In December 2010, India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) signed an agreement for New Delhi to fund the preliminary design stage of what was called the Future Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). The development of this aircraft, which was originally intended to be a two-seat variant of the Sukhoi T-50 5th-generation fighter, was to be tailored to meet Indian requirements.
This aircraft, now known as the Su-57, would be the logical follow-on for—and would eventually replace—some of the missions for another variant-developed-for-India fighter aircraft, the Su-30MKI. The 2010 agreement, however, only committed India to pay $295 million, which was funding for the initial design and concept-definition phase
Russian commentators were quick to trumpet the success of the T-50 project, which they saw as guaranteed based on India’s participation.
“If the 29 January [2010 first test] flight verified the technical viability of the program, then 21 December secures its commercial and industrial future,” said Konstantin Makiyenko from the Moscow-based Centre for the Analysis of Strategies and Technologies (CAST). CAST is a defense technology and political-military analysis think-tank that produces several authoritative analytical publications and annual reviews on the progress of Russian defense industrial programs.
However, since this time, India has not taken the next step in the process, which is to commit to a multi-billion-dollar effort to proceed to developing an actual variant of the aircraft that would be modified to meet India’s requirements.
This reticence by New Delhi to move forward is due to a collection of factors, one of which is the issue of the financial commitments their involvement in the program would obligate them to fulfill.
Too Many Programs
One analyst, in comments echoed by other U.S. and European defense industry representatives who have spoken to AIN, stated, “I do not know how the IAF [Indian Air Force] can—as they say—‘get there from here’ when you look at all of the programs they have running in parallel with one another.” The observation is based on what they see as India trying to “diversify its supplier base”—switching the emphasis on procurement to more Western-made combat aircraft and away from their traditional reliance on Russian designs—but without really letting go of the historical umbilical connection to Moscow.
The trouble, said one U.S. industry executive, is that New Delhi is “trying to have it both ways.” At present, the Indian MoD has the following major new projects underway:
• Procurement of 36 Dassault Rafale fighters under a package deal involving industrial offsets. The total program cost is estimated at $9 billion.
• A projected “re-run” of the Medium-Multirole Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) tender process that produced the selection of the Rafale. This time, however, the program would be for 100 or more of a lightweight fighter. Most observers expect this to end up as a contest between the Saab JAS-39E Gripen and a variant of the Lockheed Martin F-16, the latter of which has been referred to as “Block 70.” Both aircraft would be fitted with an active electronically-scanning array (AESA) radar.
• Purchase of 83 (73 single-seat and 10 two-seat) examples of the indigenously-produced Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas fighter. These aircraft are an improved, Mark-IA variant of the aircraft that will supposedly be equipped with an AESA, a new electronic warfare suite (to include a self-protection jamming module) and air-to-air refueling.
• Creation of a modified variant of the Su-57 that would include local participation by Indian industry.
• Acquisition of a non-Russian carrier aircraft capable of being catapult-launched. This would be acquired for the Indian Navy’s next-generation of carriers. The U.S. has already agreed to sell India the advanced electromagnetic aircraft launching systems (EMALS) technology being installed on the newest U.S. Navy carriers.
Almost every analyst AIN spoke to on this issue—both Western specialists and those in India—stated that it is almost impossible to see all of these initiatives moving forward without one or more of them being sacrificed.
The reason that analysts in both Moscow and in New Delhi are looking at the Su-57 program as the most likely candidate among those above to fall off the list of programs is that the Su-57 has too few backers and too many problems associated with its procurement. Officially, there has been a partnership between Russia and India on developing the PAK-FA since 2007, which was years before almost all of the other programs above were in place.
This is the first of many problems, according to Indian military aerospace observers, because during this 10-year period the Su-57 program has seen “rather slow progress,” according to one. Another difficulty from the Indian side was that the number of this type initially projected to be produced was around 800. This number has now shrunk to between 300 and 400, which includes the 127 units to be purchased by India, leaving New Delhi to pick up almost 50 percent of the initial non-recoverable development costs.
This puts the total cost estimate for the program at over $30 billion, a figure that has not been widely publicized by the IAF.
“A lot of the Indian public looks at the numbers between these two [Rafale and Su-57] and think the Russian option is a bargain,” said one Indian aerospace expert. “They do not realize that the $9 billion pays for all 36 Rafales, but the $6.7 billion we would have to invest in the Su-57 would only pay for four prototypes—with the total program cost more than three times that of the Rafale acquisition.”
Additionally, the actual unit cost of an Indian version of the Su-57 remains an unknown. An IAF team that examined the Su-57 program’s T-50 prototypes reportedly found dozens of design changes that they would request before they would deem the aircraft compliant with their requirements, many of which involved radar-cross-section (RCS) issues or other expensive modifications.
A New Engine
On the positive side, T-50 prototype number 2 finally flew in December 2017 with a new, 5th-generation engine fitted to one of its two nacelles. This engine, which has been referred to most commonly as “izdeliye [item] No. 30,” is billed as a major improvement over the Saturn/Lyulka 117/AL-41F1 engine that has powered all of the aircraft in the program, so far
In addition to offering a higher thrust rating that the 117 model engine it is replacing, it has a lower specific fuel consumption, fewer parts overall in its design and a greater projected number of flight hours in its service life.
The engine has been a cooperative effort by several fighter engine design bureaus, all of which have been folded into the Unified Aeroengine-Building Corporation (ODK). Series production of the engine will take place at the same plant in Ufa, Russia that currently builds the 117-series engines.
The first flight of the new engine is considered to be proof positive that Russia’s military aircraft industry is capable of fielding a new aircraft that has a complement of actual 5th-generation subsystems. For some time, the Su-57 program had been criticized as being the same engine, radar, avionics etc. as the Su-35, but installed in a stealthy-looking airframe.
In other words, said one Russian aerospace analyst, “It looked like a next-generation aircraft, but below the surface it was less than what it appeared. [But] this criticism is potentially blunted when you now have the aircraft flying with a new engine and other state-of-the-art components.”
However, Russian experts state that perhaps the biggest obstacle to the Su-57 program is that it has no champions pushing it to the top of the list of Moscow’s domestic defense orders. Despite the fact that it has the potential to be a new aircraft in its own right, the Russian Aerospace Forces (VKS) are reportedly not clamoring to receive the Su-57, as they are unwilling to cast aside the Su-35—a known quantity.
Two elements to the Su-35’s advantage are, first, it is a larger aircraft that can carry more ordnance than the Su-57 and, second, there are export orders for the Su-35 that potentially lower the unit cost and create the economies of scale necessary to maintain production lines for spares and upgrades.
There is also no constituency within the defense industrial community lobbying for the Su-57 to be made a priority. In the past, Russian aerospace firms have advocated development of new fighters, sometimes only campaigning for new prototypes to be validated, but not necessarily for those designs to be series-produced in large numbers.
The rationale in those instances is that developing a ground-breaking new design would act as a “locomotive of technology” that would have collateral benefits all across the entire aerospace sector. This was the argument used more than 20 years ago when there were those advocating the completion of the Mikoyan Multi-Role Fighter (MFI) program 1.44 prototype aircraft—despite the fact that the mission it was initially designed for no longer existed.
This is not the case with the Su-57, say several Russian aerospace observers. Most of the major innovations to be utilized in this aircraft would be developed anyway and most likely be retrofitted to other, previous-model fighters.
For now, the VKS has only 12 Su-57s on order. According to the current plan, the first 10 of these will be powered with the previous-generation 117 engine, and the last two will utilize the new izdeliye 30. How well these aircraft perform, particularly those that fly with the new engine, may well determine just how far the program will continue to run—and if it will attract the kind of export orders it may very well need to become viable.