Cold war allies India and Russia will each invest at least Rs 5,000 crore to jointly design and build an advanced military jet to rival the F-35 joint strike fighter being developed by the United states and Britain.
India and Russian governments are likely to sign an agreement to seal the project during the January 25-26 visit by Russian President Vladimir Putin to India, according to sources familiar with the proposed deal. This will be the first time India will partner another country on an aviation project of this scale.
New Delhi and Moscow are aiming for the fighter’s first flight by 2015. After certification by both sides, the aircraft will be produced for the Russian and Indian air forces.
“We have not yet decided on who will partner with the Russian company. It could be either the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Defence Research and Development Organisation or the Indian Air Force or a combination of these,” said one person close to the Indian side of the decision-making process, who refused to be identified because of the classified nature of the deal.
A defence ministry spokesman, Sitanshu Kar, declined to confirm an agreement was imminent, but said the Russian defence officials were in India to discuss the “craft”.
The so-called fifth-generation fighter’s capabilities will include advanced aviation electronics, or avionics, to provide the pilot a detailed three-dimensional picture of the battlefield and improved “stealth” capability to evade radars.
The most advanced aircraft in the Indian Air Force at present is the Sukhoi-30 MkI, a fourth generation fighter, designed by Russia.
The American F-22 Raptor and F-35 JSF Lightning are the only fifth generation fighters in the world today.
Russia’s United Aircraft Building Corporation, a new umbrella organisation that has aircraft manufacturers like MiG, Sukhoi, Illyushin and Tupolev under it, is likely to partner the Indians. Sukhoi Design Bureau, the makers of Sukhoi 30, has been working on the design of the fifth generation fighter for over five years.
India’s own indigenously developed light combat aircraft — Tejas — has been delayed by nearly a decade. It is now undergoing trial flights ahead of certification, upon which 26 aircraft will be inducted into the Indian Air Force. “India is involved with the U.S. in various areas (like the nuclear deal); this could be a way to maintain strategic balance,” said P Rajkumar, a retired IAF Air Marshal, who headed the Tejas programme for two years until 2005.
But the India-Russia move could also be a source of friction as the F35 is a major defence initiative for the U.S. and several other countries. In addition to the US and the UK, seven other countries are partnering on the F-35 project, which got underway in 2001. They include Italy, the Netherlands, Turkey, Canada, Denmark, Norway and Australia.
Israel and Singapore have also agreed to join the programme. Lockheed Martin is the F-35 prime contractor, while Northrop Grumman and BAE Systems are principal partners in the project. The plan is to build 22 aircraft in the first 10year phase, according to the pro ject’s official website.
The proposed Russia-India agreement comes at a time when India is evaluating options to buy 126 multirole combat aircraft from countries, including Russia, the United States and Sweden. New Delhi insists that the sale should include transfer of technology and the right to licensed production in India.
Russia is already the dominant supplier of military hardware to India. The Indian Air Force has a fleet of over 600 fighters — nearly 90 per cent of Russian origin — including the MiG-21, MiG-29, Sukhoi-30 MkI and MiG-27. The two countries in recent years have collaborated on armaments such as the supersonic cruise missile Brahmos for domestic use and export to friendly countries.
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