Each side to pledge $6 bn to co-develop plane.
Late on Thursday evening, in a triumph for the Russia-India defence relationship, the two countries signed off on a joint venture to co-develop a 15-20-tonne payload, 2,500-km range multi-role transport aircraft (MTA), which will replace the Indian Air Force’s venerable AN-32 at the end of the next decade.
But this path-breaking $600-million co-development of the MTA is likely to be dwarfed soon, when India and Russia each pledge $6 billion to co-develop the world’s premier fighter, a step ahead of the US Air Force’s F-22 Raptor, which currently rules the skies.
Senior defence ministry sources have confirmed to Business Standard that years of tortuous negotiations have been successfully concluded in time for Russian President Dimitry Medvedev’s visit to India in December. Russian and Indian negotiators have finalised a preliminary design contract (PDC), a key document that will allow designers from both sides to actually begin work on the fighter.
“The negotiators have done their job, and the Cabinet Committee for Security will consider the PDC, probably this month,” says the ministry official. “If the CCS gives the green signal, as is likely, the contract will be signed during Medvedev’s visit.”
HAL Chairman Ashok Nayak had indicated to Business Standard on a recent visit to HAL, Bangalore, that the deal was done. “It is in the system for approval,” said Nayak. “The respective work shares have been agreed to by both sides and once we sign the preliminary design contract, we will finish the design in about 18 months. Developing and building the fighter could take 8-10 years, and each side will pay $6 billion as its share.”
The Russian and Indian Air Forces each plan to build around 250 fighters, at an estimated cost of $100 million each. That adds up to $25 billion, over and above the development cost.
These astronomical figures prompted Russia into co-development with India. The inescapability of cost sharing was reinforced last year when the Pentagon was forced to shut down its F-22 Raptor programme. Since the technologies in the F-22 were deemed crucial to America’s technological superiority, the fighter was developed and built entirely within the US. As a result, its prohibitive cost — $340 million per fighter — forced the Pentagon to cap the programme at 187 fighters, just half what it planned to buy in 2006.
“If the US could not afford to go it alone on a fifth-generation fighter, Russia clearly cannot,” points out a senior Indian Air Force officer. “There was no choice but to co-opt India as a partner.”
Russia initially offered India partnership in the fighter programme around eight years ago, but there was little clarity then on crucial issues like work-share, ie, what systems and components each side would develop. From 2005-07, India’s growing closeness with the US slowed down the project. Progress received a boost from the Russia-India inter-government agreement in November 07.
But HAL sources recount that, even after the agreement, Russian negotiators’ concerns about sharing top-secret technologies meant that a green signal from Moscow was needed for every step of the negotiations.
“This is the first time that Russia is co-developing a cutting-edge military platform with another country. Therefore, they were unclear about how to share work in a top-secret project like this,” says a senior HAL official. “Before each step, the Russian officials wanted clearances from the highest level in Moscow. Those ‘presidential decrees’, as they call them, took their time.”
Consequently, says the HAL chairman, it has taken almost three years from the inter-government agreement to negotiate a general contract and non-disclosure agreement. In March 2010, a tactical technical assignment was signed, in which the work-shares were agreed upon.
Meanwhile, Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau has built a basic fifth-generation fighter, which Russia terms the PAK-FA, an acronym for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literally Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation). A prototype, tailored to Russian Air Force requirements, made its first flight in January 2010.
India’s work-share for the joint fighter programme, according to HAL officials, will amount to about 30% of the overall design effort. This will centre on composite components and high-end electronics like the mission computer, avionics, cockpit displays and the electronic warfare systems. Additionally, India will have to redesign the single-seat PAK-FA into the two-seater fighter that the IAF prefers. Like the Sukhoi-30MKI, IAF prefers one pilot flying and the other handling sensors, networks and weaponry.
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