India’s interest in Russia’s fifth-generation fighter highlights conflicting priorities between the air force and the domestic defence industry.

Russian Sukhoi fighter aircraft

By Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

The Indian Air Force, according to recent press reports, harbours doubts as to its continued participation in Russia’s fifth-generation fighter programme. Indian defence industry, meanwhile, is rallying to the project’s support. In terms of technology access, the industrialists argue, it’s the best deal available.

The argument reflects the contradictory imperatives of the air force and of the domestic defence-aerospace industry. For the air force, a key driver is timeliness, as it is already well below its targeted combat-aircraft squadron strength. For Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), however, maximising its participation in the programme and access to technology are its primary aims. The government’s emphasis on ’Make in India‘, combined with the state-owned nature of the country’s defence-aerospace sector, at face value strengthen the industrialists’ case.

The extent to which the debate is being played out in public may be partly for effect. New Delhi’s interest in Russia’s Sukhoi T-50 (Su-57) is aimed at addressing the air force’s Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) project, but the air force has concerns, reportedly including costs and the aircraft’s characteristics. Nevertheless, in terms of meeting air-force requirements and industry aspirations, there is no comparable programme available. So ‘doubts’ as to India’s participation in the programme may be aimed at gaining the best possible deal. Meanwhile, Russian export officials maintain that the joint project is on track.

A possible further problem for the Indian Air Force is that while the T-50 (Su-57) would provide it with a capable multi-role combat aircraft, and access to technologies that the United States would be unlikely to provide fully, it comes with the considerable risk of delivery delays if domestic industry aspirations are fulfilled, with local final assembly, or even eventually production.

For the air force it is a difficult truth that Indian domestic industry does not always deliver on schedule, nor is it guaranteed to meet requirements. For example, the HAL Light Combat Aircraft/Tejas project has taken decades to finally reach an initial operational capability. Meanwhile, the air force had to launch an interim upgrade for some its ageing MiG-21 Fishbed fleet in 1994. Latterly, in 2016, a single-engine-fighter competition was launched, for which a winner (contenders include the F-16V or Gripen E) has yet to be selected.

The air force is also due to begin to receive the first of 36 Dassault Rafale combat aircraft in 2019. This purchase is so far all that remains of the previously planned 126-aircraft Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft procurement. French Minister of the Armed Forces Florence Parly visited India on 27–28 October, where additional Rafale sales were on the agenda.

In parallel to the FGFA, India is also finalising with Russia an upgrade for its Sukhoi Su-30MKI fleet of multi-role combat aircraft. The air force has 272 Su-30MKI aircraft on order, around 250 of which have now been delivered. The last of the 272 are likely to be handed over in 2019. HAL carries out in-country final assembly of the Su-30MKI, and this version of the Flanker will remain the core of the Indian Air Force likely well into the 2030s.

When, and if, India fully commits to the Russian T-50 (Su-57) to meet the FGFA programme requirement, it would likely mean the aircraft entering squadron service by the mid-2020s.

This analysis originally featured on the Military Balance+, the new IISS online database that enables users in government, the armed forces and the private sector, as well as academia and the media, to make faster and better-informed decisions. The Military Balance+ allows users to customise, view, compare and download data instantly, anywhere, anytime.

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