5th Gen Fighter – Still a Distant Dream

In its overall assessment, the IAF did not consider the FGFA platform suitable for induction and recommended cancellation of the project.

Issue: 5 / 2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By Sukhoi

In April this year, the military aviation fraternity in India received the disparaging news of the cancellation of the Indo-Russian project to develop a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This high profile project was decided upon and initiated in 2007. The project involved collaboration between the state-owned Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Sukhoi Design Bureau of Russia to develop a twin-engine FGFA based on the Russian T-50 PAK FA, single-engine FGFA that was already under development for the Russian Air Force and had gone beyond the drawing board and was approaching the test flight stage. The T-50 which has now been renamed as the Su-57, undertook its maiden flight three years later.

Since the mid 1960s, the IAF had patronised largely Russian combat platforms as also transport aircraft and helicopters. This was driven by a favourable political disposition between the two nations on account of which combat aircraft were more easily available to India, the procurement costs compared with those available from Western sources were relatively lower and the facility of licensed production was more easily available albeit without transfer of technology. The IAF thus operated a range of fighter aircraft in large numbers that included the MiG-21 and MiG-23 with their several variants, the MiG-25, MiG-27 and the MiG-29 from the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG, the Sukhoi Su-7 and the Su-30MKI from Sukhoi Design Bureau. From Western sources, the IAF received combat aircraft in much smaller numbers. It was thus only logical that the IAF should look at Russian help to graduate into the fifth generation and so it opted to do in 2007. Unfortunately, the project proved to be totally disappointing for the IAF.

After evaluation of the new fifth-generation platform that was being developed by the Sukhoi Design Bureau, in 2014, the IAF apprised the Ministry of Defence (MoD) about the inadequacies in the proposed fifth-generation platform. The engine had doubtful reliability and was not capable of delivering the thrust required to meet with the performance parameters of a fifthgeneration platform. The Russians were not prepared to undertake development of a new engine with the required thrust rating and in the time frame dictated by the programme. Besides, the stealth features of the airframe were badly engineered and the capability of the aircraft in this regard was doubtful. In all, there were over 40 parameters related to the features of the aircraft and its performance that required upgrade or redesign.

The IAF also observed that contrary to the agreement, there was no transfer of technology as the Russians were reluctant to share critical design information with the Indian team. Besides, the Russian side deviated from the prior agreement pertaining to work share for HAL. Practically, the work share for HAL was much lower than the 50 per cent originally agreed upon. There was marked increase in the price agreed upon and as the list of improvements required in the aircraft drawn up by the IAF was indeed significantly large, it would only serve to aggravate the steep and continuous escalation in the price.

In its overall assessment, the IAF did not consider the platform suitable for induction and recommended cancellation of the project. Initially, the MoD was not in agreement with the perspective and recommendation by the IAF. However, despite the investment of 2,500 crore already made, the MoD has finally decided to withdraw from the project and has informed the Russian government that the parent company can continue development of the platform. India would consider direct purchase of the aircraft when fully developed provided it is found suitable. This perhaps was the only option out of the logjam. But the question that stares the IAF in the face is – What next? The alternatives for entry into fifth-generation are Lockheed Martin F-35 through the Foreign Military Sales programme of the US Government if affordable and/or the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft project of the Indian aerospace industry.

Many believe that walking out of the FGFA deal will do wonders for the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) fighter programme. Jointly developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) and HAL, this fifth-generation fighter aircraft is expected to have next-gen cutting-edge aeronautical technologies.

Air Chief Marshal Raha (Retd) 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 testflight 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.

From a long-term perspective, in the absence of an appropriate indigenous capability, a successful foray into fifth-generation will remain a distant dream!