India Goes Russian: Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft

People’s Democracy

Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 43

October 28,

India Goes Russian: Fifth Generation Fighter





INDIA and Russia finally signed an agreement last week
for “co-development” of a fifth-generation fighter, a truly contemporary
air-superiority aircraft that should be inducted around 2012-15 and serve the
Indian Air Force through the next 30-40 years. The far-reaching agreement came
during the Seventh Meeting of the Inter-governmental Commission on
Military-Technical Cooperation and was signed by its co-chairs A K Antony and
his counterpart Anatoly Serdyukov. It had taken six years of prolonged
negotiations before the deal could be finalised in January this year. The delay
was caused not only by the legendary Indian inability to take timely defence-related
decisions, but also by recent qualms in sections of the strategic establishment
about committing India to yet another long-term military acquisition from Russia
even while making efforts towards such a relationship with the US.


Russia had long been urging India to come on board
this project. Russia is keen to cement a place in India’s long-term defence
aviation plans and is prompted also by the need of its own cash-strapped
aircraft industry for a financing partner. India’s political and military
leaderships however did not commit themselves. At one stage, it appeared that
India was pursuing the possibility of acquiring the highly acclaimed
fifth-generation US F/A-22 Raptor, which has just entered into service. But it
soon became clear that, despite the blossoming nuclear deal and Indo-US
strategic partnership, it was unlikely that the US would sell these aircraft to
India leave alone permit co-production or any form of technology transfer which
have proved to be a considerable hurdle even in negotiations for possible
acquisition of fourth-generation F-16s or F/A-18s for India’s tender for 126
multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA).


The fifth-generation fighter deal was signed along
with other important agreements such as transfer of technology to India to
produce the RD-33 engines for India’s MiG-29 fleet (and the maritime version
fighters to be delivered with the Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier) and a
protocol of intent for the joint development and production of a Multi-role
Transport Aircraft (MTA). Traditional relations between Russia and India in
military technology have been going through a rough patch in recent years with
both sides finding it difficult to adjust to new geo-strategic and commercial
realities since the collapse of the Soviet State and the end of cold war era
relationships. India’s decision to go the Russian route despite the many
technical, commercial and political difficulties is therefore significant in
more ways than one.




Jet fighters first made their appearance towards the
end of World War II and several saw service in the Korean theatre as well,
famous among these being the US F-86 Sabre (extensively used by the Pakistan Air
Force including in the conflict with India in 1965) and early MiGs such as the
Mig-15 and 17. The “second generation” of fighters came into service during the
mid ‘50s and ‘60s and saw the introduction of supersonic aircraft equipped with
beyond-visual-range missiles and long-range radar, examples being India’s own
HF-24 Marut, Russia’s MiG-21 and the US F-104 Starfighter. Third generation
fighters of the ‘60s and ‘70s saw substantial upgrading of capabilities through
innovations in aeronautical design, avionics and missiles, and saw the evolution
of multi-role aircraft and air-superiority fighters such as the MiG-25 and 23,
France’s Mirage-III and Britain’s Harrier. Fourth generation jet fighters are
mostly multi-role heavily armed and highly manoeuvrable aircraft in service from
the mid-70s and ‘80s, with the US F-15 making up for the loss of air superiority
to the Gen3 MiGs, and including the French Mirage 2000, USA’s F-16 and F/A-18
Hornet and Russia’s MiG-27s, 29s.


India has been trying hard to upgrade its fighter
fleet and make up for the vacuum left by the rapid degradation of its large
MiG-21 fleet and the inordinate delays in the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)
through acquisitions of a motley mix of 3rd and 4th generation aircraft. Most of
these have been acquired in too few numbers to even think of co-production, a
crucial requirement for defence forces as large as India’s from both economic
and strategic points of view.


The Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, tailored to Indian requirements,
was the first major acquisition in decades, the order being for 40 bought
outright and 140 to be assembled or co-produced in India, with an additional 40
bought-out aircraft ordered during the above mentioned meeting. The Su-30 MKI
and the US Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet are generally termed G4+ or G4.5
generation fighters because they are evolutionary upgrades of fourth generation
technology with enhanced capabilities enabled by the huge advancements in
micro-computers in the ‘80s and ‘90s leading to significant improvements in
avionics, target tracking-and-acquisition and weapons systems, airframe designs
besides materials, control systems and sheer power.


G5 fighters represent a decisive leap in aircraft
design and capabilities. Fifth generation designs continue the emphasis on
versatility but add radical new developments. True G5 aircraft must have
supercruise, that is ability to fly long distances at supersonic speeds without
use of after-burners, which can only be used in short, bursts because of the
drastically increased fuel consumption. Stealth technologies are also integral
elements of G5 aircraft: airframe designs with angles to deflect radar and use
of materials that absorb rather than reflect tracking beams minimise if not
eliminate the radar profile of the aircraft. Other features include thrust
vectoring (or engines with swivel nozzles for directional variation of thrust
enabling vertical or short take-off and landing, and high manoeuvrability
including even reverse flight as in the Su-30 MKI), lightweight composite
materials, advanced radar, sensors and electronic warfare suites, and integrated
avionics to enhance pilot control and situational awareness.


The US Lockheed-Martin F/A-22 ‘Raptor’ is the only
fifth generation fighter in active service. The US-EU F-35 ‘Eurofighter’ or
Joint Strike Fighter is still under development and is yet to make its maiden


For once planning for well into the future, India has
decided to acquire a fleet of G5 aircraft with co-production and, if possible,
even joint development so as to maximise upgradation and absorption of advanced
production and design knowledge. It is expected that the aircraft will start
induction into the IAF around 2015.




While not too much is known about the project, some of
its basic contours are already clear.


The aircraft will be developed by a consortium led by
the Sukhoi Design Bureau along with the MiG corporation. It is expected to be
built around the so-called PAK-FA (Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi
Aviatsyi – Future Air Complex for Tactical Air Forces) basic design sometimes
designated Sukhoi T-50 (see artists conception alongside). The aircraft combines
features of the Sukhoi Su-47 and MiG-1.44 concept aircraft involved in a
competition for the fifth generation design-development contract. It is
conceived as an air superiority fighter with capabilities at least matching
those of the F/A-22 and F-35 JSF.


It is expected to have maximum speed around Mach 2.1
(over twice the speed of sound), altitude around 20 km with a range of 5500-7400
km depending on configuration, mid-air refuelling capability, supercruise
capability at Mach 1.5+ and thrust vectoring. Neither Russia nor India have
developed full stealth aircraft earlier, although radar-absorbent materials have
been used in the Su-30 MKI, and it remains to be seen how this develops, for
true stealth is central to G5. The aircraft will be equipped with multi-spectrum
surveillance systems including electronically-scanned phased array radar, laser,
optical and infra-red sensors, besides electronic warfare (EW) suites against
the full spectrum of electromagnetic threats. The IAF wants it to be highly
network-centred, capable not only of sharing tactical information but also of
real-time linkage with satellite-based tracking systems.


Air Chief Marshall Fali S Major announced that “the
air staff requirements for the fifth generation fighters have been made. It will
take five years for development and it will be 8-10 years before the first
fighter takes to the skies.”


What exactly the collaboration would involve is not


Unfortunately, design work on the Sukhoi T-50 has been
on-going since 2004 and the project is already past its basic design phase. Due
to indecision on joining the project, India has missed out on the opportunity of
being involved in the design process from the beginning and has thus lost an
important learning opportunity. Nevertheless, India has apparently been assured
that further development will be a fully collaborative effort involving both
countries, with Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) being the lead agency in


The present phase of the project is estimated to cost
around $8 billion (Rs 32,000 crore) which is quite modest considering that China
has three times the budget for its secretive XXJ project and the US F-22 Raptor
costs a massive $250 million per piece! Given Russia’s need for funds, the
project is likely to begin by using Indian financing and Russian engineering
with the aircraft being adapted to the demands of the Indian Air Force and then
further upgraded to full G5 capability. Once full-scale production commences,
the countries’ roles will be reversed. India and Russia have also apparently
agreed to share costs and intellectual property rights on a 50-50 basis.


It appears likely that India will contribute largely
to avionics as well as to composite material structures. For the former, India
will leverage experience it has gained on earlier technology upgrades notably
for the MiG-21 Bison and the Bars radar exported to Malaysia. For the latter,
India will build upon its experience on the LCA whose airframe uses around 60
percent composite materials, themselves contributing significantly to reducing
the radar cross-section (RCS) towards full stealth. The Russians will of course
provide the airframe and the engine.


What would be the major differences between the
Russian and Indian versions is also not in the public domain. Given the size of
territory Russia has to defend, it is likely to adopt a 2-engined configuration
whereas India may opt for a lighter single engine version or even a mixed fleet.
This configuration would not affect capability as is clear from the fact that
the F-22 Raptor is 2-engined while the US-EU F-35 JSF is a single-engined




The most obvious inference one may draw from the deal
is that India has well and truly embarked on a major modernisation of its air
force to serve its defence needs well into the 21st century, at least at the top
end of the fighter fleet with fifth generation capability. The production base
in the aeronautics industry for manufacture of such an advanced aircraft will
have significant linkages with other industrial and economic sectors.


The long-term significance of the Russian connection
remains to be evaluated in its many dimensions. There will certainly be greater
synergy within HAL and the IAF, and even the Naval air arm, in terms of
production and repair/maintenance given the strong presence of Sukhoi and MiG
aircraft in the fleets. This will greatly increase turn-around times and
efficiencies, and reduce costs.


Does this deal signal that India will also ‘go
Russian’ in its 126 MRCA tender? The synergy argument would certainly support
such a decision in favour of the MiG-35, a highly capable low-risk if untested
G4+ fighter. But there are sure to be powerful voices arguing in favour of
diversification to ‘go American’ by buying, say, the F/A-18 Super Hornet. Which
way will India go?


Some things are clear though. The fact that this deal
has been struck, and the nature of the deal, convey certain geo-strategic and
economic realities. Russia, earlier the Soviet Union, has always been and
continues to be a more reliable partner in military technology willing to share
technologies and enter into co-production agreements, and now co-development
too, all for much less cost in both financial and political terms. Can any
partnership with the US offer as much?


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