India Goes Russian: Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft


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 flight.

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 clear.

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 India.

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 aircraft.


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?