The details may be scanty and speculation rife but aviation specialists have begun deconstructing Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov’s remarks on Wednesday that India had taken the decision to join the Russian fifth generation aircraft project.
“I have a problem with the terminology,” said retired Air Commodore Jasjit Singh, director of the New Delhi-based Centre of Air Power Studies. He said Russian aircraft evolve incrementally and it is difficult to pin the “generation” tag to it. “What matters is what goes into it,” said the former fighter pilot.
Retired Air Marshal Brajesh Jayal, who once commanded the Southwestern Air Command, also felt the hype about “fifth generation” was really about marketing. He referred to Ivanov’s statement that the Russian fighter Sukhoi PAK-FA has been in the design phase for the past three years. If it flies, as reported, in 2009, it is not clear what the Indian role in the “joint design” will be, he said.
Senior officials at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL), speaking on background, said Ivanov’s statement was accurate but refused to confirm whether the choice was the Sukhoi version, whose design is largely complete, or the MiG version, on which design work is yet to begin. The Indian Air Force (IAF) and HAL are jointly involved in the process of defining Indian requirements and participating in the joint development with the Russians.
A retired air marshal who worked on the project till 2006 said it was heartening that for once, the IAF was thinking ahead for its requirements. But he said he was worried that if it went for the Sukhoi option, there could be a piquant situation where India starts receiving the fifth generation fighter by 2012 while its other heavy fighter programme, the Su-30 MKI, is peaking to its planned strength of 230 aircraft. Jayal, too, wondered as to how the IAF would fit “so many monstrous fighters” in its inventory in terms of cost and operational planning.
Almost all the specialists who spoke to HT agreed that the project ought to involve genuine joint design and development, not mere Indian investment and label. “That would be licence production by another name,” said the air marshal.
According to Jasjit Singh, it is important to press this point right. India must be involved substantively in the design and development work. “No doubt, we will be junior partners,” he said, but that does not mean “we cannot contribute (to the project) or learn from it”. An essential component must, therefore, be a massive project to scale up HAL’s limited design base, by sending hundreds of young engineers to Russia for training if necessary.
Some of the fears being expressed arise from the fate of the current Su-30MKI project, which was supposed to have a large licenced production component. Now it appears the aircraft will be essentially made from assemblies and sub-assemblies imported from Russia. According to Pushpindar Singh Chopra, editor, Vayu Aerospace, the phase where the aircraft would have been made out of raw material is more or less ruled out.