FGFA back in the reckoning?

Image result for pics of Su-57

(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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
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12 Responses to FGFA back in the reckoning?

  1. Edelbert Badwar says:

    It is unfair to hope ” to absorb latest design techniques”from Russia.We need a stealth plane not training.For once I hope Nirmala comes up with a deal to acquire Su-57 in flyaway condition at the earliest.

  2. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    Re. “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.”

    $100 million = Rs 670 crores, in today’s exchange rates.
    That is not an argument.
    Su-57>Rafale or Su-57>F-35 is the argument to beat. At least among enthusiasts.
    Even more important argument is the money-trail. Economics is such an important criteria that US never even dared to port F-35 tech onto F-22, the later costing like the GDP of smaller Indian states for every piece, even without any upgrades. Technically US could have but no sir the world does not run bye the technicians.

    Modi govt. has been fooled enough by its own ‘supporters’. Su-35 will only give another reason to keep up the same rona-dhona by amrikion ke dalle. Su-35 is definitely not good enough and AMCA will come out a lot lot better provided it is started. Save money by:
    1) buying LCA and dropping single-engined-foreign-fighter,
    2) fund AMCA and dropping Rafale orders and upgrade route
    3) drop S-400 and also Su-35 and sew up a suitable deal for FGFA.
    4) apni maa ki kasam kha lo ke FGFA will be the last imported plane in India (Civil as well as military) that is not challenged by an all Indian alternative.

  3. Umesh Rana says:

    Your 670 million price per aircraft is completetly inaccurate! The base price is approx 100 million and tye rest is for hardened shelters, infrastructure build up, armaments package and India specific changes, etc. How in tge world can you just take the TOTAL price and divide by 36 aircraft? There are a number of costs that wont be repeated if we place a repeat order; for example, India specific changes will not recur as these are one off costs assuming no other changes are required. What I want to know is how a defence analyst like yourself can be so naive as to divide total costs by aircraft and throw out a number of 670 million per aircraft?
    After this article, I certainly will start questioning your analysis and defence forces bashing that you constantly do without giving a FAIR abd balanced analysis.
    Put on you thinking cap Mr Karnad and STOP throwing out fake numbers without any basis!

    • Pls read the piece more carefully. It says Rs 670 crores (NOT $ millions!). Secondly, it is absolutely fair to divide the total cost by 36 notwithstanding the one-time cost which become sunk costs (for infrastructure, like the AIR CONDITIONED hangars, etc) for subsequent buys of the same aircraft. In fact, it is precisely for this reason that I had warned long time before the cost figures were negotiated that IAF’d use the 36 Rafale buy as wedge to buy more by arguing that the costs now’d be minus the sunk costs. Except, given the controversy surrounding it and the fact that it’ll become a 2018 election issue, there’s unlikely to be more Rafales in IAF, and if there are, they will cost a whole lot more considering the arms costs rise exponentially!

      • Umesh Rana says:

        Thank you for your response Bharat. I was referring to your article and if you read the second paragraph, 8th line , it does refer to $670 million! If further aircraft are purchased then you are suggesting the price will be the same? Lets assume the base price rises “exponentially”;surely comparing like with like, there will be no costs related to India specific changes since these are already sunk costs ( assuming there are no further changes). If the threat perception changes and India subsequently orders additional arms package, do you add that on to the original cost of the 36 planes too? In my opinion, comparing the base price would give a far more meaningful comparison.

      • Venkat says:

        Please re check 2nd para 8th line. It states 670 million USD.
        Suggest time for you to junk your fascination with Rafale and move on.
        Overall poorly written article.
        Certainly not worth a military blog material.

  4. @Rana — My bad> 1st mention shld have been Rs 670 cr. corrected. Tks. The sunk costs are not relevant to subsequent buys çoz IAF is buying off the shelf. Moreover, the price of the platform itself and separately of the two main weapons — Meteor and storm shadow missiles, will rise exponentially.

    • Umesh Rana says:

      Thank you for your kind response Bharat. Its great having a meaningful discussion with you and I very much appreciate your candidness and openness. Keep going! Look forward to more articles. Hopefully GOI might have included terms where
      there might be fixed prices for certain quantities of weapons subject to some kind of cap on prices ( linked to CPI for example ) going forward.

  5. sanman says:

    Mr Karnad,
    ISRO has lost contact with GSAT-6A, due to some power system failure in the satellite. Is there any danger that China may be testing ASAT lasers against us? If there are further failures down the road in our dual-use military-civilian satellites, and there is suspicion of Chinese tricks, then can we come up with protective countermeasures, or at least have an accurate means of identifying the attackers?

  6. Pingback: FGFA Back In The Reckoning? | | Defence News Club

  7. R.John says:

    I endorse the green light for the FGFA as it is a vision for the future… at hand.,and offers technology a generation ahead of the Flanker variants. In comparing costs,there is simply no argument for buying more Rafales,which was a disaster. For the $8-10B,one could’ve picked up ,and I’m not joking-costs are easily available ,around 180-200 MIG-35s, 9-10 sqds. of these almost equally capable as the Rafale,and in some respects superior to it,especially in the WVR scenario, would’ve been infinitely better than the measly 2 sqds. of Rafales.Another option would’ve been buying even more MKIs to an upgraded Super-Sukhoi std.,equipped with Brahmos,something that the Rafale cannot carry!

    The IAF is the most profligate of the three services,expecting like a spoilt child a foreign toy every time it is bored with its old ones.Cost-effectiveness is not in its lexicon. neither has it realised that “payload -centric” is a virtue being pursued more today than that of “platform-centric” .The FGFA is absolutely required for the IAF to continue to give us that qualiitative dge over both China and Pakistan.

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