The following column, exclusive to Livefist, is by a senior IAF officer, who for obvious reasons, cannot be named. I sought his views on the FGFA agreement and have with a measure of effort persuaded him to give Livefist his views on the programme in his own words. The following piece is the result. The views here are his own, and written in his capacity as an officer of the Indian Air Force. As a matter of detail, he has permitted me to mention here that he is a fighter pilot who has been involved in two major Indo-Russian aircraft programmes in the 1990s. He has also permitted me to proofread his piece but only for purposes of clarity and continuity. His piece, in full: At the outset, it should be clear to all concerned, especially the Indian taxpayer, that this “mother of all aircraft programmes”, i.e. the agreement between India and Russia to jointly develop and manufacture an advanced fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) will deliver a formidable combat platform. While all development projects have their attendant hurdles, delays and overruns, we as a nation must be sure that the end result meets all performance parameters. As of now, there is no reason to believe that there will be any undue problems in the programme.
However, it is the idea that the FGFA is a “joint design and development programme” that is troubling to many in the IAF who have dealt with all parties concerned, i.e. Hindustan Aeronautics, Sukhoi Design Bureau (SDB), UAC and ROE. Before proceeding to the ground realities, let us first understand what the FGFA is being projected to offer India over and above the material delivery of a combat platform. It is being projected as a partnership between India and Russia, where both sides will co-design, co-develop, co-engineer and co-manufacture the aircraft. The idea is also that in the course of the programme, HAL’s design inputs to the FGFA will spin-off and accrue into an indigenous capability to build next generation combat platforms using strictly in-house resources. There are several other projected benefits of the programme, but these two will suffice for the purpose of this article.
Currently, the SDB has designed three prototypes (1 flying, 2 ground testbed platforms) which are of single cockpit (i.e. T-50) configuration. The idea of the preliminary design contract signed on December 21 is that HAL will be the design partner for the twin-seat variant of the aircraft. Some facts: The fact that the Russians are now testing the single-seat T-50/PAK FA does not mean that they do not have the necessary design data to fabricate a twin-seat/trainer platform. In fact, it is just the opposite. Remember that the PAK FA programme was initiated in the late 1980s, which means the standard approach of the time was to build aircraft along with a mandatory trainer variant for conversion training as well as squadron service, as has been the standard practice with Soviet aircraft engineering. Furthermore, it is a known fact in the IAF that the SDB has, in a layperson’s terms, a blueprint to fabricate a twin-seat version of the T-50. If so, then the purported design inputs being offered from India’s side are worth pausing to think about. What are these design inputs? Are they really design inputs?
Since 2006, ever since HAL had expressed its keenness to co-implement the IAF’s custom specifications in the new platform, there has been a debate between the definition of design input and specification/modification input. Let us be clear that the T-50 prototype that is currently flying is the work of years of design engineers from one of the most skilled design bureaus of the former Soviet. This is not suggest that HAL does not have any design strengths, but merely to say that in this particular programme, the space for any inputs simply does not exist. In simple words, even if HAL is partnering in the twin-seat version, their job will involve no/negligible inputs as far as airframe is concerned. A common perception that needs to be corrected is that adding Indian avionics, BEL radar receiver, DRDO weapon systems or composite control surface elements constitutes “design input”. It does not. That falls in the realm of custom modification which is basically what IAF/HAL had undertaken with the Su-30 programme in late 1990s. However, in all fairness it must be said that the scope for composites in the airframe holds some innovative possibilities from Indian laboratories. Be that as it may, the design of the platform will not be changed.
When the preliminary design of the T-50 was frozen some years ago, the IAF provided requested inputs on platform preference. Our inputs basically fell in four categories, i.e. two-pilot configuration, custom sensors/avionics, options for turbofan engine and weapon systems. Additionally, the IAF was of the view that it would be desirable to have a lower empty weight, a parameter which would to some degree be met with composites, and for which work has already begun by SDB. While the IAF team tasked with studying the platform/programme proposal was quite satisfied with the basic design, the above four parameters were crucial for our own future operations and perspective planning. The requirements were duly endorsed at all levels and met with the concurrence of HAL engineers. As far as the IAF is concerned, HAL will not be a design partner in the FGFA programme. For IAF purposes in the project, HAL is a integration/workshare partner that will co-inspect the joint modification study and execute in conjunction with SDB/Irkut/ROE. None of these areas justify the prestigious title of “design and development partner”.
Finally, the FGFA will be a very competitive platform for IAF, and its first stealth aircraft. And India’s involvement even at this late stage in the programme is still desirable to just being a customer like in the case of all other platforms barring Su-30 (though in the last also, contribution has not helped us keep cost down). There should be no doubts about the platform itself.
But to project this as an landmark project that has created history with great dividends for India is too far fetched. HAL is our partner at the best and worst of times. And it is important to remember that the way the FGFA programme is being projected today is as much the play of the Russian side as it is for sections within the Indian defence setup. The Russians have been reliable friends for decades, but it would be imprudent to imagine that there is any element of philanthropy in their dealings with India. If communications between IAF and ROE were ever declassified (like the Wikileaks, maybe some day!), the nation would have quite a different picture of how it is to deal with the Russians. Still, that does not take away from the value of their partnership. Ultimately, the FGFA programme, in my view, is no different from most of the other so-called joint programmes we have with Russia, including the Su-30 MKI.
To conclude, a few questions which are worth considering: As a “joint D&D partner”, will HAL be able to devlop and deliver India’s next generation fighter aircraft all by itself? Is India’s involvement in the FGFA programme simply as a monetary investor?