NSA Doval tells Russian delegation that India shelving $8.63 billion deal

The proposal for India and Russia to jointly develop an advanced fighter — the eponymous Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) — has been formally buried. It was learnt that National Security Adviser Ajit Doval conveyed the decision to a Russian ministerial delegation at a “Defence Acquisition Meeting” in end-February the Business Standard reported.

Problems Galore

A new report states that India is extremely unhappy with Russia's supposed 5th generation fighter—better known as the T-50, or by its new production name the Su-57—that will act as the base for the sputtering FGFA cooperative fighter program between the two countries. The news comes after years of squabbling over the program, usually characterised by credible reports of the Indian Air Force's dismay with the qualities of the Russian aircraft. Now it seems as if the Indians want out of the program—which aimed for at least a 108 airframe production run—once and for all. Such a move could also be a result of New Delhi's changing geopolitical and military affiliations, in particular its deepening strategic relationship with the United States.

The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project between Sukhoi and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is a decade old. It originally aimed to create a variant of Russia's new stealth fighter with a number of alterations specified by India. These include potential enhancements to reach certain low observable (stealth) requirements, as well as particular avionics, communications systems, and weapons integration. A two seat version was also envisioned. The whole idea behind the concept being that the FGFA would leverage a fairly mature Russian next generation fighter design, and build upon it. The problem is that the design in question, the Su-57, doesn't appear to have the "bones" needed to modify it to meet India's expectations.

The T-50/Su-57's degree of low observability has always been in question. It is one of the most hotly debated topics on military aviation forums and I have described how the design balances some stealthy attributes against other features and weaponry, as well as cost and production capabilities. But time and time again India seems to have been doubtful that the base aircraft design could meet their FGFA requirements.

PUBLIC DOMAIN: This notorious photo alone has been the subject of hot debate as to the T-50's radar signature, especially where it matters most, head on. A jet's fan face produces a massive radar signature. Modern high-performance stealthy aircraft designs use "S" shaped ducts to hide their engines from most or all line of sight aspects, with radar return scrambling baffles being built under the duct surface scrambling returns even more. Some aircraft, like the Super Hornet, use a slotted baffle that covers the fan faces of their engine, which are hidden only partially by the aircraft's duct shape. This measure reduces the aircraft's frontal radar signature, but it is less effective than an s shaped duct and may impact certain aspects of engine performance. Many other features on the T-50 also put a high level of low observability in doubt. 

There have been promises by Russia that the T-50 prototype will evolve into a more stealthy design, but now it seems with it entering production as the Su-57, those enhancements haven't emerged.

"Senior IAF leadership recently expressed apprehension to the Ministry of Defense, claiming the proposed FGFA program with Russia does not meet desired requirements like U.S. F-35 fighter type capabilities, disclosed a senior IAF official. That official added, that “IAF is not keen to continue with the program.”

The proposed FGFA program does not meet desired stealth and cross section features compared to a F-35 fighter, the official explained, thus major structural changes are needed that cannot be met in the existing Russian prototypes."

The Pakistani Angle

The level of stealthiness that can be applied to the Su-57 design likely matters substantially more now than it did nearly a decade ago. Pakistan had been India's primary national security focus, but in recent years the rise of China's military might and their extra-territorial aims have shifted New Delhi's defensive priorities.

Simply put, India sees that it needs a stealthily fighter to maintain some sort of parity with its potential foe, and for use as a force multiplier to enable its less capable fighter jets via creative tactics. If the FGFA can only deliver limited low observability, with it only being considered "stealthy" in very narrow frequency bands and only from certain aspects, the goals of the expensive initiative won't be met.

The Alternative Gamble

Indian F-35s would also work to counter-balance China's military might arrayed along the increasingly tense Indian-Chinese border. It could also mean that the F-35 could also become a competitor for the Indian Navy's next fighter initiative, with the B model likely being offered for the ski jump carriers and the C model being an option for the future catapult equipped ships. 

India probably wouldn't receive a large degree of technology transfer under such a deal as export controls on the F-35 are notoriously tight even for NATO operators. But it is likely that some industrial offsets could be offered, including the possibility of depot work and some component construction being done in-country. 

It is unlikely that such a deal would be offered until after the single engine jet fighter competition is decided, but India could see the writing on the wall, and cancel the FGFA in hopes of joining the Joint Strike Fighter family in the near future. But given the flourishing relationship between the US and India, and the growing threat posed by China in the region, it may just be a matter of time till F-35s fly with Indian Air Force roundels of their wings. (With reporting by Business Standard, The Drive, and Reuters)

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