Moscow confused as IAF puts fifth generation fighter on back burner to buy Rafale - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Thursday 27 August 2015

Moscow confused as IAF puts fifth generation fighter on back burner to buy Rafale

The T-50 is silhouetted against the sun while performing at MAKS 2015 in Moscow

By Ajai Shukla
Moscow, Russia
Business Standard, 28th Aug 2015

The on-going MAKS 2015 air show in Moscow features an impressive flying display by the Sukhoi T-50, the fifth-generation prototype fighter’s first public outing in two years. But even the rousing applause fails to mask the disappointment of Russian officials at the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) foot-dragging in co-developing the T-50 into a “fifth generation fighter aircraft” (FGFA) that the IAF will buy.

Well-informed sources in Moscow say the IAF vice chief has written a letter that effectively blocks the FGFA project. It criticises 27 different aspects of the FGFA, raising questions that must be answered before New Delhi and Moscow put $2.5 billion each into jointly developing the advanced fighter.

Business Standard also learns the IAF has vetoed a Russian offer to co-develop a fifth-generation engine for the FGFA. This is baffling to the Russians, given the Defence R&D Organisation (DRDO) long-standing attempts at joint engine development in order to end India’s expensive dependency on foreign vendors for aero engines. An internal DRDO estimation reckons that India will import aero engines worth Rs 3,50,000 crore over the next decade.

After the DRDO failed to develop the Kaveri engine to the level where it could power the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), it strived to persuade French engine-maker, Snecma, to co-develop an engine. But Snecma declined to share key technologies, especially those relating to materials that can withstand the hellish temperatures created in the engine’s combustion chamber.

Nor has Washington agreed to share these technologies, even after President Barack Obama agreed during his January visit to New Delhi that a “joint working group” would explore US-India cooperation in engine technology.

DRDO and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) officials say the Russian offer of engine co-development fits well with the FGFA project itself, since the engine will power the same fighter. Currently, the Sukhoi T-50 is powered by the NPO Saturn AL-41F1, which only is a souped-up version of the AL-31FP engine that powers the Sukhoi-30MKI. A brand new, more powerful, engine is needed to let the FGFA supercruise, or fly at supersonic speeds while cruising without an afterburner. This is considered essential for a fifth-generation fighter.

Military aerospace experts worldwide believe that, given Moscow’s economic distress, the T-50 project badly needs India’s financial partnership to move forward. So far, the Russian Air Force has ordered only one squadron of T-50s (about 20 fighters).

Sergey Chemezov, who heads Rostec, the powerful Russian high-technology agency, downplays India’s delay. “As for the involvement with India, there is a certain delay, though this is not something that we (Russia) can be responsible for. On our end we can fully continue the development of the project as per our commitments,” Chemezov told Business Standard.

But even the defence ministry is questioning why the IAF is delaying a project it has earlier championed, and to which India has committed itself with an Indo-Russian inter-governmental agreement (IGA) and the expenditure of about $300 million in a “preliminary design phase”.

Critics of the IAF allege it is scuttling the long-term benefits of co-developing the FGFA in order to quickly buy the Rafale, preferably in numbers larger than the 36 fighters that the prime minister requested in Paris in April. A defence ministry official says that, in its eagerness to obtain the Rafale, the IAF has deliberately placed holds on every other aircraft procurement, including the FGFA, the Tejas and the plan to extend the Jaguar’s service life by fitting it with a new engine.

According to this official, the IAF aims to create the impression of a dangerous shortage of fighters, so that the government buys the Rafale quickly.

In another volte-face, the IAF has proposed that the FGFA not be co-developed, but limited numbers of the T-50 fighter be built in India.

If implemented, this would take India back to the 1970s and 1980s procurement model, which involved license-producing fighters like the MiG-21 and Jaguar in HAL without Indian involvement in designing or developing the aircraft.

In the 1990s and 2000s this was superseded by another procurement model that was first implemented in the Sukhoi-30MKI. In this, India specified modifications to the baseline Russian fighter, improving the Sukhoi-30 into the Sukhoi-30MKI through advanced avionics and a thrust-vectoring engine. The much-improved fighter continues to be licence-built in HAL Nashik.

However, by accepting the Sukhoi T-50 without improvements, the IAF would be reverting to the 1990s.

This would be a volte-face by the IAF. Three years ago, the IAF has specified 40-45 improvements that it deemed essential for the T-50, listing these out in a so-called “Tactical Technical Assignment”. This wish list included: 360-degree radar coverage by adding two sideward-looking radars; and more powerful engines;

The design and development needed for meeting the IAF’s requirements would constitute India’s work share of 25-30 per cent. If the IAF now demands the same fighter as the Russian Air Force, HAL’s work share would fall to zero. And the IAF would get a fighter designed for the Russian Air Force.


  1. There must be some reason for a change of heart. Maybe in future we do not need so many manned fighters. US is also cutting down on F-22 jets.

    . It could make sense to,develop long range cruise missiles, gliding bombs, armed drones in india. For distances upto 50-100 km Pinaka rockets will do the job. Maybe it is smart to invest in AWACS too.

    Rafale is available today, it will last for 40 years.


  3. There is something seriously wrong in IAF strategy in arms acquisition. They are clearly missing the woods for the trees.

  4. Are those IAF personel getting out of there mind! criticises the FGFA, criticises different aspects of the Tejas, What they wanted realy? F22, F35 or alien UFO to fight our enemy. Then why we should have IAF instead we can sign a treaty with US and pay US airforce to protect our skys. Perhaps they forget about our past "Gnat against superier F86". Fighter jets hard to come by, 5-6 or 14 jets/year with our aircraft industry. They should consider their strategy carefully.

  5. Let's be honest here. This seems like a hit job against the rafale which as we all know Colonel Shukla has been against all along. Not that the argument doesn't deserve merit, but that does not justify doing repeated journalistic pieces that simply tow the line of HAL and in this case, Russia as well.

    What is required is a balanced approach to looking at the positives AND the large negatives of solely relying on T-50 and HAL. And doing the same for the Rafale.

  6. Over the years I've come to view the IAF as the most opportunistic service, with only blinkered short term goals. The Russians are to be squeezed, there is no doubt on that considering their waywardness on the defence front in servicing their products since the Soviet Union broke up. But one should keep them in the loop so that others don't take you for a ride. The damned Frogs have scuppered the Rafale deal to such an extent that we are back to where we were before the deal was announced. The Frogs need to be paid back in kind and frankly IAF still pitching for Rafale is surely a suspect move. If Russians are really sincere about sharing engine tech then by all means we should go with the Russians on the FGFA. Once we master it, we will be in a better position than we are now. See how the Russian cryogenic tech (GSLV) has paid off. We got 10 such engines from the Russians and today we have developed one of our own. So if it means more Su-30s instead of rafale so be it.I'm sure all said and done additional Su-30s will work against our current adversaries just as well as the rafale.
    And the IAF needs to stop changing goalposts every time it reviews an indigenous project.

    1. Considering the wayward nature of MoD, which at the very least doesn't build confidence in the armed forces, the severe shortfalls expected soon with the retirement of soviet era assets and the shortcomings of an aero industry that is still in its infancy, it is no surprise that the IAF have a short termed view. They are faced with growing threats and they have every right to feel let down and they are perfectly justified in looking to secure reliable assets for the near future.

      The onus is on the civilian govt, MoD and the public.defence research establishments to show that they can cater the needs of the armed forces, not in the very near future but at least in the long term.

  7. Both Imported Army and Air Force are more interested in kickbacks from arms imports than defending the nation.
    ACM Tyagi was caught red handed taking bribes. ACM Browne did everything to scuttle indigenous efforts in favor of kickback generating 3rd class foreign stuff. The current ACM seems no different. Such behavior is similar to that of generals of some despotic African country which splurges on latest imported weapons by keeping the masses poor and hungry.
    All this is happening bcoz our netas are tacitly supporting corruption and nepotism in our armed forces. After all nets are the biggest recipients of kickbacks from abroad.

  8. When T50 is almost ready and available to India, why are we even purchasing 36 over expensive obsolete 4th Gen fighters from France without any ToT or "make in India"???
    FGFA offers insights into latest 5th Gen aircraft technology, which France does not possess. With Russia in financial trouble, this is the right time to hammer out a favorable deal. Such opportunities do not present everyday. For this you need patriotic military and politicians, not the Mir Jafars that dominate both these institutions today.

  9. NSR says ---

    Stop thinking about FGFA for now and go with 3 squadrons of T-50 as Russians never shared the TOT with India in a true sense...
    No TOT for T-90 tank gun, Smerch, Mig or Sukhoi engine technology, etc to name a few...When some one orders hundreds of fighters, then they should get TOT after a stage or else they start falling from skies...

    Russia getting them in 2016 so they may accommodate India in 2018 onwards...

    T-50 will strike terror in the hearts of enemies...
    By any means Rafale does not in any way and even Pakistan can get it with latest generation of BVRAAM they will be fielding...

    If I am PM and RM of India I will get 3 squadrons and if we like it then we can improve it with other avionics/missiles/bombs in future...If nothing is needed to improve, then order 3 more squadrons...
    By all means get interfaces for India BVRAAM, AAM, and Bombs...

    I think IAF, politicians, babus, etc systematically scuttled the indigenous efforts of BAT, IJT, AJT,LCA, etc
    It is shameful that India can not even build an engine for its BAT...

    Go with T-50...don't waste time and money on joint R&D...

  10. The IAF has said something very very sensible this time round.

    It is right on many counts:

    1) India has ZERO contribution to the PAK-FA vis-a-vis engineering and design. HAL will just copy-paste it at its plant in Bengaluru.

    2) Having no design inputs, the PAK-FA will remain a Russian jet only, made for Russian Air Force's needs. Just like their T-90 tank, which can't handle Indian deserts, the PAK-FA won't fit in our strategic requirements.

    3) If at all this thing has to be concluded, let's purchase a squadron outright from Russia. Just like the stop-gap Rafale deal, it'll be a diplomatic face-saver, a gap filler. Additionally, it'll also gave a look and feel of a "5th gen" fighter.

    Its a myth that DRDO will be involved in the PAK-FA. Why? Because it has its own AMCA project, and of course, the Russians would be stupid to collaborate with DRDO to help a future competitor! So, the PAK-FA is in NO way, useful to us in acquiring 5th gen technologies.

    Finally, let's not equate engine technologies with associated fighter programmes. So, let's not keep Snecma contingent with Rafale orders, not Al-31 with PAK-FA orders.

  11. The future belongs to the drones...

  12. Maybe the Gorskov episode left a bitter experience, which I am sure Indians don't want to see repeated. The only way out of this dilemma, is to design, prototype and build *QUALITY* products in India. I fear, our labor quality is really really poor and shoddy.

  13. How long we will import Aircrafts and other equipment? When we will develop our self reliance in the field of Defence technology. At least start now through collaboration as we need not invent wheel again and move on to the advanced technologies. We have good man power and project management experts. Make use of Indian talent and even develop advanced things cost effectively.
    Dr.Venkateswara Rao. Korasiga


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