Dilly dallying for about 17 years on the issue of developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircreft (FGFA) jointly with Russia, the Indian side has finally come to the conclusion that the fighter is too expensive for the Indian Air Force and is reportedly not affordable. The Indian side seems be bent towards the US F-16 fighter. With the change of the government at the Centre in India, the tilt to the West has become imminent. Even as the IAF was citing critical shortage of squadrons, the present government was busy propagating the ‘make in India’ campaign.
It was obvious that making a fighter jet at home will be an arduous task that might take dacades as is the case with Tejas fighter jet. The $30 billion FGFA project was signed in 2007. It is strange that all these 11 years neither the Indian government nor the Air Force had got up from their slumber about the high cost of development of the FGFA.
As the concerned authorities slept the number of squadrons with the IAF continued to deplete to critical numbers but the government stuck to its guns — it will have its own FGFA. The Russians continued to say that the FGFA will be flying the skies shortly. However that proved to be a hollow assurance from the strategic partner of India, the delay being pushed from one cause to another. The scenario for the IAF worsened from the required squadrons of 42 fighter jets to 34, a shortfall of 144 fighter jets.
While the Indian decision leaves its Air Force in the lurch, Pakistan is reported to be pursuing a fifth-generation fighter aircraft programme of its own with Chinese help.
China is readying its own fifth-generation fighter aircraft the J-20. It is also developing a medium stealth aircraft the J-31.
India is left with the option of going for F-35 but the Americans would be equally reluctant to part with critical technology.
To stay at par with hostile powers, India would have to buy advanced versions of fighter aircraft like the Rafale, Typhoon, Gripen, F-16 and F-18.
According to sources the cost of the project has been estimated at around $30 billion or
Rs 2,00,000 crore.
“We have not closed our door on the project,” a sources is reported to have said.
In February 2016, both the countries had revived talks on the project after a clearance from the then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar. Both sides were also attempting to thrash out the sticky issues.
State-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) has also been strongly pitching for the fifth-generation fighter jet project.
There have been indications from the Indian Air Force that it was not very keen to pursue the project in view of the high cost.
India has conveyed to Russia its unwillingness to go ahead with the joint development of a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) primarily due to the high cost involved in the project, official sources said, according to news agency PTI.
They, however, said the negotiations between the two countries on the much ambitious project have not yet been shelved as India was ready to have a re-look at co-development of the jet.
Even as official sources are said to have expressed unwillingness to drop negotiations, Prime Minister Modi dropped yet another bomb by declaring that he had bought 36 Rafale fighter jwta in a government to government deal with the French government. Also assuring the manufacturer of buying over a hundred Rafale jets following the deal.
This came as a shock for the IAF which was expecting over 140 jets to be purchased to fill the yawning gap in its squadrons. The only consolation for the IAF was that it will get at least 36 jets in a fly-away condition. But interestingly, this was an illusion as the jets would be handed over somewhere in 2019, an year ahead of the proposed general elections in India. This would have given PM Modi three times the fire power—first over his opponents within the country, second cooled his opposition within the forces as also given a warning signal to the neighbours in the region.
A problem with Rafale is already brewing. Now that Dassault Aviation, the manufacturers of Rafale, have already made it clear to the government that it will not be able to go for full transfer of technology and create an industrial ecosystem by manufacturing the planes here under the ‘Make in India’ programme unless it is given additional orders.
The twin-engine Rafale combat jet is designed as a multi-role fighter for air-to-air and air-to-ground attack, is nuclear-capable and, with its onboard Electronic Warfare (EW) systems, can also perform reconnaissance and radar jamming roles.
The deal involves delivery of aircraft to begin within three years of signing the agreement — 2018-end in this case — but French industry sources say that Dassault had started planning for the Indian order from mid-2015 itself, and “maybe the deliveries could be faster, if required”.
By Amit Mittal