater for both air forces, producing two different, but closely related, aircraft. For example, Russia wants a single-seat fighter; the IAF, happy with the Su-30MKI, insists upon a twin-seat fighter with one pilot flying and the other handling the sensors, networks and weaponry.

Negotiations have resolved even this fundamental conflict. India has agreed to buy a mix of about 50 single-seat and 200 twin-seat aircraft. Russia, in turn, will consider buying more twin-seat aircraft to use as trainers. But even as both countries narrow their differences, fresh challenges lie ahead: preparing India’s nascent aerospace industry for the high-tech job of developing and manufacturing a fifth-generation fighter.

(This is the first of a two-part series on the IAF’s fifth-generation fighter)

(Part II: FGFA negotiating hardball: Russia says India brings little to the table)

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