Not so stealthy anymore? India calls quits on the Sukhoi/HAL FGFA program

Indo-Russian relations, IAF's dwindling assets and no PAK-FA jets in the horizon

May 30, 2018 By Arpita Kala

While India has always had more than cordial relations with big brother Russia, the goodwill majorly rests on economic dealings. The two countries are targeting to increase bilateral trade from the present USD 7.83 billion to USD 30 billion by 2025. There were even talks to develop a free trade agreement during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to St Petersburg last year.

However, the falling through of the ambitious Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program, a fighter aircraft being developed by India and Russia, may just take a toll on their relations. The deal was born in 2007 and the preliminary design for 500 aircraft was agreed upon in 2010. If all had gone to plan, the PAK-FA jet should have been ready around 2018-19 since according to the joint development deal each country would have invested USD 6 billion and taken 8-10 years to develop.

The proposed stealth fighter would be an improved derivative of the twin engine, multirole Sukhoi Su-57 in two separate prototypes each for Russia and India.

"There are many aircraft with advanced technology available in the global market like F-35 and it's all a question of purchasing it. But for the long-term view, we should go ahead with AMCA wholeheartedly " says Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha (Retd).

Though no formal announcement has been made, senior Indian officials reportedly informed a visiting Russian ministerial delegation about India's withdrawal. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha (Retd) told SP's Aviation exclusively, "I'm not sure what the status is as of now but FGFA is a fifth generation fighter aircraft that any capable air force would like to have. We have had such a good strategic relationship with the Soviet Union...they have been a great friend in times of our need. It is a great pity if the project has fallen through. What I know is that it was supposed to be jointly developed and would have helped us with indigenisation of forces. But there were issues over work share, transfer of technology and costs where clarity was required. The two sides were working towards closure of the issues, so if this news is true then clearly those issues may not have been resolved to the satisfaction of the Indian side. But I'm hoping it isn't so and this program is closed successfully."

Do the Maths

The Russian number for the upgraded Su-57 is USD 6.7 billion for the program to produce around 130 aircraft. According to number-crunching by AINonline.com, the offer is far from a bargain. The aforementioned cost pays only for the program set-up and the production of the four FGFA prototypes. The following aircraft to then be license-built in India is likely to be USD 135 million each, adding USD 17.1 billion to the initial USD 6.7 billion.

Comparisons with the very-much-in-the-news Dassault Rafale are unavoidable too. Yet, the per-unit cost of the Su-57 at USD 183 million is still pricier than the USD 250 million for Rafale because the latter includes the additional costs for weapons systems and other infrastructure expenses unlike the Sukhoi jet.

Moreover, Russia had cut back their own share of purchases in 2016 and a few issues were raised about the work share for which a detailed agreement for joint production was also discussed in the same year. There were also reports about HAL surrendering 30% of its 50% work-share and concentrating on developing a trainer aircraft that is not immediately required at the moment by the Air Force. The state-owned aerospace and defence giant does have a dismal track record of missing deadlines and cost overruns, as is evident in the 14-year-delay in the Sitara jet, the multirole light combat helicopter derivative of HAL Dhruv etc.

Dire straits for IAF

The recent hoo-ha over the allocated defence budget is finally going to make sense now. Currently, the Indian Air Force has about 34 squadrons with 18-20 fighter jets each instead of its authorised strength of 42 squadrons. On top of that, 11 squadrons of the good ol' MiG-21 and MiG-27 fleet are supposed to be phased out, the former by 2018 and the latter in two lots. The upgraded MiG-27s will bid adieu in 2024. In short, the IAF is reportedly set to lose another 14 squadrons in 2019 -2020. While the order for 36 twin engine Rafales may just help the force gain strength, the first aircraft is scheduled to be delivered in September 2018 and the deliveries will be completed by April 2022. Meanwhile, the plan to induct light combat aircraft Tejas fighter in the forces have run into massive delays, unsurprisingly, as HAL has delivered only 6 of the 123 planes ordered by the IAF. There are also plans to order 201 more upgraded variants of the same. Now, with PAK-FA's alleged demise and, China and Pakistan up to their usual shenanigans, this does not bode well for India's combat capabilities.

Air Chief Marshal Raha also agrees. "There are two ways of doing it. There are many aircraft with advanced technology available in the global market like F-35 and it's all a question of purchasing it. But for the long-term view, we should go ahead with AMCA wholeheartedly. I am sure DRDO, ADA and HAL can join hands to do really well. I think we should emphasize more on its capability and it should be monitored at the highest level, I'll say the PMO or even the Prime Minister."

Neighbouring Pakistan may just collaborate with China on its own fifth generation fighter jet since they have already partnered to develop lightweight fighter, JF-17. Meanwhile the Chinese J-20 stealth fighter are operational and they have already begun developing a medium-weight stealth combat jet.

In spite of the downfalls, many believe that walking out of the deal will do wonders for the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter program. Jointly developed by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL, this fifth-generation fighter aircraft is expected to have Next-Gen cutting-edge aeronautical technologies such as stealth coating, super maneuverability, internal weapons release mechanisms etc. And, Air Chief Marshal Raha also agrees. "There are two ways of doing it. There are many aircraft with advanced technology available in the global market like F-35 and it's all a question of purchasing it. But for the long-term view, we should go ahead with AMCA wholeheartedly. I am sure DRDO, ADA and HAL can join hands to do really well. I think we should emphasize more on its capability and it should be monitored at the highest level, I'll say the PMO or even the Prime Minister."

However, the test-flight of the prototype has already been delayed from 2020 to 2025, which means that the initial plan of beginning production by 2025 will also take a hit. In that scenario, Lockheed Martin's F-35 is a likely candidate for immediate induction.

To Russia with love

India is one of the largest recipients of Russian arms exports and it remains to be seen how they handle the financial hit from the withdrawal. "That will be in the political domain," says Air Chief Marshal Raha if the withdrawal of the deal would sour Indo-Russian relationships. He also said, "We have about 65-70% of our equipment from Russia...so, I don't think this should matter. But if something doesn't fit your requirements, then of course the deal needs to be negotiated and I don't think anyone should feel bad about it."

Touché to that but India's exit may make the Russian scale back their plans in the absence of funds. Initially, 150 Su-57s were expected to be built by 2020 with the majority of these being final production models. This figure dropped to an initial purchase of just a dozen jets and the deliveries hadn't begun even by the end of 2017. With the newly enacted Countering America's Adversaries Through Sanctions Act (CAATSA) threatening Indo-Russia arms procurement and Pakistan showing keenness to build their relationship with Russia, things are about to get interesting.