(Su-57s in flight)
Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman will be visiting Russia for 5-6 days starting April 3. Talk is swirling about the minister reviving the now up-now down FGFA (fifth generation fighter aircraft) programme with a formal contract to proceed with essentially buying the Sukhoi-57 with some small modifications. This in any case is what Moscow hopes will happen. It is also a means of mending relations with Putin’s Russia because, let’s be clear and realistic, without Russian assistance and continued friendship India’s strategic prospects are bleak.
This comes after the fiasco of the Rafale deal where the CCS approval happened in early 2018, a good three years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi stunned everyone including the French by acting as Santa Claus bearing gifts for the struggling Dassault company and the French combat aviation sector with his announcement for the buy of 36 Rafales off the shelf. This was a god-sent deal because Paris had until then failed to rack up any sales for this aircraft. After the recent state visit by Emannuell Macron Dassault is more confident than ever that the contract for 36 planes will be stretched to an eventual offtake of three times as many Rafales but at a unit price higher than Rs 670 crore!! This is a bonanza France will treasure. What the Modi regime has got in return is airy-fairy stuff — promises of high-technology, solar alliance, etc. the sort of thing Delhi has always been a sucker for. Bu the high cost factor means India cannot fool around with the kind of idiotic deal for the museum piece — F-16, let alone as warm up, as some screwy commentators have been suggesting, for the still bigger lemon in the US fleet, the F-35, that other than its information fusion-situational awareness technology is an absolute disaster because all it relies on is BVR, which is small consolation indeed.
IAF brass has mightily resisted the Russian FGFA for reasons that are jejune at best — with complaints they invariably manufacture any time a Russian aircraft hoves into sight — insufficient stealth, under-powered, and the perennial — spares and servicing problems, complaints that are based on flying a prototype. But faced for reasons of economics with buying a Russian aircraft to get the numbers up, they have thrown a curve ball, and asked for the Su-35 as interim solution to the indigenous Indian FGFA project. And to further mess up things and, perhaps, also to perhaps try and collaterally kill off the Tejas LCA. This didn’t happen because, mercifully, this wonderful Indian designed fighting machine has finally gained traction both within the air force — with Mirage 2000 sqdn pilots who flew it reporting that it handles better than the French item and predecessor to the Rafale that they fly — and with the “nationalist” BJP government, which would have had egg on its face and lots worse had they followed the Vayu Bhavan advice and restricted its production. If there’s Tejas, where’s the need for any foreign single-engine aircraft? The Sukhoi stable has no such plane to sell.
But why the Su-35 when the far more advanced Su-57 is available at around the same price of $100 million per aircraft? And compare this cost with that of each Rafale of Rs 670 crores that India is forking out.
Sitharaman will sign for the S-400 anti-aircraft system — which is NOT for ballistic missile defence, but nevertheless affords comfort to some in the govt as part of the tiered missile defence complex around the Delhi National Capital Region, along with the homegrown Prithvi BMD. But it is FGFA that, one hopes, she’ll finally and irrevocably plonk for and end for once and for all this open-ended saga of a future structure of IAF. Of course, for the money, Sitharaman should make sure of two things: that (1) Indian aircraft designers along with Russian-speaking IAF fliers are from the word go seconded to the Sukhoi design bureau to absorb the latest design techniques and technologies for inputting into the AMCA (advanced medium combat aircraft) project , and (2) that a full-scale spares production is set up in the Indian private sector so the usual snafus regarding nonavailability of spares, which has poisoned the attitude of many IAF pilots to Russian hardware, is obviated.
With FGFA in the IAF stable, the future Indian air orbat firms up as follows: Tejas Mk1A-Mk-2, AMCA, FGFA, with the Su-30MKI upgraded to “super Sukhoi” configuration acting as the bridge between the present and future force. The pivot for the success of such a force depends centrally on the Tejas produced in large numbers, something HAL can manifestly not manage. Whence the need that I have long urged for the transfer of Tejas technology in toto by DRDO/ADA to Indian private sector companies — Tata, Mahindra and Reliance to also wean these firms away from the imported aircraft syndrome, with the incentive provided them to export a part of their production from get-go.