IAF Still Sceptical About Russian 5th Generation Fighter

A T-50 prototype of the Russian variant of the FGFA flies during a 2011 airshow. Image Credit: Dmitry Zherdin via Wikimedia Commons

The Indian Air Force remains may yet choose to exit from the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) programme with Russia, according to a story in Defense News.

Senior members of the air force told the Ministry of Defence the FGFA ‘does not meet desired requirements like U.S. F-35 fighter type capabilities,’ the story says, citing an anonymous IAF official.

The anonymous official notes two perceived shortcomings with the FGFA. One, the aircraft’s design isn’t stealthy enough and would need a major revamp to become less visible. Two, it lacks a modular engine, which makes maintenance more complicated and expensive. It also effectively makes the IAF dependent on the Russian manufacturer.

While there’s no standardised definition for fifth generation aircraft, they usually incorporate stealth features, are capable of sustained supersonic flight, and have better sensor and self-protection features than their fourth generation predecessors.

The FGFA programme is a joint venture between Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau and India’s HAL. The Russians have already built prototype aircraft for the programme under the name PAK-FA.

India also has a second fifth generation warplane programme, the DRDO-run Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is still in early stages.

The IAF has expressed misgivings about the FGFA programme for years. In September, India Today reported concerns among air force officials that are similar to those noted in the Defense News story.

These grumblings have come even after a government-appointed panel recommended in July that the programme be continued.

Earlier this year, Russian analyst Franz-Stefan Grady pointed out that a key concern for the IAF remained technology transfer: ‘India wants a guarantee that it will be able to upgrade the fighter jet in the future without Russian support, which would require Moscow sharing source codes (sensitive computer code that controls the fighter jet’s various systems — the key to an aircraft’s electronic brains).’

Grady also noted that ever since Russia slashed its acquisition plan for the aircraft from 250 to 18-24 in 2015, many in the IAF have become sceptical about its prospects.

None of this means India is going to exit the programme just yet. As Grady observes, the publicly aired misgivings ‘are likely intended to strengthen India’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia in the current round of negotiations.’

Earlier in the month, this blog reported that China had commissioned its fifth generation warplane, the J-20A.

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