The signing of the T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft contract propels India
from screwdriver technology status to joint developer of the world’s most
advanced stealth aircraft.
Two significant developments have stirred up the world of military aviation this
year. In March the US Air Force revealed it had started work to field a new Long
Range Strike Bomber by the 2020s. This will be the first new American strategic
bomber to be built after the Cold War.
How much the global balance of power has shifted since the Cold War days was clear
when it was revealed that the aircraft the American bomber might encounter in the
skies will have a large Indian signature – in more ways than one. In August
the Indian Air Force announced that India and Russia are getting set to ink the
final R&D contract for the Sukhoi T-50 fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA)
by the end of the year or early-2013. The contract is worth more than $11 billion,
and according to the terms of the agreement both countries will share 50 percent
of the costs.
That the FGFA would fly was never in doubt. (To meet its air defence requirements,
Russia was committed to the T-50 but as the American F-35 programme has demonstrated,
having partners translates into assured orders.) The only uncertain component of
the programme was the extent of Indian participation. In the past couple of years
there was a lot of speculation – and derisive comments – about India’s
involvement. Sceptics felt it was limited to merely offering suggestions as to what
the IAF wanted – such as two seats or one – while the more charitable
ones believed India’s contributions would be in avionics and software.
The IAF chief’s visit to Moscow last month finally lifted the veil of secrecy
about India’s participation in the world’s most eagerly awaited fighter
aircraft. It is now clear that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd’s Ozar facility at
Nashik in western India will get three prototypes in 2014, 2017 and 2019, and they
will be flown by Indian test pilots.
India moves into the big league
What defence observers have missed is that the FGFA is a quantum leap for India’s
armaments industry, especially HAL. After decades of dabbling in joint production
– a euphemism for screwdriver technology – India’s aerospace sector
will finally step up to joint development.
This will catapult India to a new level where it will finally be able to develop
advanced stealth aircraft on its own. Not even America’s leading partners
in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme, such as Turkey or the UK, have access
to such red hot technology. Instead of being a sidekick, India will be a joint partner
in a leading military project.
Russia has already given the draft R&D contract to HAL. It will include the
cost of designing, infrastructure build-up at Ozar, prototype development and flight
testing. India will soon have scientists and test pilots based both in Russia and
Ozar during the R&D phase up to 2019.
An IAF official told Jane’s that the jointly developed aircraft “draws
upon the basic structural and system design of the Russian FGFA technology demonstrator
with modifications to meet the IAF specifications, which are much more stringent”.
The IAF is hopeful production fighters will roll out of the factory gates by 2022.
Up to 250 of these aircraft will be inducted at an estimated cost of $35 billion.
Russia will buy a similar number. While it is never easy to place a price tag on
such a constantly evolving platform, the IAF estimates the cost per plane at $100
million. The total cost, including options and the value of production aircraft,
will make this the biggest defence programme ever in India’s history.
Although the T-50’s specifications remain classified, reports indicate it
features advanced stealth capability and supersonic cruising speed. Here is what
Air Power Australia says: “The stealthy T-50, albeit in an early phase of
development, is showing naked air combat power in the form of extreme plus agility
and persistence that, with the addition of advanced sensors, countermeasures and
weapons, will likely soundly defeat the F-22 Raptor but will certainly annihilate
the F-35 and the Super Hornet.”
This is an explosive statement but coming from ace aircraft experts, the FGFA portends
a scary decade ahead for Western air defences and pilots.
Tuning the T-50
Clearly, the designers aren’t sitting idle. A series of developments suggests
the FGFA has achieved irresistible propulsion. According to the website of Russia’s
United Aircraft Group, which owns the Sukhoi bureau, the company has tested three
T-50 prototypes in various modes, totalling around 180 sorties, including aerial
refuelling hook-ups with a Russian Air Force Il-78 tanker, AESA radar scans, and
large angle of attack and super manoeuvrability test flights.
Carlo Kopp of Air Power Australia and legendary aircraft analyst Bill Sweetman wonder
whether the current T-50 represents the definitive configuration. “Today's
round nozzles and the curvature of the aft nacelles are not at first glance stealth-optimised,
and the engine is not fully masked head-on by the inlet duct,” they write
in an article in Aviation Week.
To be sure, those are exactly the areas India and Russia will be working on in the
months and years ahead. The IAF, for instance, has specified more than 40 improvements
to the design following its observation of flying trials.
For instance, in the early stages of the programme, the IAF was keen on a two-seater
fighter bomber, and in fact indicated a requirement for at least 166 single-seat
and 48 twin-seat aircraft. But since then it has jettisoned that demand will go
in for only single-seat jets now. The reason is that a second cockpit will compromise
the stealth capabilities by at least 15 percent, apart from adding to the weight
and reducing fuel capacity.
Unlike the dollar-guzzling F-35 which perhaps wouldn’t fly without exports,
the T-50 remains viable because of lower development costs and large pre-orders
from Russia and India. Still exports can’t hurt. According to the IAF, the
broad scope of bilateral cooperation during the joint project covers the design
and development of the aircraft, its production and joint marketing to other countries.
The Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST), a Moscow-based
independent defence and foreign policy think-tank, says that while India will be
the first FGFA export customer, Vietnam will be probably its second buyer. CAST
Director Ruslan Pukhov believes every third user of the Su-27/30 family of aircraft
could be a customer for the FGFA.
For both Russia and India the FGFA programme will be a bold new gambit, as it will
overshadow even the highly successful BrahMos missile project. For, while BrahMos
is also a 50:50 India-Russia venture, it is basically India’s baby; Russia
has turned down an offer to buy the missile as it has the equally capable Club.
However, the FGFA programme could be a template for further defence cooperation
between India and Russia. As its economy grows, India is increasingly seeking quality
armaments for its armed forces and is keen to wean itself away from imports. Russia
on the other hand has the knowhow and experience to produce highly capable weapons
platforms. Together, they can ensure that legacy remains intact.
This article was earlier published at www.indrus.in
Rakesh Krishnan Simha is a New Zealand based writer and a columnist with the Rossiyskaya
Gazeta Group. His articles have been used as reference at Rutgers, The State University
of New Jersey; the Centre for Research on Globalization, Canada; Wikipedia; and
as part of the curriculum at the Anthropology Department of the National University
of Ireland, Maynooth. His work has been published at the Centre for Land Warfare
Studies, New Delhi, and Oped News, Pennsylvania.