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Moscow confused as IAF puts fifth-generation fighter on back burner to buy Rafale

Currently, the Sukhoi T-50 is powered by the NPO Saturn AL-41F1, which only is a souped-up version of the AL-31FP engine that powers the Sukhoi-30MKI

Ajai Shukla  |  Moscow (Russia) 

Moscow confused as IAF puts fifth-generation fighter on back burner to buy Rafale

The ongoing MAKS 2015 air show in Moscow features an impressive flying display by the Sukhoi T-50, the fifth-generation prototype fighter's first public outing in two years. But even the rousing applause fails to mask the disappointment of Russian officials at the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) foot-dragging in co-developing the T-50 into a "fifth generation fighter aircraft" (FGFA) that the IAF will buy.

Well-informed sources in Moscow say the IAF vice chief has written a letter that effectively blocks the FGFA project. It criticises 27 different aspects of the FGFA, raising questions that must be answered before New Delhi and Moscow put $2.5 billion each into jointly developing the advanced fighter.

Business Standard also learns the IAF has vetoed a Russian offer to co-develop a fifth-generation engine for the FGFA. This is baffling to the Russians, given the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) long-standing attempts at joint engine development in order to end India's expensive dependency on foreign vendors for aero engines. An internal DRDO estimation reckons that India will import aero engines worth Rs 3,50,000 crore over the next decade.

After the DRDO failed to develop the Kaveri engine to the level where it could power the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), it strived to persuade French engine-maker, Snecma, to co-develop an engine. But Snecma declined to share key technologies, especially those relating to materials that can withstand the hellish temperatures created in the engine's combustion chamber.

Nor has Washington agreed to share these technologies, even after President Barack Obama agreed during his January visit to New Delhi that a "joint working group" would explore US-India cooperation in engine technology.

DRDO and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) officials say the Russian offer of engine co-development fits well with the FGFA project itself, since the engine will power the same fighter. Currently, the Sukhoi T-50 is powered by the NPO Saturn AL-41F1, which only is a souped-up version of the AL-31FP engine that powers the Sukhoi-30MKI. A brand new, more powerful, engine is needed to let the FGFA supercruise, or fly at supersonic speeds while cruising without an afterburner. This is considered essential for a fifth-generation fighter.

Military aerospace experts worldwide believe that, given Moscow's economic distress, the T-50 project badly needs India's financial partnership to move forward. So far, the Russian Air Force has ordered only one squadron of T-50s.

Sergey Chemezov, who heads Rostec, the powerful Russian high-technology agency, downplays India's delay. "As for the involvement with India, there is a certain delay, though this is not something that we (Russia) can be responsible for. On our end we can fully continue the development of the project as per our commitments," Chemezov told Business Standard.

But even the defence ministry is questioning why the IAF is delaying a project it has earlier championed, and to which India has committed itself with an Indo-Russian inter-governmental agreement (IGA) and the expenditure of about $300 million in a "preliminary design phase". Critics of the IAF allege it is scuttling the long-term benefits of co-developing the FGFA in order to quickly buy the Rafale, preferably in numbers larger than the 36 fighters that the prime minister requested in Paris in April. A defence ministry official says that, in its eagerness to obtain the Rafale, the IAF has deliberately placed holds on every other aircraft procurement, including the FGFA, the Tejas and the plan to extend the Jaguar's service life by fitting it with a new engine.

According to this official, the IAF aims to create the impression of a dangerous shortage of fighters, so that the government buys the Rafale quickly. In another volte-face, the IAF has proposed that the FGFA not be co-developed but limited numbers of the T-50 fighter be built in India.

If implemented, this would take India back to the 1970s and 1980s procurement model, which involved license-producing fighters like the MiG-21 and Jaguar in HAL without Indian involvement in designing or developing the aircraft.

In the 1990s and 2000s this was superseded by another procurement model that was first implemented in the Sukhoi-30MKI. In this, India specified modifications to the baseline Russian fighter, improving the Sukhoi-30 into the Sukhoi-30MKI through advanced avionics and a thrust-vectoring engine. The much-improved fighter continues to be licence-built in HAL Nashik.

However, by accepting the Sukhoi T-50 without improvements, the IAF is reverting to the 1990s.

This would be a volte-face by the IAF. Three years ago, the IAF has specified 40-45 improvements that it deemed essential for the T-50, listing these out in a so-called "Tactical Technical Assignment". This wish list included: 360-degree radar coverage by adding two sideward-looking radars; and more powerful engines;

The design and development needed for meeting the IAF's requirements would constitute India's work share of 25-30 per cent. If the IAF now demands the same fighter as the Russian Air Force, HAL's work share would fall to zero. And the IAF would get a fighter designed for the Russian Air Force.

Disclosure: The correspondent is visiting Russia at the invitation of Rostec, a Russian state body that promotes the development, manufacture and export of high-tech industrial products

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First Published: Fri, August 28 2015. 00:21 IST