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India Could Have Doubts About Russian Fifth-gen Fighter Buy

 - November 8, 2017, 11:00 AM

India could be about to re-examine its decision to acquire fifth-generation fighters from Russia, after the Indian Air Force (IAF) produced a report questioning the reasoning behind the program.

A number of Russian media reports in late October stated that India will decide not to press forward with participation in the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program. The aircraft proposed by the Russian United Aircraft-Building Corporation (OAK) is a variant of the Sukhoi Su-57/PAK-FA incorporating a long list of design changes specified by the IAF to comply with its requirements.

Both Russian print and online media and Echo Moskvy radio reported that the official IAF report has criticized the concept of continuing with the program. Among other findings, it states that the Su-57 design is compromised by being based on obsolescent technology. There are also questions about the overall cost of the program, since India would be required to commit some $6.7 billion to proceed to the next phase.

The overall assessment of the IAF report is that the FGFA would never be an aircraft in the class of the U.S. Lockheed Martin F-35 and that the maintenance costs would be prohibitively high. One of the chief concerns with regard to maintenance is that the engine currently flown in the Su-57 is the Saturn 117S/AL-41F1 design. The Indian report criticizes the engine for being too expensive to operate as it is not a “modular design.”

Comparisons with F-35

For their part, Russian industry officials said this is not a credible position and “this [engine issue] is a long-running Indian complaint.” IAF used the same rationale several years ago to exclude the Mikoyan MiG-35 from the M-MRCA competition before the final down-select.

The other Russian response is that the long-promised follow-on, fifth-generation engine for the Su-57–referred to as Izdeliye 129/Engine No. 30–was to be flown in one of the Su-57 prototypes before the end of this year. This engine is supposed to weigh significantly less, operate at higher fuel efficiency and have fewer moving parts, but details about its true status remain sparse.

Russian military technology commentators also state that the Indian assessment of the F-35 as a superior aircraft is not an honest one and that its initial design requirements have compromised its performance characteristics.

“The main focus in creating the F-35 was made on the basis of two main requirements: short takeoff and landing, as well as the stealth technology. The first aspect makes the plane a single-engine aircraft that can actually take off and land vertically on a short air strip. The stealth technology degrades flight quality and provides for a number of other restrictions,” said Aleksei Leonkov, from the Russian military publication Arsenal of the Fatherland. “If we compare the performance and combat capabilities of the F-35 and Su-57, the Su-57 leaves the U.S. aircraft considerably behind,” he claimed.

Ownership Costs

Indian aerospace specialists maintain that, performance issues aside, there is a larger concern within the MoD that the FGFA program could turn out to “become another sinkhole of money greater than the 1990-era Su-30MKI.” Their concerns are based on the many open-ended questions as to what the complete costs will be for a new engine, as well as the many other design changes that the IAF originally recommended after a requirements team inspected the initial T-50-series prototypes in Russia.

The public understanding of the program in India is also not complete, say some of the same specialists. “The 36 Dassault Rafales that India procured after the demise of the M-MRCA program had a total cost of $9 billion. The commitment that Russia is asking for on the Su-57 is $6.7 billion, for a program that will produce around 130 aircraft,” explained one Indian military aerospace analyst.

“From the public perspective, people look at those numbers here in India and get the impression that the Russian offer is a real bargain: 130-plus aircraft for $2.3 billion less than the price of 36 Rafales. This is what they think,” he explained. “But what no one realizes is that the $6.7 billion pays only for the program set-up costs and the production of the initial four FGFA prototype aircraft. The 127 aircraft to then be license-built in India will be at least another $135 million apiece, which is another $17.1 billion on top of the initial $6.7 billion outlay.”

The final numbers put the per-unit cost of the Su-57 at $183 million compared with $250 million for the Rafale, although the same Indian analysts suggest those comparisons are not “apples for apples.” There are additional costs for weapons systems and other infrastructure expenses that are not folded into the estimate for the Su-57. However, those line items are included in the price tag for the Rafale program, they say.

“The Su-30MK was an existing, working airplane in the Russian Air Force, and turning it into the Su-30MKI was not a huge leap in capability,” said the same Indian military aerospace analyst. “Even those comparatively modest enhancements cost more than $700 million,” he added. 

“The big worry for India is there is a much greater distance between the Su-57 as it exists today and the requirements for the FGFA, and there is no reliable methodology to predict that cost for closing that gap,” concluded an analyst who chose not to be named.