India and Russia Defence Cooperation: R&D - Final Contract for Fifth Generation Fighter Jet

Perspective By Dr. Petr Topychkanov

"Position of Russia in India is strong in certain niches. At the same time, even in those spheres of the Indian-arms market in which Russia feels quite surely today and it will do both countries good if they maintain it."

Cooperation between Russia and India has made great progress in the area of aircraft construction. However, challenges the two countries face in this area could be dealt with to further develop on these successes.

Su-30MKI

In 1996, Russia and India concluded a $3.5 billion contract for the design and manufacture of the two-seat twin-engine Su-30MKI fighter. By this contract, India was supplied 18 Su-30K fighters between 1997 and 1999, and 32 Su-30MKI fighters between 2002 and 2004. In 2007-2008, India received 18 Su-30MKI fighters for $700 million. Beginning in 2008, supply of 40 Su-30MKIs to India began, for the sum of $1.6 billion.

In 2000, India signed an agreement for the licensed production of Su-30MKIs in Nasik. Components for assembly are delivered there from Irkutsk, Russia. A total of 140 fighters were to have been assembled. During the course of the project, the parties decided against full localisation of production, limiting it to the assembly of parts supplied from Russia. In the words of V.P. Isaikin, “The Su-30MKI fighter is the foundation of the Indian Air Force. They know it well. These aircraft have the possibility of being upgraded at Indian production sites after a few years.” According to information from 2015, there are 350 Su-30MKI fighters in the Indian Air Force.

Military Transport Aircraft

Contrasted with this successful project, joint development of the military transport plane and the fifth generation fighter have yet to make progress. Russia and India signed an Agreement for Joint Implementation of a Program for the Creation of a Multipurpose Transport Aircraft on 12th November, 2007. In January 2005, Defence Ministers of both countries gave instructions that an inter-governmental agreement be readied within a period of two months. According to O.F. Demchenko, General Designer at A.S. Yakovlev Design Bureau, “The bureaucratic apparatus worked in such a way that we have not been able to issue an inter-governmental accord in two years.”

After the document was signed, the project continued to proceed at a similar slow pace. The direct contract for the design of the aircraft was signed in May 2012 instead of the projected 2008.

In November 2012, an office was opened for the joint enterprise MTA Ltd (MTAL) in Bangalore; its founders were the United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) (25%), Rosoboronexport (25%) and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) (50%). Instead of launching the first flight tests in 2013 as expected, MTA had only developed a preliminary design by autumn that year. According to that design, the length of the aircraft was to have been 33 m; wingspan - 30 m; maximum takeoff weight - 55-60 tons; load carrying capacity - 18.5 tons; flight range - 2,000 km; and cruising speed - 800 km. However, this draft design has still to be approved. This made Y. Slusar, president of the UAC call on the Indian side to “maximally speed up all procedures for the approval and acceptance of the results of the preliminary stage (design)” in June 2015.

Fifth Generation Fighter Jet

The agreement between the Russian and Indian governments on Joint Development of a Prospective Multifunction Fighter was signed on 18th October, 2007. A year earlier, the Indian side had sent the requirements and characteristics of the future aircraft to the Russian side, but these requirements were generally ignored, since Russia decided to focus on the “joint modification” of the Russian PAK FA (T-50) plane instead of on joint development of the prospective fighter.

In December 2008, a general contract was signed for the development of the fighter, and in December 2010, the contract for the development of the preliminary draft was signed for $295 million. This project was completed by June 2013, instead of the planned 2012, after which both sides were to have approved it and transitioned to the building, testing, and production stages for the fighter. This did not happen due to unresolved issues.

In early 2014, it became known that the Indian Air Force’s major complaints were about the Russians’ reluctance to allow them full access to technology (even though from a financial standpoint this project was evenly split), the fact that the fighter did not conform to New Delhi’s requirements (particularly in relation to the engine and radar), and its price. Currently, prototypes of PAK-FA use the Saturn AL-41F1 engines, which are used by the Russian 4++ generation fighters, such as Sukhoi Su-35. The Russia PO Saturn Corporation announced in 2015 that the prototype of the second engine is expected to be ready for ground testing in the same year (but in fact the ground testing began in 2016). According to The Avionist report, the new engine shall be ready for the series production by 2020, with the first prototype being completed by 2016, and flight tests planned to happen in 2017.

This information is confirmed by Russian open sources. At the end of 2017, there will be the first flight tests of a new engine for the PAK-FA. At the same time the series production of the PAK-FA for the Russian Air Forces is expected in 2017. It means, that the Russian Air Forces will receive fifth generation fighters with engines, currently used in 4++ generation fighters.

However, India wants to have new, more powerful engines in all the fifth generation fidgets. If so, India will have to wait until the beginning of series production of new engines, fifth generation fighter equipment with these engines, commission these fighters by the Russian Ministry of Defence for the national Air Forces, and only after that India will be able to receive the first bunch of fifth generation fighters with new engines.

In March 2016, Sergei Goreslavsky, Deputy Director of Russia’s arms exporting company, Rosoboronexport, told reporters during the Defexpo’16 in India: “The work is going on schedule, the draft design and development contract is currently being prepared after which the roadmap on the plane’s production will be determined. The negotiations are conducted constantly and intensively, but you can't jump over your own head, because everything should be agreed upon".

In July 2016, there were media reports about the final arrangements towards inking the final R&D design contract between India and Russia this year for the fifth generation fighter. "Apart from resolving technical and cost issues, Russia has also agreed to allow IAF test pilots to fly its prototypes now," said one of reports. The Russian open sources don’t confirm that the IAF test pilots will be allowed to fly PAK-FA, but this possibility should not be totally dismissed.

According to Indian reports, India and Russia will spend $4 billion each for prototype development, testing and infrastructure build-up under the main design contract to be executed in over six years. The overall cost of producing 127 of these single-seat fighters in India will be about $25 billion.

Conclusion

The Russian experience however indicates that military hardware export to India may lead to a stable presence on the Indian arms market only for a relatively short period of time. Such presence cannot be maintained without a qualitatively different level of cooperation. This is precisely the reason for the deepening of the Russian-Indian military-technological cooperation illustrated by the successful cruise missile, atomic submarine, and aircraft carrier projects. However, the Russian experience also reveals all of the difficulties on the path to developing cooperation and the failures the parties may encounter along this path.

In some areas, the position of Russia in India is much stronger, for example, in the field of nuclear power. In addition, a key feature of the Russian-Indian military and technical cooperation is joint development of technologies (for example, creation of the BrahMos). The position of Russia in India is strong in certain niches. At the same time, even in those spheres of the Indian-arms market in which Russia feels quite surely today and it will do both countries good if they maintain it.

The start of a global initiative of ‘Make in India’, declared on September 25th, 2014, by Indian PM Narendra Modi, shouldn't be considered only as the next loud PR campaign. This initiative is, in fact, a key element of the Indian national strategy, which will define the idea of development of trade and economic relations of India with other countries for many years to come.

Within this strategy, India will use military-technological cooperation for development of technologies and realise the need to import production. Moreover, India aspires to become a competitive exporter in the world. Hence, to keep or increase the level of cooperation with India, Russia cannot be limited to those niches, where she now takes strong positions, and those technologies, which make a basis of the Russian-Indian cooperation in civil and military spheres.

The fifth generation fighter cooperation between Russia and India may repeat the success of So-30MKI. Yet, it would be overoptimistic to expect that both countries will receive new fighters for their Air Forces as quickly as India received Su-30MKI. However, when IAF have new fighters, it is expected that it will be the main multifunctional aircraft of India for decades.

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