India driving changes to Russian fighter platforms

Paris Air Show » 2005
December 12, 2006, 7:03 AM

Russian fifth-generation fighter programs could undergo major revisions to meet India’s requirements, following Sukhoi’s offer of an export version of the latest T-50 model. With India as a major importer of Russian defense equipment (purchases last year accounted for $1.8 billion), Sukhoi and its rival/possible collaborator can ill-afford to be out of sync with the Asian power’s military agenda.

The T-50 is Sukhoi’s own designation for a fifth-generation fighter project. Two years ago it beat the RSK MiG I-2 warplane in a Russian government tender. In the middle of last year the project passed critical design review with the Russian air force, which allowed Sukhoi to officially present its export version to India in early 2005.

Joint development of a fifth-generation fighter accounts for part of the Russo-Indian intergovernmental military cooperation program for 2001-2010. The documents defining the program remain classified but, as a framework agreement, do not contain detailed technical specification for the aircraft.

It also seems that the T-50, conceived under the tightly closed doors of the Russian defense ministry and Sukhoi design house, does not appeal to India. At the Aero India 2005 airshow, held in February at the Indian air force’s Yelahanka base near Bangalore, Indian officials gave strong indications that they would not accept the T-50 “as is.” This has created headaches for Sukhoi managers as they try to reconcile the vastly differing Russian and Indian requirements in one basic design.

The T-50 is the latest iteration of Russia’s long-running quest for a fifth-generation fighter platform. For more than a decade, the country’s own ministry of defense has swayed between various project definitions that have resulted in both lightweight single-engine concepts and back again to a more capable twin-engined warplane. The current Russian specification reads PAK FA, which stands for the baffling Perspective Aviation Complex of Frontal Aviation.

Official information on the T-50 is limited, and so far no pictures have surfaced. The powerplant consists of two NPO Saturn AL-41F-1A turbofans, essentially AL-41Fs scaled down to the size of the existing Su-27’s AL-31F. Such commonality has allowed the engine maker to develop the new unit by replacing one AL-31F module after another, while at the same time applying new AL-41F-1A technologies and parts to upgrade in-service Su-27s. An experimental AL-41F-1A entered flight test a year ago on a Su-27M test bed.

The Russians have not released exact figures for the PAK FA program’s weight and size. Russian air force commander Gen. Vladimir Mikhailov gave only the vaguest clues when he said, “the PAK FA is not so lightweight, it is rather a medium size.” Sukhoi general director Mikhail Pogosyan told Aviation International News the aircraft’s size “is between the MiG-29 and Su-27, closer to the Su-27.”

The latest MiG-29 mutations carry a maximum takeoff weight of 25 tons (55,114 pounds) and the Su-27 variants weight from 38 to 40 tons (83,774 to 88,183 pounds). Based on those figures, the T-50 would weigh in the region of 30 to 35 tons (66,137 to 77,160 pounds), well suited to the AL-41F-1A’s estimated thrust rating of 15 tons (33,068 pounds). The new engine would provide up to 50 percent more power than the earlier AL-31F engine.

But India reportedly wants a lighter design, having already taken care of its requirement for heavier combat air power through a long-term commitment to the 38-ton Su-30MKI model. A license production agreement calls for Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) to build 140 airframes between 2004 and 2017. In the small fighter segment sector India already has its own home-grown option in the shape of the 10-ton Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) developed by the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA).

Aero India 2005 brought news that the ADA has begun working on a 20-ton Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) said to compare to the Lockheed Martin F-22 Raptor. Because the conceptual MCA weighs some 10 tons less than the T-50, harmonizing the two programs might prove difficult.

Nonetheless, at the show Russia and India agreed to establish joint working groups for further upgrades to the Su-30MKI, as well as broader work on next-generation fighters. “A common decision whether to go forward is expected by the year-end,” Pogosyan commented. “We’ll proceed together if our views on the future aircraft can be reconciled.”

MiG Stakes Its Next-Generation Claim

Meanwhile, RSK MiG general director and designer Aleksei Fiodorov is also looking for ways to join forces with the Indians. To wit, the manufacturer continues to study a next-generation aircraft in the category of the MiG-29. “Lightweight fighters are MiG’s traditional market, and we are set to keep there,” Fiodorov said. “If harmonization with the Indian specification is possible, we will seek to jointly develop such an aircraft.”

Just before this week’s Paris Air Show rumors surfaced that Sukhoi and RSK MiG have entered talks over a common approach to a new lightweight fighter. If true, they clearly have the Indian requirement in mind.

Sukhoi’s T-50 offer coincided with a change in the Indian air force’s high command. “With individual leadership changing in the armed forces, be it the army, navy or the air force, the vision does not change. In the case of the air force we have a collective vision with which we prepare for the war of tomorrow,” the newly appointed Air Chief Marshall Tyagi said.

However, despite Tyagi’s stated commitment to the status quo, Indian defense buyers apparently want to shift focus from highly ambitious projects, such as the LCA, to models such as the HJT-39 twin engine combat aircraft trainer. While having similar weight (9.5 tons) and dimensions, the HJT-39 is made of metal for transonic speeds, as opposed to the composite, supersonic LCA.

“It’s a big secret,” said Pogosyan, acknowledging the slow negotiations with India. “So far there is no mutually agreed plan. We need time to reconcile views of the project participants.”

According to Pogosyan, the Indian defense industry wants to expand cooperation with Sukhoi on the existing and future programs. “Cooperation with Sukhoi makes it possible for them to develop their business and the Su-30MKI program provides a firm foundation for expanding our cooperation. The Su-30MKI success in India was due to Sukhoi’s policy of focusing on the needs of a particular customer. We are not developing an aircraft for the sake of it. We are sticking firmly to the customer’s needs to ensure we do what the customer wants.”

But critics would say that the problem with the T-50 lies precisely with the fact that Sukhoi designed it for one customer and offered it to another. Its future may depend not so much on the capability of the Sukhoi engineering team but on the negotiating abilities of its top managers to persuade its customers to compromise on their vastly differing views.

Meanwhile, Sukhoi believes that Russia’s own air force will soon need the T-50. The last deliveries of air superiority fighters new from a factory took place fully 15 years ago. Tight budgets have allowed for the modernization of only five Su-27s in 2003 and seven in 2004. Russia plans to upgrade between 11 and 17 aircraft this year.

“They are upgrading fighters built over 15 years ago, but it does not seem  reasonable to prolong their lifetimes further than 30 years,” Pogosyan reflected. “Sukhoi is completing the Su-35 documentation package and assembling its prototypes. This aircraft is superior to what is available today on the market. It will give us the time to work comfortably on a fifth generation fighter.”

The Russian air force plans to purchase Su-35s as an interim solution before a next generation aircraft is available in the 2010-12 timeframe.

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