How Rafale is killing the air force’s future - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 16 February 2015

How Rafale is killing the air force’s future

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 17th Feb 15

The priceless Indo-Russian project to co-develop the eponymous Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) is dying of neglect. With the Indian Air Force (IAF) brass focused single-mindedly on procuring 126 Rafale fighters, the air marshals fear that an FGFA on the horizon would undermine their argument that the Rafale is essential. With the costly Rafale procurement imploding in slow motion, the FGFA is becoming collateral damage.

In Oct 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 down the numbers, the IAF is now undermining the FGFA project itself.

After the apex Indo-Russian Inter-Governmental Commission for Military Technical Cooperation (IRIGC-MTC) met on January 22 to discuss military cooperation, IAF officers whispered to a gullible media that the FGFA was dead. It was reported that Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had told his Russian counterpart that joint research and development (R&D) was a waste of time. This was factually incorrect. What is true is that the IAF --- for reasons that can only be guessed at --- is scuttling a project to develop a fighter that would rank alongside the world’s best.

Why is the FGFA important, more so than the Rafale? It is a fifth generation fighter, which makes it operationally more capable than contemporary fourth generation fighters like the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon. Gen-5 fighters are designed to be stealthy, which means enemy radar cannot detect them until it is too late. They “supercruise”, i.e. fly at supersonic speeds without lighting engine afterburners (the Rafale can do this too); and Gen-5 aircraft have futuristic avionics and missiles. In a war with China, stealthy Gen-5 aircraft would be ideal for missions deep into Tibet, evading China’s radar network, to destroy the Qinghai-Tibet railway and roads leading to the Indian border --- to prevent China from quickly switching troops around on its superior border infrastructure.

So vital was the FGFA considered to India’s aerospace capabilities that, in October 2007, New Delhi and Moscow signed an Inter Governmental Agreement (IGA) to co-develop the fighter, which placed the project above defence ministry procurement rules. The IGA states that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) would partner Rosoboronexport, Russia’s defence exports agency, in co-developing the fighter. Furthermore, Indian engineers say the expertise gained from the FGFA would be valuable in building the planned indigenous Gen-5 fighter, designated the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Following the IGA, New Delhi and Moscow signed a General Contract in December 2008, stipulating general principles of cooperation such as the share of work and cost, and the sale of the FGFA to third countries. In December 2010, a Preliminary Design Contract was signed in which both sides contributed $295 million towards finalising the fighter’s basic configuration, systems and equipment. With that completed in June 2013, the central R&D Contract is now being negotiated. This will govern the bulk of the work --- the actual design and development of the FGFA.

Even as the IAF stonewalls the R&D contract negotiations, the need for India to come on board grows ever more pressing. Russia has already designed, built and flown the first prototypes of a Gen-5 fighter they call the PAK-FA (Perspektivny Aviatsionny Kompleks Frontovoy Aviatsii, or “Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation”). The PAK-FA, built to Russian Air Force specifications, has already completed 650 test-flights. India’s work share will lie in adapting this fighter to the IAF’s requirements --- which include advanced capabilities like all-round radar that can detect threats in a 360-degree envelope, and voice recognition software that allows the pilot to call out commands. In all, the IAF has specified some 40-45 improvements that they want over the PAK-FA. Indian designers, who will have to integrate these improved capabilities with the existing PAK-FA, are losing out by not participating in the on-going design and test flying in Russia.

The IAF’s objections to the FGFA are (a) The Russians are reluctant to share critical design information; (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 so expensive that “a large percentage of IAF’s capital budget will be locked up.” It is ironical that an air force that is eager to spend an estimated $20 billion on the entirely foreign, Gen-4 Rafale is balking at spending a fraction of that on co-developing and indigenously manufacturing a Gen-5 fighter, which can be maintained and upgraded cheaply for decades to come.

An entire mythology has come up around the cost with even senior air marshals incorrectly stating that India will spend $11 billion on the FGFA. Even this inflated figure would be modest compared to the $40 billion that America spent in the 1980s and 1990s to develop the Gen-5 F-22 Raptor. Yet, in fact, this $11 billion figure was a defence ministry estimation in 2010, which included numerous items that have nothing to do with R&D. Firstly, the amount included both Russian and Indian expenditure; second, it included several options that India may not require, e.g. $1.5 billion for developing a twin-seat FGFA (which the IAF now says it does not want), and $1.5 billion for a new engine. Third, this included the cost of infrastructure that India must establish to manufacture the aircraft in large numbers for the IAF.

Since India urgently needs to start participating in the flight-test programme, of which the PAK-FA has already completed some 20 per cent, Sukhoi would have to build another prototype for India. That cost too is included in the estimation, along with the ground support equipment and training needed for a full-fledged Indian flight-test programme. With all of this factored in, officials closely involved in the negotiations say that India’s share in the project could be about $3.5 to 4 billion.

Both sides have already talked around the R&D contract in such detail that it can be concluded in one sitting, provided Indian negotiators are given the green light from a clear-minded political leadership. The FGFA perfectly fits the “Make in India” idea; the strategy of being ready for a two-front conflict; and the IAF force structure of the future. From the standpoint of negotiation strategy, the timing is perfect. The rouble has plummeted more than 60 per cent against the dollar and the rupee in the last five months after the Ukraine crisis. The Russians will agree to the lower dollar rate that New Delhi has been proposing. The time to strike is now.


  1. The Air Force and the Army realy needs to follow the Navy in developing indigenous manufacturing capability. The smallest arm is on track to becoming a home planned and manufactured navy but the other two arms still do not expend any effort to negate the benefit of indigenous efforts.

  2. Colonel,

    Superb article. If it was China, they would be manufacturing six prototypes of this aircraft by now. They understand the value of opportunity while in India, we like to talk big but do precisely little. I feel the IAF will drag its feet as long as possible. Any Indian move towards FGFA will only happen if Mr Parrikar puts his foot down.

    Alas! he seems to be an honest but gullible man and is being taken for ride as many times as possible by IAF. Not only that, this Rafale contract is gradually slowing down contract conclusion in other services as well.

  3. In IAF I stands... Indian... its Air Marshals.. replacing tissues... with their... tongues... for anything... foreign... european... american...

  4. Colonel,
    Well thought out and well written article.
    The best approach would be to procure the Qatari and/or UAE mirages and supplement with MiG-35.

    Focus on the following
    FGFA - Top Tier
    Su30 MKI - Heavies
    Mirage 2K - MMRCA
    Mig-35 MMRCA
    Tejas Mk 2
    Tejas Mk 1 - Light and tactical

  5. Sir, I'm appalled to think that the Russian FGFA could be IAF's "future".

    The FGFA is nothing but yet another import disguised as "joint development". The puny "joint work" that India is supposed to is confined to tinkering the Russian PAK-FA to make it into an Indian FGFA.

    Now how much of this work is really significant ? Let's see. From all available reports, NONE at all. The engines, radar, avionics, stealth design, materials, the works, remain wholly Russian. HAL will merely contribute in adding a new seat behind the pilot (and even this work stands cancelled what with the proposal of 144 single-seaters !!!)

    India's share is at most like a mechanic's appendage to a car, such as a new seat-belt or upholstery. It does NOT by any yardstick, constitute "joint development" of any kind. In fact, if IAF/MoD have any sense left, they'd better publicly declare this is an outright purchase, and that India has ZERO contributions to make in this. Otherwise comparisons will be made with the F-35, a truly joint effort (UK contributed to the engines and STOL, Israel chipped in with electronic warfare systems, etc.)

    I think the IAF's future is the indigenous AMCA. This addresses all the IAF's major issues:

    1) Since IAF will be in the loop from the drawing board, AMCA can be tailor-made to IAF's specifications from the very start. Just contrast this with the PAK-FA. So far it has been made as per Russian specifications only. Its already built, test-flown and readied without a whiff of the IAF all these years. Now if IAF wants any change, it'll have to go through a long and arduous process of going back to the Russians, begging them for design prints, manufacturing processes and the like.

    And the end product will be a compromise, like a ready-made pant altered to fit. On the other hand, the AMCA will be tailor-made from the first cut !

    The AMCA will be unique to IAF. In contrast, Russia is planning to export the PAK-FA to many countries in South America, East Europe, SE Asia etc. So, pilots of any Indian adversary can easily tie-up with these nations, learn about the PAK-FA's weaknesses and strengths, and formulate a strategy on how to beat it in battle.

    Here the AMCA has a distinct advantage. Not only will it be an enigma to Indian adversaries, it will give IAF ample room to formulate hitherto innovative tactics.

    4 AMCA will be sanction-proof. We all know the tortuous negotiations with Russia over petty things like spares for MiGs, tech transfer for Su-30 and T-90 tanks, etc. Do we wish to go down that rabbit-hole once again ? If yes, by all means import the PAK-FA.

    But if IAF wishes to be truly independent, it must put its weight behind the AMCA. At any time, any IAF concern will be catered to within India with no geopolitics, lengthy contracts, or dollar exchange rates coming into the picture.

    4 AMCA will boost the indigenous industry. The benefits of this point have been discussed numerous times earlier, and needn't be repeated.

    How many more points to convince about AMCA's benefits over the Russian FGFA ?

    Let's ditch the PAK-FA. Let's invest in the AMCA.

  6. IAF strongly believes that a bird in hand(Rafale) is better than two in the bush(LCA & FGFA).
    They cant really be blamed if they get butterflies in the stomach on seeing their future in the hands of DRDO and HAL.

  7. French Rafale MRCA were the best possible purchase for India. All types of requisite tests were successfully performed on them and they came out as the most suitable against the tender requirements. In case if this deal is not materialized then for the desired multi-role purposes of air superiority, deep interdiction, close air support and strike, 63 Nos of SU-34 in combination with 63 Nos of SU-30 MKI may be the best alternative. However, all these SU-30/34 may need to be equipped with the latest AESA radars.

  8. Dump both Rafale and FGFA and concentrate on LCA< UCAV & AMCA

  9. By the way Rafale cannot supercruise and has not the performances to counter effectively Chinese Su-30 and Su-27. Is just a fighter-bomber for operations in benign scenarios as its DASS is not that advanced.
    Wrong choice for India.

  10. Rafale represents a good choice to buy. then IAF should not order Jaguar re-engine program. LCA can be ordered in batches in 40-50 of Mk1. Mk-2 etc.
    With this IAF will have decent modern planes in a lot of categories : transport (C17, C130), HElicopters (Dhruv and variants, MI17) , AEW (EMB145, Phalcon), Basic Trainer (Pilatus)
    What we need LUH, LCA, LAH and LTA in large numbers.
    We can forget HAL to deliver BTT or IJT in foreseeable future. it is a paper plane when IAF wanted something flying desperately Itnis important students have good trainer to being flying. Why don't we see this point.

    When you publish on article on completions dates of all existing HAL development projects ?

  11. Hello Ajai

    Is the pic in your article of a real item, or is it a product of photoshop?

    It is a very smart looking aircraft



  12. Colonel,

    can you please give credits regarding the picture ?

    The Runway is definitely in India.
    please give details about the craft itself.

    Is this a photoshopped or by some miracle has a two seater PAK-FA landed in India ?


    Very well said and am happy abput this being an article where you haven't mentioned cutting down rafale in favour of F35.

    No country is just going to get up and give away critical knowledge...air frame design...radar and missile tech are some of these.

    I agree that the time to hit is ripe...Russia is in need and we should optimise nor expoit this situation. Overbending on US should be avoided...they will never share any non common tech with anybody.

    FGFA sud be a replacement to Rafale...and for once let is all Indians park our ego out of this so called joint production...pls push the money and get this beasts delivered and than make HAL overhaul it completely.

    kaveri sud be restarted if we are ever to build an engine for a fighter aircraft.

    abhiman u must be joking dump all and make amca...i hope u are updates abt tejas lca...need I say more!

  14. I agree and disagree. I am in agreement with the author that the IAF has been overly and completely obsessed with the MMRCA acquisition and in the process neglected other projects such as the FGFA and the indigenous AMCA project for far too long.
    I disagree with the author as far as what the IAF should take on as its top priority at the moment. The IAF, as many have rightly pointed out, be most engaged in making sure that the AMCA project takes off well, now that we have all learnt from the mistakes and successes of the LCA program. That's in the best interests of the services and the nation. Heck we can let our upgraded Mirage2Ks and Mig-29 UPGs fill in the MMRCA gap until the AMCAs are ready to roll somewhere around 2025.


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