The decks are clear for the ministry of defence (MoD) to sanction the long-delayed Indo-Russian project to jointly develop a cutting-edge “Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft” (FGFA).Business Standard learns that an Experts Group, headed by Air Marshal (Retired) S Varthaman, has submitted a report on July 7, finding that the FGFA project would be beneficial to India.
After MoD bureaucrats objected to the FGFA project on the grounds that it might duplicate, or hinder, the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), former defence minister Manohar Parrikar set up the five-person Experts Committee to consider this question.
After deliberating for six months, the Expert Committee has ruled there are no conflict lines between the FGFA and AMCA. In fact, the technological expertise that Indian engineers and designers would gain from working with Russian experts would feed positively into the AMCA project.
Meanwhile, the Defence R&D Organisation, through its subordinate Aeronautical Development Agency, can continue designing the entirely indigenous AMCA – based on its experience in developing the Tejas light fighter.
New Delhi and Moscow signed an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) a decade ago, in October 2007 for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to partner Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau in developing and manufacturing the FGFA. Between 2010-23, HAL and Sukhoi spent $295 million each on a “Preliminary Design” phase.
Now, the two sides are required to sign an “R&D Contract”, which the MoD told parliament on July 5, 2013, would “define the total scope; the work share and responsibilities of each side; and the financial implications of the programme.”
Reliable sources tell Business Standard that India and Russia have negotiated a draft R&D Contract, which commits both sides to spending $6.1 billion on the project –$3.05 billion each.
While India has dragged its heels for a decade since signing the IGA, Sukhoi Design Bureau has already designed the basic flying platform, named Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation” (PAK-FA).
At least six PAK-FA prototypes are already participating in flight-testing and flying displays, such as at the recent Paris Air Show. The draft R&D Contract commits Sukhoi to build the eighth, ninth and tenth prototypes for flight-testing in HAL, by Indian Air Force (IAF) pilots.
That means that, if the R&D Contract is signed this year, IAF pilots could be testing FGFA prototypes in Indian skies by 2020.
HAL chief, T Suvarna Raju, declined to comment on the Experts Group report, but told Business Standard that an early conclusion of the R&D Contract would allow HAL to play an important role in developing the PAK-FA flying platform into a combat effective FGFA for the IAF.
“If we join now, we will still get a significant part of the work share, thanks to delays in the PAK-FA project. HAL would co-design the avionics, including navigation systems, radars and weapon aiming devices. This is the heart of the fighter’s combat ability”, says Raju.
Delays in the PAK-FA’s development are attributable partly to hitches in designing a new, powerful engine that would let the fighter “super-cruise”, or travel at supersonic speeds on “dry thrust”, without engaging its fuel-guzzling afterburners. While engine-maker NPO Saturn has struggled to perfect a secretive new engine, dubbed the Izdeliye 30, the PAK-FA has been flying with the relatively underpowered AL-41FI engine – an uprated version of the Sukhoi-30MKI’s AL-31 engine.
However, at the Paris Air Show in July, Russian designers have claimed that the PAK-FA’s new engine would be ready to fly by December.
For the IAF, the FGFA project opens up the assured development of heavy fighters that will succeed the Sukhoi-30MKI, many of which have already completed 15-17 years in operational service. In the medium fighter category, the IAF would have two Rafale squadrons, possibly three if a follow up contract is signed for an extra squadron; and also three upgraded Mirage-2000 squadrons. In the light fighter category, there will be four squadrons of Tejas Mark 1A, and another light fighter for which procurement has been initiated. Amongst the contenders are the Swedish Saab Gripen E, and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70.
The FGFA is equally crucial for HAL’s Nashik plant, which is now building the last 35 Sukhoi-30MKI fighters of the 272 fighters contracted by the IAF. At a build rate of 12 fighters per year, the Sukhoi-30MKI production line will be idle by 2020. It remains unclear how many FGFA units the IAF will eventually buy, but for HAL Nashik, a production order is essential.