India Might Finally Terminate Their Stealth Fighter Program With Russia
With geopolitical winds shifting in Asia, could New Delhi's turn away from Moscow for its high end fighter project lead to an Indian F-35 fleet?
A new report by Defense News 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 characterized 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.
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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.
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. The Defense News report states:
"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 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.
China's air force in particular has become massively more potent since the FGFA initiative began, with their own impressive stealth fighter—the J-20—now officially operational, not to mention a Chinese medium stealth fighter is also likely on the way. This is on top of upgraded models of existing designs, such as the AESA radar carrying J-10B, and procurement of multiple Flanker derivatives including Russia's own somersaulting Su-35.
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.
Another major issue mentioned in the report is the aircraft's lack of a "modular engine concept." According to Indian officials this makes maintenance and serviceability highly troublesome and will make surge operations hard to accomplish as much of the work can't be done by the Indians themselves. Russian powerplants are known to have comparatively low time between overhaul (TBO) intervals. Once it reaches this interval, usually the engine has to be shipped to a depot for total refurbishment, which often times is in Russia.
For instance, the AL-31 thrust vectoring engines that power the Indian's SU-30MKIs had a TBO of just 1,000 hours. A modular design could allow for different engine components to be swapped quickly, making sidelining entire powerplants due to issues or overhauls less of a factor.
In recent years, Russia claims its engines have made great strides in durability, with large increases in TBO time and reliability, and one of Defense News's sources seems to make the case that the production engine for the FGFA will be better in multiple ways than the AL-41F engines currently flying on the Su-57:
"Vaijinder K Thakur, retired IAF squadron leader and defense analyst disagreement with the Air Force assessment of capability, saying that the current Russian FGFA prototype, known as Su-57, features the AL-41F1 engine. But the production variant of FGFA would be fitted with the Product 30 engine which is 30 percent lighter, features improved thrust, and has better fuel efficiency and fewer moving parts. That results in improved reliability and 30 percent lower life-cycle cost."
Betting on future Su-57 engine developments aside, India has decades of experience of dealing with the Russia's jet engine industry as a whole, as the Indian Air Force is still flying everything from the MiG-21 to the MiG-29K till this very day. The MiG-29K in particular, which is the country's only carrier-capable fixed wing fighter, has had major readiness and quality control issues, as we detailed in a past article:
"India's MiG-29K force (read all about the type's decades long development here) remains controversial as the aircraft is reported to be ill suited for persistent use under harsh carrier conditions, with ongoing major engine, flight controls, and airframe issues. The type has a miserable availability rate, with India Today reporting:
"Serviceability of the warplanes was low, ranging from 15.93 per cent to 37.63 per cent and that of MiG-29KUB ranging from 21.30 per cent to 47.14 per cent. Serviceability refers to the total number aircraft available for operation at a time from the overall capacity... the service life of the aircraft is 6000 hours or 25 years (whichever is earlier) and with issues facing the MiG-29K/KUB, the operational life of the aircraft already delivered would be reduced.""
Even arguably its most modern and capable Russian fighter, the Su-30MKI, has been plagued with engine problems and other issues with failing components that have caused major deficits in aircraft availability. Even after a corrective spare parts deal was initiated the Su-30's woes have continued.
If India remains concerned not just with the powerplants themselves, but with their concept of construction and servicing, the attributes Thakur touts above for a future AL-41 derivative won't solve the problem.
The War Zone has discussed the T-50/Su-57's woes before, along with Russia's inability to fund major purchases of the jet now that it is entering production, stating:
"Despite initial plans to have built 150 of Sukhoi’s T-50 stealth fighter by 2020, the Kremlin has now scaled that back to a buy of just a dozen aircraft. This year, after more than seven years of flight testing, the Russian military hopes to finally take delivery of the 10th and 11th pre-production prototypes. The program has been beset by delays, accidents, and rumors of massive design changes, along with very public criticism from India, which has become an increasingly frustrated partner in the endeavor."
Moscow has cut other high profile programs entirely, and is in the process of truncating others. But with Russia not ponying up for substantial block buys of Su-57s, India could face much more expensive unit costs for its modified version of the fighter. Small fleets of any airplane type are prohibitively expensive to sustain, but when it comes to high-end fighters, the costs can be crushing. Additionally, since India already faces supportability issues with its other late-model Russian-built fighters, an even more advanced and complex one that Russia isn't even buying in quantity could result in a similar but even more acute set off issues with the FGFA.
HAL is supposed to receive large industrial offsets as part of the FGFA program, but full technology exchange is unlikely. As such, the Indian Air Force will still have to rely on Russia for production and servicing various components of the aircraft.
A final turn away from the FGFA program and from treating Russia as a preeminent tactical aircraft supplier may have been accelerated by the cozying up in relations between the U.S. and India.
On October 18th, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson praised the US-Indian relationship, stating:
“President Trump and [Indian] Prime Minister Modi are committed, more than any of our leaders before them, to building an ambitious partnership that benefits not only our two great democracies, but other sovereign nations working toward greater peace and stability.”
Tillerson went on to describe how both India and China have risen in power on the world stage, but China has done so less responsibly:
"...China has done so less responsibly, at times undermining the international, rules-based order, even as countries like India operate within a framework that protects other nations' sovereignty... China’s provocative actions in the South China Sea directly challenge the international law and norms that the United States and India both stand for. The United States seeks constructive relations with China... But we will not shrink from China’s challenges to the rules-based order, and where China subverts the sovereignty of neighboring countries, and disadvantages the U.S. and our friends.”
With an emboldened China seemingly pushing India and the U.S. closer together than ever before, with both being dependent on tightening military cooperation to deter China's expansionist actions in the region, the prospects for new advanced arms deals between Washington and New Delhi are improving.
Currently the Block 70 F-16 is in the final running for a major Indian Air Force single engine fighter contract. Meanwhile, Super Hornet is becoming a front runner in an emerging competition for the Indian Navy's next fighter—one that will fly from catapult equipped supercarriers as well as the ski jump equipped carrier it has now, with another currently under construction. The U.S. Navy is also actively helping the Indian Navy design its next generation aircraft carriers. But the faltering FGFA program could give the U.S. and India an opportunity to make what would be the ultimate game-changing fighter deal—equipping the Indian Air Force with the F-35A.
The Trump Administration could look to consummate its new, closer strategic relationship with India by offering up the Joint Strike Fighter for purchase. Having India join the JSF community could also offer certain synergies for other F-35 operators located in the eastern hemisphere, both on a strategic and a sustainment level.
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.
Above all else, the export of the F-35 to the India—a jet that requires unique, costly, and extensive infrastructure to sustain—would be very bad news for Russia's tactical jet industry. 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.
Contact the author: Tyler@thedrive.com