India and Russia's Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft

By Dan Darling

With Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi set to visit Russia on July 7, speculation is swirling about the potential for a final agreement between the two countries regarding a jointly developed and produced Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). Since March, reports have circulated that India – faced with combat aircraft capacity pressures – is willing to exhibit greater negotiating flexibility with the Russians in order to move the program forward.

In addition to the non-stealth Dassault Rafale as its preference for a medium swing-role fighter, India has long viewed the FGFA as critical to meeting its air force's advanced jet fighter requirements.

As centerpieces of India's future strategic airpower component, both platforms are considered crucial in terms of providing more modern fighter options while also helping fill the Indian Air Force's (IAF's) goal of fielding 42-44 fighter squadrons by around 2027.

Officially the IAF currently fields 34 squadrons, but parliamentary reports indicate just 25 are operationally available. Even worse for the IAF, 14 of the supposed 34 squadrons are composed of aging MiG-21 and MiG-27s, due to be phased out of service by 2025 and 2020, respectively.

The new FGFA fighters are meant to help fill this emerging gap.

Code-named Project 79L by the Indian Defense Ministry, the FGFA program came to life with an initial announcement on October 20, 2007, shortly after New Delhi and Moscow signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement exempting the program from normal procurement rules.

The project soon began to take form when India and Russia signed a collaborative preliminary design contract in December 2010, whereby each side put up $295 million toward finalizing the aircraft's basic configuration. That endeavor involved Russia's United Aircraft Corp (UAC) and India's Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).

Yet while the preliminary design phase on Russia's nascent fifth-generation fighter, the PAK FA (Sukhoi T-50), was wrapped up in mid-2013, by early 2014 it was becoming increasingly clear that both the Indian Air Force and HAL had grown disenchanted with the project.

Cost pressures spurred the IAF to announce in December 2012 a decision to reduce its planned FGFA buy from 214 to just 144 units. There have since been reports that the IAF would seek to trim the latter total further, down to 127 aircraft, as worries mounted that the high cost of the project may consume funding otherwise directed to the service's various procurement programs.

Still other concerns besides cost have soured the IAF on the FGFA program. These include the slow pace of the aircraft's development, reluctance on the part of Russia to provide India with critical design information as well as information on multiple technical aspects of the aircraft (including the aircraft's stealth features, active electronically scanned array radar, AL-41F1 engine, and weapons carriage), and a desire for a mixed buy of both single-seat and two-seat aircraft.

Meanwhile, HAL has argued that under current conditions, India would be footing half of the $12 billion total cost of the project's development while receiving just 15 percent of the work share in the program. For its part the Russian side – much like Dassault during its negotiations with India concerning localized production of the Rafale – believes India's involvement in this aspect will increase over the lifespan of the program as local industry slowly absorbs the new technology and begins production of key aircraft components.

These sticking points aside, once a government-to-government deal was reached in April with France for a direct purchase of 36 Dassault Rafale jet fighters, the Defense Ministry's focus immediately swung back to inking an FGFA agreement with Russia. Bringing the new fighter types on line in concurrence with the phase-out of older models is of paramount importance to India as it warily eyes the aviation advancements of neighboring China.

The Indian side has already shown a willingness to be flexible in order to wrap up a deal, earlier offering up a quid-pro-quo to Moscow whereby it would scrap its initial demand for a 50-50 design and work-share split with Russia in return for an acceleration of the delivery schedule (three years after the contract is inked, rather than the previous eight-year window).

Now it appears that the Defense Ministry may forego both early-stage indigenous work-share demands and the IAF requirement for a two-seat aircraft in order to move the project forward. As a further gesture, India is reportedly willing to include a firm order for 154 FGFAs in the draft agreement – a sop to Russian concerns regarding T-50 development and unit-production costs, as well as concrete assurance of an export order.

With pressures on its own end for achieving economies of scale that would push down costs on the PAK FA – while additionally ensuring its traditionally strong defense export pipeline to India continues – Russia is no doubt eager to consummate a final agreement with New Delhi. As such, it is likely that the Russian negotiating position will bend some as well – and bend it must, as the IAF seeks as many as 40 changes to the T-50 prototype.

In the end both sides seek to finalize an agreement for the simple reason that both parties stand to benefit greatly from one.

A finalized deal will enable Russia to more easily bear the costs of the expensive PAK FA development while providing its air force with a state-of-the-art stealth combat aircraft and its industry with the necessary momentum to maintain a level of technological equality with the U.S. as it rolls out its second stealth fighter, the F-35.  

India, meanwhile, seeks an advanced fighter to keep pace with the developments being undertaken by its strategic rival, China, while padding its combat aircraft squadron totals so as to mitigate quantitative airpower disadvantage vis-à-vis the People's Liberation Army Air Force. The improved fighters will also better enable the IAF to defend the country's airspace in the unlikely event of a two-front war with China and Pakistan. On the industrial side, India will benefit from the absorption of advanced technologies into its aerospace sector.

So regardless of whether a final deal is hammered out during the prime minister's visit to Russia, expect one to be reached in the near future. 

Dan Darling
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