Indo-Russian Fifth Genration Fighter Aircraft Pact

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

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

Senior defence ministry sources have confirmed to Business Standardthat years of tortuous negotiations have been successfully concluded intime for Russian President Dimitry Medvedev’s visit to India inDecember. Russian and Indian negotiators have finalised a preliminarydesign contract (PDC), a key document that will allow designers fromboth sides to actually begin work on the fighter.

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

The Russian and Indian Air Forces each plan to build around 250fighters, 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 withIndia. The inescapability of cost sharing was reinforced last year whenthe Pentagon was forced to shut down its F-22 Raptor programme. Sincethe technologies in the F-22 were deemed crucial to America’stechnological superiority, the fighter was developed and built entirelywithin the US. As a result, its prohibitive cost — $340 million perfighter — 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-generationfighter, Russia clearly cannot,” points out a senior Indian Air Forceofficer. “There was no choice but to co-opt India as a partner.”

Russia initially offered India partnership in the fighter programmearound eight years ago, but there was little clarity then on crucialissues like work-share, ie, what systems and components each side woulddevelop. From 2005-07, India’s growing closeness with the US sloweddown the project. Progress received a boost from the Russia-Indiainter-government agreement in November 07.

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

“This is the first time that Russia is co-developing a cutting-edgemilitary platform with another country. Therefore, they were unclearabout how to share work in a top-secret project like this,” says asenior HAL official. “Before each step, the Russian officials wantedclearances from the highest level in Moscow. Those ‘presidentialdecrees’, as they call them, took their time.”

Consequently, says the HAL chairman, it has taken almost three yearsfrom the inter-government agreement to negotiate a general contract andnon-disclosure agreement. In March 2010, a tactical technicalassignment was signed, in which the work-shares were agreed upon.

Meanwhile, Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau has built a basicfifth-generation fighter, which Russia terms the PAK-FA, an acronym forPerspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literallyProspective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation). A prototype,tailored to Russian Air Force requirements, made its first flight inJanuary 2010.

India’s work-share for the joint fighter programme, according to HALofficials, will amount to about 30% of the overall design effort. Thiswill centre on composite components and high-end electronics like themission computer, avionics, cockpit displays and the electronic warfaresystems. Additionally, India will have to redesign the single-seatPAK-FA into the two-seater fighter that the IAF prefers. Like theSukhoi-30MKI, IAF prefers one pilot flying and the other handlingsensors, networks and weaponry.
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