India has reportedly stopped working with Russia on the long-troubled Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft program, or FGFA, a shared effort that was supposed to produce an improved variant of the equally vexing Su-57 stealth fighter. Though hardly surprising, with years of reports that the Indian government has become increasingly disappointed in the project’s progress and the aircraft's capabilities, the decision could have significant ramifications for both countries.
On April 20, 2018, Jane’s 360 reported that the Indian Air Force had put FGFA program on indefinite hold, citing unnamed official sources. India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra had reportedly told visiting Russian officials of the decision in February 2018. Similar reports also appeared in domestic Indian outlets.
Officials from India and Russia have not offered any official statement to confirm the program has come to an end and Indian officials have reportedly indicated that they might be willing to revisit the project in the future. This bureaucratic maneuvering may allow both sides to avoid having to acknowledge that the effort has collapsed, which is messaging Russia would be especially sensitive to.
Regardless, it appears the FGFA project is effectively dead following more than a decade of negotiations, delays, and struggles with the Su-57. Also known as the T-50 or the PAK FA, that stealth fighter was supposed to serve as the basis for the Indian jet.
In principle, this made good sense, as India would be able to save time and money by starting with an established design. Fifth generation fighter jet programs have proven to be extremely complex, costly, and time-consuming affairs, and sharing the burden was supposed to offer a win-win situation for both parties. The two countries expected the multi-billion dollar partnership between India’s state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Russia’s Sukhoi would lead to a production order of more than 100 FGFAs, with much of the actual manufacturing occurring in India.
According to the report from India’s Business Standard, the Su-57’s actual low-observable characteristics were among the biggest issues. The War Zone’s own Tyler Rogoway has long called these features into question himself, writing:
“A jet's fan face produces a massive radar signature. Modern high-performance stealthy aircraft designs use ‘S’ shaped ducts to hide their engines from most or all line of sight aspects, with radar return scrambling baffles being built under the duct surface scrambling returns even more. Some aircraft, like the Super Hornet, use a slotted baffle that covers the fan faces of their engine, which are hidden only partially by the aircraft's duct shape. This measure reduces the aircraft's frontal radar signature, but it is less effective than an s shaped duct and may impact certain aspects of engine performance. Many other features on the T-50 also put a high level of low observability in doubt.”
It has seemed increasingly clear that the underlying Su-57 design might simply not be readily adaptable to being stealthier than it is in its present form. India may also feel that it has less flexibility to accept a design that doesn't meet more stringent low-observability requirements, even if it has other features that could offset those deficiencies in the near term, on the promise of receiving a stealthier variant in the future.
As both the Su-57 and the FGFA have turned into a shared saga, China, one of India’s most likely regional opponents, has surged ahead in developing fifth generation aircraft. The Chinese say that the J-20 stealth fighter is now operational and they are in the process of developing a medium-weight stealth combat jet, as well as a host of stealthy unmanned aircraft, all of which might eventually work together in the future as a manned-unmanned team.
In addition, Pakistan is reportedly eying cooperating with China on its own fifth generation fighter jet. The two countries already successfully partnered to develop the much simpler JF-17 lightweight fighter.
Stealth was hardly the Su-57's only issue, though. There have long been concerns about whether the Saturn AL-41F turbofans, or even an advanced derivative thereof, would be sufficient enough to power the Su-57. On top of that, there are just questions about the reliability and quality control of Saturn’s production in general.
The AL-41 series are derived from the AL-31F, which powers India’s Su-30MKI Flankers. Those turbofans have a very short average time between overhaul (TBO) of around 1,000 hours, at which time they need to go back to a depot, possibly in Russia. The new engines have greatly increased TBO according to their manufacturer, but how accurate such a claim is unknown.
The Russians did conduct the first flight test of a pre-production Su-57 with the more powerful Saturn Izdeliye 30, another AL-31F derivative, in December 2017. Unfortunately, that engine isn’t slated to enter serial production until at least 2020 and, by the Kremlin's own estimation, is unlikely to be ready to go into a production variant of the stealth fighter until 2025.
The Su-57’s present design also lacks a “modular engine concept” that could make routine maintenance more time consuming and costly. It also might prevent the Indians from doing more maintenance locally, which could easily have been a non-starter for the country, which makes domestic production and sustainment support a major priority in all of its defense deals.
Lastly, there have reportedly been major disputes regarding the sharing of technical data relating to the jet’s flight computer and mission software. The Kremlin has apparently repeatedly refused to give its counterparts in New Dehli full access to the code, which would have given the Russians much more control over any final product.
As combat aircraft become increasingly software-driven in general, both to run their basic flight systems and to manage sensors, targeting, and other data management and transfer functions, this will only become more of an issue for any countries collaborating on advanced designs. Various international partners in the U.S. military’s F-35 Joint Strike Fighter program have begun to increasingly voice concerns that the interconnected nature of that plane’s computer brain could pose a national security risk.
But while India might see good cause to finally cancel the underperforming FGFA program due to these issues and free up those resources for other projects, it’s not clear if the country will necessarily be able to make good use of them in the near term. Indian officials are separately starting the third iteration of an attempt to buy more than 100 foreign-designed fourth generation fighter jets and build them locally, a separate saga that is itself nearly 20 years old, as well as struggling to squeeze some real capability out of the chronically underwhelming Tejas domestically designed lightweight fighter.
India still has a clear requirement for a fifth generation fighter and it’s not clear what other options it might have in achieving that goal. It has its own separate Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft program, or AMCA, but is a long-term effort that the FGFA was supposed to have led into in the future. India now wants to link its fourth generation fighter purchases to receiving technical assistance for that project, but it is still unlikely that it would produce any real results soon, even if it were to proceed in a timely fashion.
The only other course of action that would offer a true fifth generation capability would be to join the F-35 program, which increasingly appears to be the end goal for many in both the U.S. military and India's defense establishment. However, if Indian officials were disappointed with the Russian control of the Su-57s flight computer, they’d almost certainly have difficulty in extracting any better concessions from defense giant Lockheed Martin. So far, only Israel has the right to modify the Joint Strike Fighter’s Autonomic Logistics Information System, or ALIS, and add its own software on top of it – something the U.S. Air Force, Marine Corps, and Navy can’t even do with their jets.
India could decide to accept some level of enhanced domestic cooperation, such as component construction, final assembly, or depot-level maintenance. Lockheed Martin would be unlikely to offer to establish anything approaching a full local production line for the jets even if the U.S. government were to approve the export of highly-sensitive manufacturing knowledge, which is itself extremely unlikely.
India could also decide to pursue an advanced fourth-generation design with some limited low-observable features, such as enclosed weapons carriage and radar-absorbent coatings. Boeing is presently offering some of these features as potential options for foreign customers looking to buy the latest iteration of its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and had pitched a similarly modified version of its F-15E Strike Eagle, called the Silent Eagle, to South Korea and other countries.
Boeing is in the process of trying to sell Super Hornets to the Indian Navy and will likely submit a bid for the latest iteration of the Indian Air Force fourth generation fighter tender. The prospect of having both services operate the same aircraft, or at least similar variants, could make the aircraft an especially attractive choice in those competitions.
Russia has proposed an equally limited upgrade of its Su-35S Flanker-E to the United Arab Emirates and other potential customers. It might be able to incorporate some of those updates onto older Flanker derivatives, such as India's existing Su-30MKIs.
Still, if India felt the Su-57 was stealthy enough and it was unwilling to accept the promise that it would become more so in the future, it’s hard to imagine how any of those options would necessarily meet its requirements. It is possible that the Indian Air Force could purchase a smaller amount of one of those upgraded fourth generation designs as a lower-cost interim solution, but it would still only be a stopgap at best.
For the Russians, the loss of India as a partner could be even more problematic. Without additional funds from the Indians to help keep the Su-57 program going, the Kremlin might have to scale back its plans for the jet even further.
Russia had initially hoped it could have built 150 Su-57s, the bulk of those being final production models, by 2020. Moscow eventually scaled that back to an initial purchase of just a dozen jets. It still had not received all of those aircraft by the end of 2017.
The Kremlin now claims that serial production will begin by the end of 2018 and that it could purchase as many as 220 aircraft in total, another questionable assertion given the country’s recent defense budget cuts and its massive focus on expensive advanced strategic weapons. In February 2018, the Russian Air Force dispatched a pair of the pre-production jets to Syria, but it's unlikely they could have performed any useful missions, for tests purposes or otherwise, during a visit that reportedly lasted less than two days.
It remains unclear how both parties will decide to proceed now. India’s military procurement process is notoriously long and convoluted, often suffering from accusations of corruption, which could push any new plans for a fifth generation fighter aircraft further into the future. Russia’s own progress on the Su-57 has been painfully slow and despite optimistic pronouncements from the Kremlin and Sukhoi, there’s no guarantee the jets will arrive with the desired features or in anything approaching the numbers that Moscow wants any time soon.
We'll have to wait and see how much, if anything, either side will ultimately be able to salvage from the abortive FGFA program.
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