The proposal for India and Russia to jointly develop an advanced fighter — the eponymous Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) — has been formally buried. Business Standard has learnt that National Security Advisor Ajit Doval conveyed the decision to a Russian ministerial delegation at a “Defence Acquisition Meeting” in end-February.
Doval and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra, who attended the meeting, asked the Russians to proceed alone with developing their fifth-generation fighter. They said India might possibly join the project later, or buy the fully developed fighter outright, after it entered service with the Russian Air Force.
New Delhi and Moscow have discussed the FGFA since 2007, when they agreed that Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) would partner Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau (Sukhoi) in developing and manufacturing the fighter. In 2010, Sukhoi flew the fighter, called Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation” (PAK-FA). Seven prototypes are currently in flight-testing.
Russia said the PAK-FA met its needs, but the India Air Force (IAF) wanted a better fighter. So HAL and Sukhoi negotiated an $8.63-billion deal to improve the PAK-FA with the IAF’s requirements of stealth (near-invisibility to radar), super-cruise (supersonic cruising speed), networking (real-time digital links with other battlefield systems) and airborne radar with world-beating range. In all, the IAF demanded some 50 improvements to the PAK-FA, including 360-degree radar and more powerful engines.
Defence ministry sources who played a direct role in negotiations with Russia say much of this money was earmarked for Indian production facilities for manufacturing 127 FGFAs, and for India’s work share in developing advanced avionics for the fighter. It also included the cost of four PAK-FA prototypes for IAF test pilots to fly.
Now, the IAF has backed away from the FGFA because it argues the PAK-FA — which Sukhoi has been test-flying since January 2010 — is not stealthy enough for a fifth-generation combat aircraft.
Aerospace analysts who support the PAK-FA reject this argument. They point out that the US Air Force F-22 Raptor, was built with an extraordinary degree of stealth, but that proved to be counterproductive, since it resulted in high maintenance and life-cycle costs. Burned by that emphasis on stealth alone, US designers de-emphasised stealth while building their latest fifth-generation fighter, the F-35 Lightning II. Instead, they focused on building its combat edge through better sensors, highly networked avionics and superior long-range weapons.
The cancellation of the FGFA project has far-reaching implications for the IAF, for which this was once its high-tech future fighter. United Progressive Alliance (UPA) defence minister AK Antony had ruled out buying the F-35 Lightning II, arguing that India would have the FGFA to meet its fifth-generation fighter needs.
Indian aerospace designers also cited the FGFA experience as essential learning for developing the indigenous fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) is pursuing.
Now, the FGFA’s burial sets the stage for the IAF to eventually acquire the F-35 Lightning II, which comes in air force as well as naval variants. Indian military aviation, once overwhelmingly dependent upon Russian fighters, helicopters and transport aircraft, has steadily increased its purchases from America. On Tuesday, appearing before a US Senate panel for his confirmation hearings, Admiral Philip Davidson — nominated as the top US military commander in the Indo-Pacific, said the US should aspire to “break down” India’s historical dependence upon Russia.
The IAF has been split down the middle on the FGFA. Broadly, flying branch officers of the “French school”– whose careers have centred on the Mirage and Jaguar fighters — have tended to oppose the FGFA. Meanwhile, officers from the “Russian school”, their careers grounded in the MiG and Sukhoi fleet, have supported the FGFA.
Opponents of the FGFA have even argued that the project would duplicate and hinder the indigenous AMCA project. However, last July, an experts group headed by Air Marshal (Retired) S Varthaman, set up to consider this question, ruled that there were no conflict lines between the FGFA and AMCA. It stated that the technological expertise that would be gained from working with Russian experts would benefit the AMCA project.
In co-developing the FGFA, HAL was expected to deploy its experience in working with composite materials, which were to replace many of the metal fabricated panels on the PAK-FA. India was also expected to participate in designing the 360-degree active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. In addition, the experience of flight-testing the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft would be refined by flight-testing a heavier, more complex fighter.
These challenges were expected to imbue Indian engineers with genuine design skills, of a far higher magnitude than the lessons learnt from licensed manufacture.
In addition, the FGFA’s foreclosure means the loss of $295 million that India sunk into its “preliminary design phase” between 2010 and 2013.