Indo-Russian Fifth Genration Fighter Aircraft Pact

Late on Thursday evening, in a triumph for the Russia-India defence
relationship, the two countries signed off on a joint venture to
co-develop a 15-20-tonne payload, 2,500-km range multi-role transport
aircraft (MTA), which will replace the Indian Air Force’s venerable
AN-32 at the end of the next decade.

But this path-breaking $600-million co-development of the MTA is likely
to be dwarfed soon, when India and Russia each pledge $6 billion to
co-develop the world’s premier fighter, a step ahead of the US Air
Force’s F-22 Raptor, which currently rules the skies. 

Senior defence ministry sources have confirmed to Business Standard
that years of tortuous negotiations have been successfully concluded in
time for Russian President Dimitry Medvedev’s visit to India in
December. Russian and Indian negotiators have finalised a preliminary
design contract (PDC), a key document that will allow designers from
both sides to actually begin work on the fighter.

HAL Chairman Ashok Nayak had indicated to Business Standard on a
recent visit to HAL, Bangalore, that the deal was done. “It is in the
system for approval,” said Nayak. “The respective work shares have been
agreed to by both sides and once we sign the preliminary design
contract, we will finish the design in about 18 months. Developing and
building the fighter could take 8-10 years, and each side will pay $6
billion as its share.”

The Russian and Indian Air Forces each plan to build around 250
fighters, at an estimated cost of $100 million each. That adds up to
$25 billion, over and above the development cost.

These astronomical figures prompted Russia into co-development with
India. The inescapability of cost sharing was reinforced last year when
the Pentagon was forced to shut down its F-22 Raptor programme. Since
the technologies in the F-22 were deemed crucial to America’s
technological superiority, the fighter was developed and built entirely
within the US. As a result, its prohibitive cost — $340 million per
fighter — forced the Pentagon to cap the programme at 187 fighters,
just half what it planned to buy in 2006.

“If the US could not afford to go it alone on a fifth-generation
fighter, Russia clearly cannot,” points out a senior Indian Air Force
officer. “There was no choice but to co-opt India as a partner.”

Russia initially offered India partnership in the fighter programme
around eight years ago, but there was little clarity then on crucial
issues like work-share, ie, what systems and components each side would
develop. From 2005-07, India’s growing closeness with the US slowed
down the project. Progress received a boost from the Russia-India
inter-government agreement in November 07.

But HAL sources recount that, even after the agreement, Russian
negotiators’ concerns about sharing top-secret technologies meant that
a green signal from Moscow was needed for every step of the
negotiations.

“This is the first time that Russia is co-developing a cutting-edge
military platform with another country. Therefore, they were unclear
about how to share work in a top-secret project like this,” says a
senior HAL official. “Before each step, the Russian officials wanted
clearances from the highest level in Moscow. Those ‘presidential
decrees’, as they call them, took their time.”

Consequently, says the HAL chairman, it has taken almost three years
from the inter-government agreement to negotiate a general contract and
non-disclosure agreement. In March 2010, a tactical technical
assignment was signed, in which the work-shares were agreed upon.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau has built a basic
fifth-generation fighter, which Russia terms the PAK-FA, an acronym for
Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literally
Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation). A prototype,
tailored to Russian Air Force requirements, made its first flight in
January 2010.

India’s work-share for the joint fighter programme, according to HAL
officials, will amount to about 30% of the overall design effort. This
will centre on composite components and high-end electronics like the
mission computer, avionics, cockpit displays and the electronic warfare
systems. Additionally, India will have to redesign the single-seat
PAK-FA into the two-seater fighter that the IAF prefers. Like the
Sukhoi-30MKI, IAF prefers one pilot flying and the other handling
sensors, networks and weaponry.