The priceless Indo-Russian project to co-develop the eponymous Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is dying of neglect. With the Indian Air Force (IAF) brass focused single-mindedly on procuring 126 Rafale fighters, the air marshals fear that an FGFA on the horizon would undermine their argument that the Rafale is essential. With the costly Rafale procurement imploding in slow motion, the FGFA is becoming collateral damage.
In October 2012, then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne, announced the IAF would buy only 144 FGFAs instead of the 214 that were originally planned. Having cut down the numbers, the IAF is now undermining the FGFA project itself.
After the apex Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission for Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) met on January 22 to discuss military cooperation, IAF officers whispered to a gullible media that the FGFA was dead. It was reported that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had told his Russian counterpart that joint research and development (R&D) was a waste of time. This was factually incorrect. What is true is that the IAF - for reasons that can only be guessed at - is scuttling a project to develop a fighter that would rank alongside the world's best.
Why is the FGFA important, more so than the Rafale? It is a fifth-generation fighter, which makes it operationally more capable than contemporary fourth-generation fighters like the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Gen-5 fighters are designed to be stealthy, which means enemy radar cannot detect them until it is too late. They "supercruise", i.e. fly at supersonic speeds without lighting engine afterburners (the Rafale can do this too); and Gen-5 aircraft have futuristic avionics and missiles. In a war with China, stealthy Gen-5 aircraft would be ideal for missions deep into Tibet, evading China's radar network, to destroy the Qinghai-Tibet railway and roads leading to the Indian border - to prevent China from quickly switching troops around on its superior border infrastructure.
So vital was the FGFA considered to India's aerospace capabilities that, in October 2007, New Delhi and Moscow signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) to co-develop the fighter, which placed the project above defence ministry procurement rules. The IGA states that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) would partner Rosoboronexport, Russia's defence exports agency, in co-developing the fighter. Furthermore, Indian engineers say the expertise gained from the FGFA would be valuable in building the planned indigenous Gen-5 fighter, designated the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Following the IGA, New Delhi and Moscow signed a General Contract in December 2008, stipulating general principles of cooperation such as the share of work and cost, and the sale of the FGFA to third countries. In December 2010, a Preliminary Design Contract was signed in which both sides contributed $295 million towards finalising the fighter's basic configuration, systems and equipment. With that completed in June 2013, the central R&D Contract is now being negotiated. This will govern the bulk of the work - the actual design and development of the FGFA.
Even as the IAF stonewalls the R&D contract negotiations, the need for India to come on board grows ever more pressing. Russia has already designed, built and flown the first prototypes of a Gen-5 fighter they call the PAK-FA (Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or "Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation"). The PAK-FA, built to Russian Air Force specifications, has already completed 650 test-flights. India's work share will lie in adapting this fighter to the IAF's requirements - which include advanced capabilities like all-round radar that can detect threats in a 360-degree envelope, and voice recognition software that allows the pilot to call out commands. In all, the IAF has specified some 40-45 improvements that they want over the PAK-FA. Indian designers, who will have to integrate these improved capabilities with the existing PAK-FA, are losing out by not participating in the on-going design and test flying in Russia.
The IAF's objections to the FGFA are (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information; (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 so expensive that "a large percentage of IAF's capital budget will be locked up." It is ironical that an air force that is eager to spend an estimated $20 billion on the entirely foreign, Gen-4 Rafale is baulking at spending a fraction of that on co-developing and indigenously manufacturing a Gen-5 fighter, which can be maintained and upgraded cheaply for decades to come.
An entire mythology has come up around the cost with even senior air marshals incorrectly stating that India will spend $11 billion on the FGFA. Even this inflated figure would be modest compared to the $40 billion that America spent in the 1980s and 1990s to develop the Gen-5 F-22 Raptor. Yet, in fact, this $11 billion figure was a defence ministry estimation in 2010, which included numerous items that have nothing to do with R&D. Firstly, the amount included both Russian and Indian expenditure; second, it included several options that India may not require, e.g. $1.5 billion for developing a twin-seat FGFA (which the IAF now says it does not want), and $1.5 billion for a new engine. Third, this included the cost of infrastructure that India must establish to manufacture the aircraft in large numbers for the IAF.
Since India urgently needs to start participating in the flight-test programme, of which the PAK-FA has already completed some 20 per cent, Sukhoi would have to build another prototype for India. That cost too is included in the estimation, along with the ground support equipment and training needed for a full-fledged Indian flight-test programme. With all of this factored in, officials closely involved in the negotiations say that India's share in the project could be about $3.5 to 4 billion.
Both sides have already talked around the R&D contract in such detail that it can be concluded in one sitting, provided Indian negotiators are given the green light from a clear-minded political leadership. The FGFA perfectly fits the "Make in India" idea; the strategy of being ready for a two-front conflict; and the IAF force structure of the future. From the standpoint of negotiation strategy, the timing is perfect. The rouble has plummeted more than 60 per cent against the dollar and the rupee in the last five months after the Ukraine crisis. The Russians will agree to the lower dollar rate that New Delhi has been proposing. The time to strike is now.