By Leonid Nersisyan, military columnist
Since 2009, India has been holding the first place among the largest arms importers, while remaining the key independent product market for weapon manufacturers. It is India where Russia, the USA, France, Israel and other countries-exporters are involved in the toughest competition.
As the USSR and Russia took almost the entire Indian market in the past, in recent years this principle is no longer applicable. Moscow is still holding the first place, but in 2013–2017 the share of Russian arms supplies fell down to 62.3% (according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI)); in 2008–2012, Russia took 79.7% of the market. Delayed talks on several joint projects and a few lost tenders have contributed to the current situation in the market. Traditionally, fighter aircraft have made a great portion of supplies – the Indian Air Force is the world’s #4 by the number.
Let’s discuss in detail what awaits the military-technical cooperation (MTC) between Russia and India in the future.
When will the time for Super Sukhoi come?
Development of the heavy multirole fighter Su-30МKI has become one of the most important and largest Russian-Indian joint military projects in the field of MTC. In total, India will pay about $12 bln for 272 Su-30МKI fighters; note that Delhi has received a considerable part of technologies for aircraft production and launched the local production of many assemblies and aircraft assembly in the territory of India via HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited). India already has at least 240 operational aircraft; supplies are expected to be completed by 2020. In recent years, the modernization of the existing fleet has often been discussed with regard to gradual deterioration of avionics.
The modernization package called Super Sukhoi is likely to include a new onboard radar station with the active phased antenna array (APAA), upgraded cockpit avionics, etc. Even the replacement of the engine is being discussed – according to Indian media reports, Russia has offered more advanced engines AL-41F1S (installed on the Su-35S fighters). However, India is serious about a possible application of the in-house development – the Kaveri engine, but only after its modernization in cooperation with French specialists (for the time being, the engine is not able to ensure the required thrust performance). Of course, such an approach is hardly to be agreed by Russia, which can reasonably dump any responsibility for the technical condition and emergency situations for aircraft equipped with a foreign-made engine. Besides, the actual capability of Indian developers to reach the large-scale production phase for a complex unit like a new aircraft engine is doubtful. By technical parameters, a new engine is inferior to the АL-41F1S engines, which feature a thrust-vectoring module.
It is still unclear when the Super Sukhoi basic design will be determined. In 2016, Defense News, an American magazine, published the article with the reference to Indian AF’s representative who had reported an upcoming signing of a contract for upgrading 194 Su-30MKI aircraft for more than $8 bln. It was reported that a contract would be signed in 6 months. However, no progress in this deal has been achieved. Nonetheless, it is evident that sooner or later India will have to upgrade its fleet of the most powerful fighters, and they'll have to cooperate with Russia. The Su-30MKI will bring its billion profits in the future.
We should mention other trends of cooperation, concerning the Su-30MKI fighter. In March 2017, United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) and Indian HAL signed a contract for service maintenance of the Su-30MKI aircraft. This news has become very important as bureaucratic complications are arising with regard to procurement of spare parts by India. For this reason, a considerable number of the Su-30MKI aircraft are non-operational. Now, UAC will be responsible for 5-year maintenance program for Russian aircraft operated by the Indian AF.
Another interesting joint project is modernization of 48 Su-30MKI fighters to be able to carry the supersonic cruise missiles BrahMos-A co-developed by Russia and India. BrahMos-A is able to hit ground targets and ships at a distance of up to 290 km at a flight speed of up to 2.8 M. An option to launch the missile from an aircraft platform will enhance striking capabilities of the Indian AF. Completing the development of a smaller and lighter BrahMos-NG (Next Generation) missile will also allow to enhance striking capabilities of the Indian Air Force. With the same characteristics, the Su-30MKI fighter will be able to carry three missiles of this type; now, the aircraft carries only one BrahMos-A missile. Besides, BrahMos-NG may be installed on lighter fighters operated by the Indian AF such as the MiG-2929UPG, Dassault Rafale and deck-based МiG-29K fighters. It is evident that the production of large lots of the BrahMos cruise missiles in their airborne version will also bring profits to Russia.
Light fighter aircraft – endless story?
It is known that to negotiate any deal with India is often a very challenging task that takes much time to be accomplished. As far as the early 2000s, the Indian Government got some plans for replacing an enormous fleet of the obsolescent fighter aircraft. This fleet included hundreds of the Mig-21 and MiG-27 fighters, plus the SEPECAT Jaguar aircraft co-developed by the UK and France. Although the initial plan was to quickly and directly purchase the French Mirage 2000 fighters, later they announced a tender to purchase 126 light or medium fighters designated MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft). A number of aircraft took part in the tender such as the U.S. F/A-18E/F Super Hornet и F-16IN Super Viper, European Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault Rafale, Swedish JAS 39 Gripen and Russian MiG-35. After many years spent in choosing the winner, India chose the French twin-engine fighter Dassault Rafale. However, the French asked the sum that was two times higher than $10.4 bln specified in the tender requirements for the contract for 126 aircraft. Moreover, there were some problems related to the technology transfer as per India’s requirements. As a result, in 2015 Delhi purchased 26 Dassault Rafale aircraft for 4 bln and refused to buy the remaining aircraft.
Of course, that was not the end of the story – in fact, these 36 fighter aircraft could not solve the problem relating to disposal of hundreds of obsolescent fighters. Now, India has 31 fighter aircraft wings instead of planned 42, and by 2022 there will be 23 wings. Taking into account unfriendly, to say the least, neighboring countries such as China and Pakistan, this situation is not acceptable. That is why, at the latest Aero India 2017 India was showing a growing interest in purchasing 114 light single-engine fighter aircraft while foreign companies were focused on the promotion of single-engine aircraft such as JAS 39 Gripen and F-16I. According to some reports, India even wants to purchase 400 aircraft, but purchasing this number of aircraft at a time is highly unlikely.
In February 2018, the other interesting information appeared: according to Jane's Defence Weekly, India's MoD ordered the Indian AF to review the terms of reference that has been prepared for two years to buy the above-mentioned 114 single-engine fighters. According to MoD, the tender should also include twin-engine aircraft. Actually, it comes to the MMRCA-2 tender. Knowing the specifics of handling such projects in India, it will take a lot of time to make a certain decision (if any) – at best, in the mid-2020s. As before, the production of the most part of aircraft will be carried out in India as per the Make in India concept. The same participants are expected to take part in the tender. The U.S. F-23 single-engine fighter aircraft may become a new tender participant, but it is very expensive and the USA is unlikely to consider the option involving the transfer of key production technologies (it is doubtful the USA really wants to supply it’s most advanced combat aircraft).
We should note that this time the Russian MiG-35 may have more chances in comparison to MMRCA because the aircraft is slowly but steadily moving to the real large-scale production phase in Russia. At large, the aircraft has become more attractive in terms of its technical characteristics. For real completion, Russia should fix faults and launch the production of the onboard radar station with APAA “Zhuk-A” that is the stumbling block of the project. This is the common problem of the aircraft intended for the Russian AF and for further export. There are also some political issues: will India want to operate the Russian aircraft as two main types of fighters?
Direct purchase of 21 MiG-29 aircraft may become a hopeful sign for the future of the MiG-35 (the MiG-35 is the in-depth modernization of the MiG-29). The purchase was rumored in April 2018. According to Indian mass media, Delhi has shown a keen interest in Russia's offer. Now, India is upgrading available aircraft to the level of the MiG-29UPG 62 version. New aircraft are likely to be supplied in the same configuration. If the deal is made, the purchase of the MiG-35 aircraft will become more urgent for India, taking into account the noticeable similarity of aircraft types and, therefore, smaller expenses for operation and personnel training. We should not forget about the Indian single-engine fighter HAL Tejas. This aircraft is likely to be inferior to its competitors practically by all parameters, but the Indian Government does not want to give up on the aircraft, which has failed to pass the phase of small-batch production and rework.
Some Indian media report on the purchase of an extra lot of 40 Su-30MKI aircraft as the simplest way to maintain the desired number of fighter aircraft for the Indian AF. For now, it ends in talks.
Will FGFA be developed?
The first flight of the Russian Su-57 5th generation fighter prototype (the then Т-PAK FA) took place in 2010. Also, in 2010 Russia and India signed a contract for the exclusive design of the export aircraft version called FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). The contract value was about $300 mln. After that, further development of the project was stalled. Indian mass media regularly report fake news from some sources in the Indian AF or MoD either relating to upcoming signing of a contract for R & D work for $8 mln (each party shall invest $4 million) or about the incompliance of the aircraft with customer’s requirements and possible choice of aircraft made in Western countries. According to the latest report of Jane’s Defence Weekly, India has frozen it participation in the project; National Security Adviser Ajit Doval and Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra notified Russia on this decision. However, India is still considering an option of purchasing finished Su-57 aircraft as soon as it’s ready and meets all the requirements by Delhi. In the future, India may return to the project. On the other hand, Russia represented by Viktor Kladov, Rostec’ s Director for International Cooperation and Regional Policy, states that India has not announced that it is going to quit the FGFA project.
It is quite evident that delays in the course of the project were caused by several factors – the influence of the French lobby and, to a lesser degree, the American lobby; India’s attempts to reduce the cost of the program (we should admit that Delhi has achieved its goal – the cost of R & D has already been reduced by 40%); requirements for more extended transfer of production technologies (in this aspect, India has also succeeded; they have managed to bargain an option to produce 40% of aircraft components instead of 25%); traditional tardiness and complexity of Indian bureaucracy and frequent changes in the policy. As for claims for the aircraft quality, now and then there have been statements on insufficient thrust of the АL-41F1 engines, on insufficient radar stealth performance and unsatisfactory performance of the airborne radar station. As for the engine, the АL-41F1 engine is not considered to be the main power plant – the Su-57 aircraft’s original engine designated ‘Item 30’ is currently passing flight tests. Development of this engine will also allow to improve the aircraft stealth performance (stage 1 engine АL-41F1 fails to ensure sufficient reduction of the radar cross-section).
All in all, the initiatives regularly reported by Indian mass media in connection with the purchase of the U.S. F-35 single-engine fighter aircraft do not meet quite large number of Delhi’s requirements. First of all, this is the transfer of technologies – it is evident the USA will never agree upon that. Washington was incompliant even when it came to the transfer of technologies for the previous generation of combat aircraft such as the F-16V. As for the F-35, this fighter aircraft has many issues; its development and production has been delayed for a long period of time and its cost estimates have exceeded all reasonable limits. Besides, purchasing the F-35 aircraft will be much more expensive for India, with regard to the absence of any infrastructure and weapons for this aircraft. The market cannot offer any other alternatives to customers who want to buy the 5th generation combat aircraft – the U.S. F-22 is no longer available for export and its production is stopped. As for Chinese aircraft, India will never get them for political reasons (besides, their characteristics are unlikely to surpass the characteristics of the Su-57).
Therefore, despite all the difficulties associated with the FGFA joint project, Delhi does not have any other promising options. Of course, India can give up on the 5th generation fighter aircraft and continue to stake on the modified versions of the 4th generation – after all, these aircraft are much cheaper. But in this case, the country takes a risk of falling behind China, its regional competitor, in the arms race. In the future, China will be able to supply its 5th generation fighter aircraft to India's sworn enemy – to Pakistan. This reasonable argument gives Russia slight chances for pushing the Su-57 aircraft to the Indian market in the future. The purchase of 108 fighter aircraft of this type (according to the previously announced scopes of delivery) with the expected cost of at least $100 mln per FGFA will bring UAC over $10 bln, excluding service maintenance, weapons, spare parts, training, etc. Such a deal takes years of labor, but it’s worth it. It will be compensated through decades of stable incomes.
Nonetheless, no progress on the matter is expected in the coming years. But Russia still can “reenter the game” with its almost finished Su-57 – it is not for nothing that Russia has signed a procurement contract for the first 12 pre-production Su-57 aircraft for Russia’s Aerospace Forces.
New defence order. Strategy | 05 | 2018