New Delhi is increasingly concerned about the sluggish progress in the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) project, a joint endeavour between India and Russia.
Driving India's worries is the fact that the Russians are neither explaining why a prototype aircraft caught fire during a technology demonstration earlier this year nor addressing other technical doubts expressed by India. In fact, the defence ministry is quite sceptical about reports from Russia that a final design contract for the next generation combat jet is on the cards.
The Indian version, called the Prospective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF), is almost exactly the same as PAK-FA but with some variations. In fact, Indian money is key to keeping Russia's PAKFA programme alive. Russia has built six prototypes of PAK-FA and, after repeated requests from India, it agreed to hold a demonstration flight earlier this year for technical evaluation. The flight ended in a fire that embarrassed the Russians.
But much to the surprise of an Indian team present at the site, they were not allowed anywhere near the aircraft. India wanted to know the reasons for the fire but details were never shared, said sources. India has paid $295 million (Rs.1,785.19 crore) for the preliminary design, which was finalised last year, and it is only logical that Indian officials feel concerned about the status of the PAK-FA programme. The Indian side was not satisfied with the preliminary design and raised questions about maintenance issues, the engine, stealth features, weapon carriage system, safety and reliability. Sources said there could not be any progress until these issues were resolved.
But the queries remain unanswered even after a round of discussions between the two sides this month. The Russian side's common response to New Delhi's concerns has been: "Don't get emotional." Any further push on these issues results in talk of price escalation, sources said. For instance, the Indian Air Force had made it clear last year that it was not satisfied with the engine of the new fighter, which was based on the power plant for the Sukhoi-30. A change has been promised at an additional cost.
No Indian expert or pilot has had a long hard look at the PAK-FA jet to date. The Russians are not allowing Indian pilots to fly the aircraft, claiming foreign pilots are barred from flying in their airspace.
But India argues that such restrictions were not imposed when the Sukhois or MiG jets were extensively flown in Russia by Indian pilots. Already, India has been reduced from a joint collaborator to a financing partner in the FGFA project.
The Indian work share in the venture is a paltry 13 per cent though it is paying 50 per cent of the projected cost of $10.5 billion agreed on in 2011. In terms of work, India's state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited will contribute only tyres, basic navigational instrument VOR-DME, coolant for the radar, laser designation pod and heads-up display.
Even within this 13 per cent, the actual indigenous items will be in single digits and the rest will be procured from abroad. The programme has been plagued by difficulties right from the start.
India initially wanted around 30 or 40 twin-seat aircraft to be used as trainers. But since PAK-FA was a single-seater, the Russians sought an additional $8 billion for the trainer version. The move was scrapped as India settled for training on simulators. After the signing of the final design contract, it will take 94 months to complete the development programme.
The delay in resolving technical issues has meant that the IAF will not have fifth generation fighters even by the next decade. (India Today)