The IAF has decided that there is a pressing requirement to have a stealth fighter with multi-role capabilities in its inventory to cater for future threats. It is also evident that this technology cannot be wholly developed in house. For this reason as well as to reduce both costs and shrink the time frame from design to induction, some form of joint development is required. The best choice was with the Russian PAK-FA stealth fighter programme.
Indian Air Force Fighter Inventory
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is on a modernisation drive to replace the MiG-21 variants and the MiG-27s. The Su-30 MKI and the MiG-29 upgraded version are already in service with the Mirage 2000 fleet being upgraded. The long delayed Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is likely to join the fleet soon. Acquisition of 126 French Rafale fighters with 18 to be delivered directly from the manufacturer Dassault in a flyaway condition and the balance 108 to be built by the joint venture partner Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to meet the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement is supposedly imminent, provided the usual wrangling over the final contract is sorted out.
The IAF does not have a combat aircraft with stealth and high speed in the non-afterburning capabilities…
The latest bone of contention is about who, between Dassault and the HAL, is to guarantee delivery schedules and product quality for the aircraft to be built in India. Force multipliers such the Airborne Warning and Control Systems (AWACS) aircraft based on the IL-76 platform (IL-76 A50 EI) and the Embraer 145, along with the IL-78 tanker aircraft have already been inducted and integrated. Negotiations for acquisition of six Airbus A-330 Multi Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) aircraft are to begin in the near future.
Going forward, the above acquisitions still leave a gap in the inventory. The IAF does not have a combat aircraft with stealth and capable of flying at high speed without the use of afterburners i.e. with super cruise capability. Such aircraft are needed to operate in dense air defence environments to achieve air dominance. The longer combat ranges, smart weapons, passive and active sensors and data-link capabilities of these aircraft are needed to counter airborne and surface-based Air Defence (AD) systems that are being fielded by India’s potential adversaries. Precision attacks on high-value ground targets defended by modern AD systems require stealth aircraft capable of sustained flight at high speeds and armed with stand-off long range weapons. Reconnaissance missions also require stealth aircraft.
The US has the F-22 air superiority fighter and the B2 bomber, both with stealth characteristics and already in service. Their ambitious F-35 multi-role stealth fighter programme seeks to deploy multi-role variants including the F-35A with conventional take-off and landing capabilities, the F-35B with short take-off and vertical landing capabilities and the F-35C for operation from aircraft carriers. All these aircraft have ground attack, reconnaissance and air defence capabilities with stealth features. The project has run into issues of cost overruns, sub-optimal performance in all roles and resultant delays. The Chinese have stealth fighters under development with the J-20 and the smaller J-31 being flight tested. Japan is developing the Mitsubishi ATX-D as a technology demonstrator, with the first flight planned for 2014. Russia is developing the PAK-FA with the T-50 prototypes already in the flight-test phase. All the above are single-seat, twin-engine aircraft. The forerunner of the USAF F-22, the F-117 Nighthawk, which is primarily a ground attack aircraft with stealth features, was used effectively in the Gulf War of 1991 to penetrate the very dense AD environment around Baghdad and also in the Balkans later, thus somewhat validating the stealth concept.
Only the US and Russia have the capability to develop such aircraft with associated weapons, sensors and engines…
It is evident that only the US and Russia have the capability to develop such aircraft with associated weapons, sensors and engines as of now with the Chinese certainly lagging behind especially as far as engine development is concerned. The Japanese venture is still in the concept stage.
FGFA for the IAF
The IAF has decided that there is a pressing requirement to have a stealth fighter with multi-role capabilities in its inventory to cater for future threats. It is also evident that this technology cannot be wholly developed in house. For this reason as well as to reduce cost and shrink time frame from design to induction, some form of joint development is required. The best choice was with the Russian PAK-FA stealth fighter programme.
Based on a requirement first formulated in the late 1980s to replace the MiG-29 and SU-27 in the Russian Air Force, the Sukhoi SU-47 and the Mikoyan Project 1.44 was mooted. In 2002, Sukhoi was chosen to lead the design team for this new fighter with stealth capabilities. The firms for the avionics suites and the engine design were nominated in 2003 with a consortium of various entities for the former and NPO Saturn for the latter. This aircraft was designated as a Fifth Generation Fighter and called the PAK-FA or the T-50.
Funding was a problem and it was evident then itself that while the Russian Air Force needed such an advanced fighter, foreign participation was necessary to finance the project and foreign orders essential to make costs of acquisition affordable to the Russian Air Force. Since collaboration with the US was most certainly ruled out and with European countries not likely at all for strategic and political reasons, the options were very limited since almost all other nations did not have the financial strength to contribute to the project or to join the project for developing such an aircraft from the inception stage. Once in production, some nations may buy the aircraft as has been the case with the SU-30 variants. In 2004 and in 2007, China was invited to join in the programme; but declined in favour of developing the J-20 and J-21 indigenously. Although there were expressions of interest from both sides, it was only in the late 2010 that the Indo-Russian joint venture began in earnest.
The first flight of the prototype was scheduled for early 2007 but finally took place only in January 2009, followed by the second aircraft undertaking maiden flight in March 2011. These were bare-bone prototypes without radar and weapons control systems. The aircraft was first displayed at the 2011 MAKS air show. The third prototype flew in November 2011 and flight trials with an AESA radar started in August 2012. The fourth prototype got airborne in December 2012. The AL 41F1 turbofan engines on the prototypes have 147kN (33047 lbs) thrust each. The production versions will have 157kN+ (34620+ lbs) thrust and these are supposed to be the standard fit on the Russian Air Force production models. These engines have super cruise capabilities at supersonic speeds without afterburner, Full Authority Digital Engine Control (FADEC) and full three dimensional thrust vectoring independently for each engine in pitch, roll and yaw with built in Infra Red (IR) and Radar Cross Section (RCS) reduction features. A newer engine, (NPO Saturn/FNPTS MMPP Salyut of 107kN in cruise and 175kN thrust with afterburner) with improved performance, reduced weight and life cycle costs, is on the cards with testing reportedly scheduled for 2014. On paper, the T-50 has performance capabilities that exceed those of all existing aircraft worldwide including those of the US armed forces, both in service and under development.
During Aero India 2013 at Bangalore in February 2013, Mikhail Pogosyan, President of the United Aircraft Corporation of Russia, stated at his press conference that variants for both Russia and India have common major systems but customisation would be done to meet Indian requirements including development of a two-seat variant. The Russian preference is for a single-seat. Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne, Chief of the Air Staff, stated at his press conference at the same venue that the R&D phase was on and the development aircraft would be brought to India for testing, the first scheduled to arrive in 2017 and the second a year later. Performance parameters will then be checked to firm up the IAF’s requirements. Production is planned to commence in 2022.