Are the Indians Turning Away from the Russian New Sukhoi Fighter?


2014-01-25 In a recent piece published in Business Standard, the Indians seem to be opting out of the T-50 or Russian 5th generation program.  Business Standard is a leading Indian publication which focuses upon on markets, companies, industry, banking and economic issues.

According to the paper:

The Indian Air Force has done a stunning about-turn, sharply criticising the showpiece Indo-Russian project to co-develop a futuristic Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). Even as New Delhi and Moscow finalize a $6 billion deal to co-develop an FGFA with capabilities tailor-made for India, the IAF has alleged the Russians would be unable to meet their promises about its performance…..

On December 24, in a meeting in New Delhi chaired by Gokul Chandra Pati, the secretary of defence production, top IAF officials argued the FGFA has “shortfalls… in terms of performance and other technical features.”

Business Standard has reviewed the minutes of that meeting. The IAF’s three top objections to the FGFA were: (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information with India; (b) The fighter’s current AL-41F1 engines are inadequate, being mere upgrades of the Sukhoi-30MKI’s AL-31 engines; and (c) It is too expensive. With India paying $6 billion to co-develop the FGFA, “a large percentage of IAF’s capital budget will be locked up.”

On January 15, the IAF renewed the attack in New Delhi, at a MoD meeting to review progress on the FGFA. The IAF’s deputy chief of air staff (DCAS), its top procurement official, declared the FGFA’s engine was unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered, India’s work share too low, and that the fighter’s price would be exorbitant by the time it enters service.

Top MoD sources suspect the IAF is undermining the FGFA to free up finances for buying 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for an estimated $18 billion, an acquisition that has run into financial headwinds because of budgetary constraints. In October 2012, then IAF boss, Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, announced the IAF would buy only 144 FGFAs instead of the 214 that were originally planned. Having cut the numbers, the IAF is now questioning the very benefit of co-developing the FGFA with Russia.

India has increasingly turned to the West for its combat aviation needs. India will be the largest user of C-17s outside of the United States, is a major consumer of C-130s, is rolling out the new P-8 maritime surveillance aircraft at the same time as the US Navy is doing so and has downselected the mainstay of the French Air Force new fleet, for its own mainstay 21st century combat aircraft.

T-50. Credit: Fox News
T-50. Credit: Fox News

Richard Weitz provided this warning with regard to the future of Russian arms sales to India:

“The growing competition from Western companies, problems with past Russian sales, potential budgetary cutbacks, and the increasing sophistication of India’s indigenous defense industry could lead New Delhi to buy fewer Russian weapons in coming years.”

Weitz argued in an earlier piece: “the Russian-Indian arms relationship has experienced recurring problems, especially Indian criticism regarding the inferior quality of some imported Russian weapons.” 

Earlier, we raised the question of whether it made sense to split India’s capabilities to produce modern fighter aircraft between Russian and Western designs and production approaches.

“Can India split its manufacturing capabilities between Russian and European manufacturers?  Politically, this might make sense but in terms of investments, infrastructures and capabilities significantly less so.”

The Business Standard piece has led to additional Western commentary on the Indian fighter dynamic.  In a piece by Fox News’s Maxim Lott:

Despite initial high expectations, the Indian Air Force appears to be souring on a joint development deal with Russia for a new fifth-generation fighter jet, according to the Business Standard, a major Indian business publication. The Russian prototype is “unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered,” said Indian Air Force Deputy Air Marshall S Sukumar at a Jan. 15 meeting, according to minutes obtained by the Business Standard.

That contrasts sharply with high hopes voiced by the Indian government when the joint project, to which the Indian government has contributed $6 billion, began.

“[The new plane] will have advanced features such as stealth, supercruise, ultra-maneuvrability, highly integrated avionics suite, enhanced situational awareness, internal carriage of weapons and Network Centric Warfare capabilities,” the Indian government said in a December 2010 press release. Those are all hallmarks of “fifth generation” aircraft.

The hopes at the time are encompassed in the following video posted by AkonTvPk1 in July 2013.

It is always easier to build a briefing slide presentation and video than it is to build a high quality manufactured product.

The Indians by engaging more deeply with Western firms and military partners are clearly shaping their approach to 21st century aviation and combat approaches. 

And they will certainly contribute innovations of their own along the way.

(See the piece by Gulshan Luthra on the key role of the Indian DRDO in the evolution of Indian defense capabilities:

Contrast the recent Russian experiences with what is going with Western partners. The introduction of the Rafale into India will lead to transformation of manufacturing processes, avionics and electronics modernization and innovation in concepts of operations.

The P-8 experience is beginning but could prove a significant stimulant for change as well.

We argued earlier:

Notably, this platform is being introduced at virtually the same time within the Indian and American navies, which can provide a lynchpin for collaboration on shared ISR and C2.

This is not to say that both navies will use the system to support their own national or sovereign missions.  It clearly will be.

But it puts in the hands of both navies at the same time a tool, which can evolve with the period ahead and shape new approaches to ISR and C2 necessary for the management of maritime security.

And because the P-8 is an open system and a part of a family of systems, the Indian Navy will certainly add new elements to its evolving ISR approach over time, and that some of those new capabilities clearly will be of interest to the US Navy as well.

In other words, by having a common baseline technology, the Indian Navy’s evolution will have a direct impact on the US Navy as well.

We argued in our book on the evolution of Pacific strategy that the Japanese Navy was being reshaped to deal with the Arctic and Chinese challenges and that the Japanese were moving eventually to seek maritime reach from the Arctic to the Indian Oceans.

The Japanese understand they will not do this by themselves but as a partner of the US Navy as well.

It is clear that such an evolution will be part as well of the growing reach of the Indian Navy in both Oceans of significance to India.

In effect, the P-8 will be part of the evolving naval collaborative framework between the Indians and the U.S. as well as with other allies. 

It is not just about acquiring arms; it is about shaping 21st century capabilities that work.