India will ink the world's single largest defence deal by closing the 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract in a couple of months. As these fourth generation fighter jets join the Indian Air Force fleet, China will prepare to launch its fifth generation stealth fighter Chengdu J-20. China is racing ahead towards the planned induction of its indigenous stealth fighter in 2017. The Chengdu J-20, which made its debut in January this year, has already flown two prototypes, within a span of four months. In India's case, however, the two shortlisted contenders — Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale, both only fourth generation — are still undergoing price negotiations. The commercial bids for the US $15 billion deal were opened on 4 November.
Eurofighter Typhoon from the European consortium EADS — comprising Italy, Germany, Spain and UK as partner nations — is a twin-engine, multi-role fighter. A question mark exists on its air-to-ground capability. The UK audit watchdog NAO has criticised the Typhoon for its problems with spares availability, flying hours, immature estimates in funding and inefficient collaborative decision making. It has said that the aircraft will not have full multi-role capability for some years.
To add to this, the Typhoon is still in the process of acquiring air-to-ground attack capability, which was tested unsuccessfully in Libya recently.
French Dassault Aviation's twin-engine Rafale fighter is operational only in the French Navy and Air Force, and recently lost out the US $10 billion deal it had hoped to sign with the United Arab Emirates.
Highly priced, approximately around $80 million a piece, neither Typhoon nor Rafale has a proven radar (the tender requirement is for an AESA [active electronically scanned array]). This came to light during laboratory trials. The manufacturers said that the radar would be integrated once the deal was finalised.
It would take almost four years for the first aircraft to arrive after the deal is inked. So by the time India gets its fourth generation aircraft in 2016, the Chinese will be ready to induct their fifth generation aircraft.
Taking the lead in almost all its indigenous equipment trials, China seems to be well ahead of schedule in its weapons platforms. Their aircraft carrier Varyag entered sea trials in July 2011. The fifth generation stealth fighter J-20's debut this year helped China enter the elite club of fifth generation fighter jet owners. The other members of the club are the United States and Russia. While Russia took a year to make the second flight of its fifth generation stealth fighter PAK-FA, or T-50, with the first flight in January 2010, and the second in 2011, China has taken a lead in its stealth fighter trials.
Having advanced stealth features and the capability of super cruising, the J-20's initial flights have given rise to speculation that the stealth fighter may already be being developed further. Western experts have called the stealth shaping of the J-20 better than the Russian PAK-FA (T-50) and the American F-35 fifth generation fighters. The J-20 will also have an AESA radar, electro-optical sensors, glass cockpit, fly-by-wire systems and bays for weapons of all ranges.
On record, Air Force officers back the Government of India's choice. Former Air Chief F.H. Major told The Sunday Guardian, "The Chinese may be aiming at a fifth generation aircraft, but India, too, has entered into a similar venture with Russia. Since J-20 is not yet inducted, we don't know what capability it will have, whereas the shortlisted MMRCA fighters, the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale are already flying in some countries, so we know their capabilities. Except stealth, which is an exclusive fifth generation feature, most four plus and fifth generation fighters have common features, like EW systems, weaponry and super cruise."
Former Western Air Command Chief, retired Air Marshal A.K. Singh said, "Technologically there may not be much of a difference, except stealth. Arms and ammunition put onboard make a difference, which is not known for any of these aircraft. As far as inter-operability, manoeuvrability and sensors go, I don't think there is much of a difference."
Former Air Chief S. Krishnaswamy said, "The AESA radar on both Typhoon and Rafale may have been demonstrated in a laboratory, but by the time they are inducted, these radars will be a part of the fighters as that's the tender requirement. But other avionics and sensors, like SAR, FLIR, IR will be better on the Indian planes, since we have access to western technology, which the Chinese do not have. How much can they research-develop and reverse-engineer?"
About the IAF's FGFA (fifth generation fighter aircraft), former Air Chief P.V. Naik had said that the IAF's requirement was of a twin-seater, with higher level of avionics, swing role, super cruise capability and long range weapons. In December 2010, India and Russia signed a preliminary design contract to jointly develop a FGFA, on the lines of the twin-engine T-50, also called PAK-FA, Perspective Future Aviation Komplex for Frontline Aviation. The fear is that this project will be subject to the huge delays that have dogged joint ventures with Russia.