Delays, challenges for Indo-Russian fighter - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Wednesday 16 May 2012

Delays, challenges for Indo-Russian fighter

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 15th May 12

Seven years before its scheduled completion, the defence ministry (MoD) has already announced a two-year delay in the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) that India and Russia will jointly develop.

Defence Minister AK Antony has been saying that the FGFA would join the Indian Air Force by 2017. On Monday, his deputy, MM Pallam Raju told parliament that “The fifth generation aircraft is scheduled to be certified by 2019 following which the series production will start.”

The FGFA is the flagship of the Indo-Russian partnership. Both countries say it will be the world’s most advanced fighter. But interviews with Indian designers who have overseen the project suggest significant disquiet. There is apprehension that the FGFA will significantly exceed its current $6 billion budget, because this figure reflects the expenditure on just the basic aircraft. Crucial avionics systems would all cost extra.

On the positive side, Indian designers say the FGFA project will provide invaluable experience in testing and certifying a heavy fighter aircraft that is bigger and more complex than the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), India’s foundational aerospace achievement.

The Russian and Indian Air Forces each plan to build about 250 FGFAs, at an estimated cost of US $100 million per fighter. That adds up to US $25 billion each, in addition to the development cost.

The FGFA’s precursor has already flown. In Jan 2010 Russian company, Sukhoi, test-flew a prototype called the PAK-FA, the acronym for Perspektivnyi Aviatsionnyi Kompleks Frontovoi Aviatsy (literally Prospective Aircraft Complex of Frontline Aviation). Now, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) will partner Sukhoi to transform the bare bones PAK-FA into an FGFA that meets the Indian Air Force’s requirements of stealth (near-invisibility to radar); super-cruise (supersonic cruising speed); networking (real-time digital links with other battlefield systems) and world-beating airborne radar that outranges enemy fighters.

But Sukhoi insists that the PAK-FA already meets Russia’s requirements, says NC Agarwal, the HAL design chief, who spearheaded the FGFA negotiations until his recent retirement. HAL worries that Russia might ask India to pay extra for further development, particularly the avionics that transform a mere flying machine into a lethal weapons platform. That would leave the $6 billion budget in tatters.

The IAF clearly wants a top-of-the-line FGFA. According to Ashok Nayak, who spoke to Business Standard as HAL’s chairman before retiring last Oct, the IAF has specified 40-45 improvements that must be made to the PAK-FA. These have been formalized into an agreed list between Russia and India, which is called the Tactical Technical Assignment.

A key IAF requirement is a “360-degree” AESA (airborne electronically scanned active) radar, rather than the AESA radar that Russia has developed. Either way, India would pay Russia extra: either in licence fees for the Russian radar; or hundreds of millions, perhaps billions, for developing a world-beating, 360-degree AESA radar.

Nor is the IAF clear on whether the FGFA should be a single-seat fighter like the PAK-FA, or a twin-seat aircraft like the Sukhoi-30MKI. A section of the IAF backs a single-seat fighter, while another prefers two pilots for flying and fighting a complex, networked fighter. During the ongoing Preliminary Design Phase (PDP), for which India has paid $295 million, a two sides will determine whether developing the PAK-FA into a twin-seat aircraft (inevitably more bulky) would reduce the FGFA’s stealth and performance unacceptably.

“The single-seat FGFA is essential for the IAF, and we will transform the Russian single-seat fighter into our single-seat version with a large component of Indian avionics. The twin-seat version will depend on the PDP conclusions,” says Nayak.

The PDP also requires Sukhoi to hand over design documentation to HAL, providing it a detailed insight into the design processes of the PAK-FA.  Since India took years to decide to join the FGFA project, HAL missed out the design phase entirely.

The 18-month PDP, which terminates this year, will be followed by the “R&D Phase,” which could take another 7 years, says the HAL chairman. The FGFA will be designed in both countries; some 100 HAL engineers already operate from a facility in Bangalore. Another contingent will move to Russia to work in the Sukhoi Design Bureau.

“Our boys will learn the Russian language; their way of working; their design rules; their design norms. We are left hand drive, while they are right hand drive. The Russians say they will part with all these things,” says Nayak.

But the most valuable learning, say HAL executives, will happen during the FGFA’s flight-testing. “Unlike the basic design phase, which we missed out on, we will actually gain experience during flight testing. This phase throws up dozens of problems and we will participate in resolving these, including through design changes.”

HAL engineers recount the complexity of flight-testing the Tejas LCA. “Fuel flow to the engine was a challenging issue. As the LCA flew, its centre of gravity shifted because fuel was consumed unevenly between its 7-8 fuel tanks. So we learned to balance the fuel between tanks, completely changing the design of this system during flight-testing. Similarly, we had to strengthen the wings when we mounted the R-73 missile. All this you learn only by experience,” says Agarwal.

Despite the LCA experience, HAL engineers believe that the 30-tonne FGFA is a far more complex challenge. They estimate that flight testing such an aircraft without Russian help might take 15 years, as long as the LCA.

HAL designers also relish the FGFA’s specific challenges. For achieving stealth, its missiles, rockets and reconnaissance payloads are concealed in an internal bay under the wings. Before using these, a door slides open, exposing the weapon for use.

The Russians clearly believe that HAL possesses useful capabilities, including the ability to design the AESA radar. Also attractive is India’s experience in composites.

“The LCA program has generated a high level of expertise in composite materials within the National Aerospace Laboratory and some joint teams. The FGFA requires “higher modulus” composites, which can withstand the 120-130 degree Centigrade temperatures that arise whilst flying at Mach 1.7 speeds,” says Agarwal.

Despite the continuing imponderables, HAL believes that the FGFA project provides genuine technological skills, far more useful than licensed manufacture. “We will pay some $6-7 billion to France for the licence to build the Rafale in HAL. In the FGFA project, a similar sum will bring in genuine design knowledge that will help us in the future.”


  1. i really hope by doing all this the Indian Aerospace will gain valuable experiences and enable it to finish complex tasks in a more timely and efficient manner

    fingers crossed

  2. On the ground reality, the design efforts of Sitara and Kaveri speak volumes about their existing design capabilities.

    India have already missed the golden opportunity by not cooperating with Sukhoi during the initial conception and design stages of PakFa. Now they should not miss the last train and cooperate fully with Russia further on. Obviously this further chance and experience will be highly useful on FGFA, AMCA and may be even for Tejas-Mk3 and UAVs.

  3. Nice article. Only problem is that if HAL doesn't pay like other Aerospace companies, the experience gained by its employees will be used by other aerospace companies in US / Europe.

  4. Why is the DRDO not involved here? Is this politics again? I know HAL signed the contract should DRDO be involved to gain experience?

  5. Could you shed light on what these 40-45 improvements that must be made to the PAK-FA are?


    Delays are understandable in a development of a new especially a 5th gen stealth fighter aircraft. More so from the reason that Russia and India differ on some very core design structures, viz., Russia wants a single pilot cockpit, India seeks a dual pilot cockpit. Also Russia took India's help for funding the project, but India has seeked to have its own way in that show. Hence the requirement list differs and so Russian plane will be out first, since the two planes arte different India's version will be late unless we accept Russian version. But it is a good Healthy process, if at the end we both get our planes and satisfy the respective air forces.

    Also a request to cover some of the below topics, cause you shall be able to throw more details:
    1. India in talks to bring home a MIG manufacturing plant from Russia. Is it because that is the only fighter which can help augment the IAF from a crisis situation of having only 30 plus squadrons in active duty and help in filling up those deteriorating squadron numbers.
    2. Why so much delay on Rafale contract signing or final negotiations, is MoD (Antony) re-thinking.


  7. Dear Ajay Sir,

    Excellent article, great prospects and is good for our airforce(except the delay). We have customized our SU-30 and our boys love flying it. The lesson we gained there is to get the best technology from around the world and intergrate into a world class platform. i am sure we will do the same here...Godspeed :-)



  8. The delay is less that of the F-35.

  9. It is extremely unfortunate that IAF sought to purchase the 5th gen fighter from Russia, despite that the AMCA is already under development.

    HAL is the primary criminal in India's purchase of PAK-FA.

    HAL wishes to xerox-copy foreign jets under the garb of "Technology sharing" and "knowledge enhancement".

    Now, instead of supporting DRDO's indigenous AMCA project, HAL actually lobbied the government to purchase PAK-FA assembly line in India.

    Now license production is a Bad Word. So, HAL's bosses spun a nice yarn about "joint development" with Russia and jow they'll get to "learn many technologies".

    The truth is that PAK-FA is yet another license-produced fighter. Is is a fully Russian jet. HAL will merely copy the design in India and just tweak it somewhat.

    A true example of joint development is the F-35 JSF, where USA was the primary integrator, UK developed the thrust-vectoring system and landing gear tech, and even Russia's Yak company pitched in with the VTOL technology.

    What is HAL doing in PAK-FA ? Anything remotely similar to BaE's, Yak's or Israeli contribs in JSF ?

    The answer is NOTHING. HAL will just copy-paste the PAK-FA and call it the FGFA.

    In fact, the IAF's tweaking is part of the conspiracy to make it appear as though India is genuinely making great modifications on Russian design.


    India's real engineering prowess will be proven when the indigenous AMCA flies. Wish DRDO all the best.

    Till then, xerox-copier HAL and import-hog IAF can think of more exuses to prove India's so-called "joint development" in the FGFA.

  10. SaiK on Bharat-Rakshak posted a very good comment, as follows :

    importing and paying for the brain work and process, is easier and expensive always.. and we have not seen vengence for such payment.. otoh, when we ask for decent salary hikes for real designers at home.. it creates such a huge hue and goes into comparisons.

    Very true.

    Another comment by Singha :

    AMCA is it. some things from PAKFA might prove enablers for it and save some time. but mainly the radar and engine the core legs of the platform we have to come up with ourself.

  11. I think there is a typo in para 3 - it should be $6 *billion* not million.

  12. No Aircraft manufacturer will part with their core design expertise.

    HAL is dreaming if it thinks Russians are going to part with their design process.

    In my opinion shut down HAL, or privatize it. Let their be open competition on a model similar to US defense Industry.

    Private sector is innovative,efficient and have a 'can-do' attitude instead of HAL's 'Chalta-Hai' attitude.

    We can squander $20 billion to Russians and French for FFGA and French Rafale, funding their R&D.

    However, Mr. Antony is not ready to fund any R&D in Private sector.

    Indian Engineers are nowadays working for Major Aircraft companies throughout the world.

    We have the Talent, we have the money for sure then why there is a policy paralysis.

    Army and Airforce should be made to understand that they are not going to get any imports and all systems will be indigenous.

    Get them involved in the development process on a similar model to United States (Air force research labs, Army research labs etc.)

    The country needs visionaries like Kalam not regressive personalities like UPA govt.

  13. @ Hashish

    Typo corrected, thanks.

    @ Bhaswar

    You do recognize, I'm sure, that not everything can be placed in the public domain...?

  14. What a shame and joke our politicians importance for defence of the country is becoming by the each passing day...When Antony Firingi has to contradict his own statements in terms of induction date of FGFA, he feels no shame that he 'lied' to the nation....As a defence minister of this country and as a high standing member of the Kangaroo party of India(which in turn believes it is the only 'rakhwala'of this country but to the contrary has become just a 'rakhel'), he should have put in place some procedures and practices to ensure that the timeline of 2017 is strictly adhered to. But what did he do: when HAL 'jokers' came 5 years before 2017 and said to Antony that they can't roll out the fighter before 2019 because they will have to spend some time going to the school to learn the Russian language, Antony said 'Tatasthu but plz ensure you take me also when you go'....Shame shame...If it can be easily predicted that there will be a delay of 2 years even now in 2012, I sincerely pray to God that atleast I should see FGFA in active duty in IAF before I turn 60(year 2038)...

  15. AMCA is a highly advanced project taken up by a country like India. HAL TEJAS project started in 1980's and still it has not been fully deployed in Indian Armed forces. What do you think, should India wait for the AMCA or Dassault Rafale deal or should India have gone for the F-35 Lightning 2 by American aviation giant Lockheed Martin ? please reply @


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