A multi-billion dollar Indian programme to co-develop a stealth fighter with Russia faces an uncertain fate with the government deciding to set up a committee to examine what the country gains from the project.
A top government source said the panel, to be headed by a three-star officer, would look into different aspects of the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) project and the technology it brings into the country to meet the air force’s future requirements.
The two countries have been discussing the project for several years but are yet to sign a $4-billion research and development (R&D) contract for the FGFA. India has already spent Rs 1,500 crore on the preliminary design stage (PDS) of the FGFA project. The PDS was completed in June 2013 on the basis of a contract inked with Russia in December 2010.
“Several things have been resolved but it is critical to assess how we benefit from the programme before making the next move. Design issues also have to be looked into,” the source said. The Indian Air Force wants the stealth fighter to have a more powerful engine as the existing one doesn’t give it super cruise capability.
A prototype called the T-50, built under the PAK-FA (Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) project is undergoing tests in Russia. The first prototype flew its maiden sortie in January 2010.
India has a requirement for 120-130 such swing-role planes with stealth features for increased survivability, advanced avionics, smart weapons, top-end mission computers and 360-degree situational awareness.
The ability to super cruise or sustain supersonic speeds in combat configuration without kicking in fuel-guzzling afterburners is a key Indian requirement.
Former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha told HT that affordability is a key issue and “we have to take a call if we want the FGFA.”
The IAF does not have sufficient number of warplanes to tackle a combined threat from China and Pakistan. The count of IAF’s fighter squadrons has shrunk to 34 compared to a desirable strength of 42, a capability gap the air force is struggling to fill.
The existing fleet consists of 14 squadrons of ageing MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters that will be retired in phases by 2024. Each fighter squadron consists of about 18 planes.
The IAF hopes to add more muscle with the induction of French-built Rafales, the indigenous light combat aircraft, more Sukhoi-30s, the FGFA and a medium-weight warplane to be built in India in collaboration with a foreign player.