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Gen-5 fighters, missiles on Modi's Moscow agenda

The S-400 Triumf mobile air defence missile that India seeks to buy from Russia

Ajai Shukla  |  New Delhi 

S-400, Defense missile, Russia, India
A frame grab taken from footage released by Russia's Defence Ministry, shows a Russian S-400 defense missile system deployed at Hmeymim airbase in Syria. Photo: Reuters

Why is Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Russia on what much of the world considers Christmas Eve? Because it will not be Christmas in Russia until January 7, according to the Gregorian calendar, when Orthodox Christians - Russia's majority - celebrate Christmas.

Nor will Modi be mistaken for Santa Claus with a stocking filled with defence orders. India is no longer handing Moscow the meaty contracts that, from 1970-2000, met 70 per cent of India's military equipment requirements.

Even so, there could be significant announcements about India's purchase of Kamov-226T helicopters, S-400 air defence missile systems, and the long-delayed contract for joint development of the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). "Russia does things with us; [and] we do things with Russia, which we don't do with any other country," said Foreign Secretary S Jaishankar, briefing the media on Modi's visit, on Tuesday. While Jaishanker declined to predict what announcements could be made, here are some that are likely.

FGFA and Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA)
Once the flagship of Indo-Russian defence cooperation, the FGFA project illustrates the downswing in relations. For two-and-a-half-years, the two sides have bickered over a research and development contract (R&D), under which India would commit about $4 billion (Rs 26,464 crore) for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to work with Sukhoi to evolve the Russian T-50 stealth fighter (already flying) into an FGFA that incorporates India's requirements.

Business Standard learns that, last month, discussions were concluded on the R&D contract. While this clears the way for a positive announcement in Moscow, the Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to block the FGFA. Its criticism is intended to reinforces the impression of an aircraft shortfall, thus increasing pressure on New Delhi to buy more Rafale fighters, beyond the 36 already contracted with Dassault.

New Delhi will now decide whether to restrict the FGFA project to buying 60-70 T-50 fighters off-the-shelf from Russia, or to go ahead, as earlier planned, with joint development and the manufacture of larger numbers of a customised fighter. The FGFA project kicked off in October 2007 with an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) between New Delhi and Moscow. In December 2008, a general contract stipulated work share and cost, and conditions under which the FGFA could be sold to other countries.

In December 2010, under a Preliminary Design Contract, each side paid $295 million (Rs 1,952 crore) to finalise the FGFA's configuration and systems. Since June 2013, when this was concluded, negotiations have dragged on over the R&D contract.

Standing in the way is the IAF, which announced in October 2012 that it would buy only 144 FGFAs, instead of the 214 originally planned. On December 24, 2013, as reported by Business Standard (January 21, 2014, Russia can't deliver on Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft: IAF ) the IAF told the defence ministry the FGFA's performance was below par. On January 15, 2014, at a Ministry of Defence review meeting, the IAF said the FGFA's engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered, India's work share too low, and the fighter's price too high.

While the FGFA's future hangs in the balance, that of another Indo-Russian joint development project - the Multi-role Transport Aircraft (MTA) - is almost certainly dead. For three years negotiations have remained deadlocked and there is little likelihood of change soon.

Kamov-226T helicopters
The proposal to build 197 Kamov-226T light utility helicopters in India has moved quickly after Modi committed to Putin, during their last annual summit, that India would give Russia the contract.

What remains to be decided is whether Russian Helicopters' Indian partner will be Reliance Defence, or HAL. Both firms have lobbied hard, but the decision will be a political one.

The Kamov-226T is a 3.5 tonne, two-pilot, light helicopter that is specially modified with a new engine for India's high-altitude operations along the Himalayan borders.

S-400 air defence missiles

The vaunted S-400 missile system - a long-range, mobile, surface-to-air missile system (M-SAM) that can shoot down incoming aircraft and several types of ballistic missiles - could see a high profile announcement on Thursday.

On December 17, the defence ministry cleared the purchase of five S-400 units, which could be used to protect high-value targets.

Submarine and frigates
India and Russia have negotiated since 2012 for leasing a second nuclear attack submarine (SSN), to supplement INS Chakra, the Akula II class SSN that the navy has leased for ten years for some $900 million (Rs 5,954 crore). Navy sources say this negotiation is entangled in a larger package of naval systems, including the sale of three Krivak-III frigates of the Grigorivich-class (Project 1135.6) to India. The navy, which already operates six such frigates, is keen for three more, which are lying part-built by Yantar Shipyard in Russia.

Russia wants the frigates to be completed in Yantar Shipyard, but the defence ministry wants to build them under 'Make in India'. The navy, aware that India's frigate-building shipyards are already full to capacity, is keen on building in Russia. Complicating this further is Russia's wish to be awarded, without competitive bidding, India's Project 75I contract to build six conventional submarines with air-independent propulsion (AIP).

The defence ministry wants competitive tendering, and is also apprehensive that Russia has not yet mastered AIP technology.

First Published: Thu, December 24 2015. 00:28 IST