The Indian Air Force (IAF) has done a stunning about-turn, sharply criticising the showpiece Indo-Russian project to co-develop a futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). Even as New Delhi and Moscow finalise a $6 billion deal to co-develop an FGFA with capabilities tailor-made for India, the IAF has alleged the Russians would be unable to meet their promises about its performance.
So vital is the FGFA considered for the IAF's future that Defence Minister A K Antony has publicly rejected any prospect of buying the American fifth generation F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, declaring the FGFA would suffice. In 2007, New Delhi and Moscow highlighted the fighter's criticality by signing an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) placing the project above MoD procurement rules. Moreover, Indian scientists say the expertise gained from the FGFA will provide crucial momentum for developing an all-Indian fifth generation fighter, designated the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Yet, with so much riding on the FGFA, the IAF has taken aback the MoD with its complaint that it would not be good enough. On December 24, in a meeting in New Delhi chaired by Gokul Chandra Pati, the secretary of defence production, top IAF officials argued the FGFA has "shortfalls… in terms of performance and other technical features."
Business Standard has reviewed the minutes of that meeting. The IAF's three top objections to the FGFA were: (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information with India; (b) The fighter's current AL-41F1 engines are inadequate, being mere upgrades of the Sukhoi-30MKI's AL-31 engines; and (c) It is too expensive. With India paying $6 billion to co-develop the FGFA, "a large percentage of IAF's capital budget will be locked up."
On January 15, the IAF renewed the attack in New Delhi, at a MoD meeting to review progress on the FGFA. The IAF's deputy chief of air staff (DCAS), its top procurement official, declared the FGFA's engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered, India's work share too low, and that the fighter's price would be exorbitant by the time it enters service.
Top MoD sources suspect the IAF is undermining the FGFA to free up finances for buying 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated $18 billion, an acquisition that has run into financial headwinds because of budgetary constraints. In October 2012, then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, announced the IAF would buy only 144 FGFAs instead of the 214 that were originally planned. Having cut the numbers, the IAF is now questioning the very benefit of co-developing the FGFA with Russia.
Fifth-generation fighters are qualitatively superior to current "Generation 4.5" fighters like the Sukhoi-30MKI. They are designed for stealth, which makes these near-invisible to radar; they "supercruise", that is, fly at supersonic speed without lighting engine afterburners (which some current fighters like the Rafale also do); and they have futuristic avionics and missiles.
The MoD and HAL have countered the IAF's objections to the FGFA. Russian officials have clarified that the current prototype's engine, the AL-41F1, is a temporary solution to let the flight-test programme continue. A new engine being developed in Russia will eventually power both the FGFA and PAK-FA.
Officials also say the FGFA programme involves co-developing radar far superior to the one on current prototypes. The Russian Air Force wants conventional radar for its version of the FGFA, which looks only towards the front. The IAF wants two additional radars that look side-wards, allowing the pilot vision all around. Now the Russians are evaluating a similar requirement.
Asked for comments, the IAF has not responded. The MoD and HAL, who were requested for comments via email, have also remained silent.
While the MoD, HAL and the IAF continue discussions, Russia has gone ahead with developing a fifth-generation fighter. The Sukhoi Design Bureau has designed and done 300 test-flights of the T-50, the stealth fighter Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) plan to refine into the FGFA in about eight years. The Russian Air Force, which has less ambitious specifications than the IAF, plans to induct into service its own version of the T-50, the PAK-FA (Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or 'Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation') by 2017-18.
After the IGA of October 2007, a General Contract was signed in December 2008 between HAL and Rosoboronexport, Russia's defence exports agency. This laid out general principles of cooperation, such as work share, cost sharing and sale of the FGFA to third countries. In December 2010, a Preliminary Design Contract was signed, which led to the FGFA's basic configuration and selection of its systems and equipment. With that completed in June 2013, the crucial R&D contract is now being negotiated. This will encompass the actual design and development of the FGFA.