India-Russia cooperation has potential to go beyond defence
A FORCE Report
Moscow: Until the visit of Prime Minister Narendra Modi to Russia for the 16th annual summit in December 2015, relations between the two sides had perceptibly lost much warmth. Since then, bilateral ties have mended a bit, but plenty more needs to be done. As FORCE was in Russia at the invitation of the United Aircraft Corporation a fortnight before Modi arrived, it could sense both distress and hope in what senior Russian officials said.
There were numerous reasons for the bilateral slack. Since defence is the mainstay of the relations, Moscow was not happy with India’s growing defence business ties with the United States and even France, which they felt were at Russia’s cost. In 2015, the US, surpassing Russia had emerged as the top exporter of defence hardware to India. With progress on the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative, possibilities of technology transfer and co-production of equipment between the US and India had brightened. Moreover, while Modi after assuming office visited the US and France two times since December 2015, it took him 18 months to do a bilateral visit to Russia. This did not go down well with the power-conscious Russians.
Then, the Indian Air Force, through 2014 and 2015, continued its opposition to the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) in its present form in favour of the French Rafale aircraft. Dissing the MMRCA deal for 126 aircraft, Modi had during his official visit to France in 2014 announced off-the-shelf buy of 36 Rafale aircraft through inter-governmental agreement. This had raised hopes of the IAF procuring more Rafale at a later date provided funds were available. Consequently, it chose to oppose the FGFA on grounds that India was not getting due returns as co-development partner for the huge sum (going from the IAF’s capital budget) it was investing in design of the aircraft. According to reports, the IAF raised three key objections that (a) the FGFA’s AL-41F1 engine was a mere upgrade of the Su-30MKI’s AL-31FP, (b) the Russians were not sharing critical design information with India, and (c) it made little sense to lock in nearly US six billions dollars to co-develop the aircraft. The way out, according to the IAF, was to purchase the FGFA off-the-shelf when ready.
The drift on the FGFA was evident since little progress was made after the preliminary design agreement was sealed by the two sides in June 2013.
Russian, meanwhile, had flown four prototypes of their version of the FGFA called PAK-FA T-50 and three more prototypes were to be handed over in early 2016 for joint trials between the OEM and Russian Air Force.
Speaking to FORCE, UAC chairman, Yuri Slyusar conceded that, “The gap (between the preliminary and final design phase) is there.” He, however, added that, “There are no stumbling blocks. We are moving forward successfully.” As a word of caution to avoid any further delay, he said, “In 2017, two aircraft from the production line would join the Russian Air Force.” On being asked if the Indian test pilots could be chosen to fly the prototypes, he said, “The issue could be discussed in totality.”
Giving details on the PAK-FA progress, Russian officials said that, “The plane had achieved reliable results on sub and supersonic speeds, at low and high altitudes, and at critical angles of attack. Successful in-flight refuelling had been carried out, avionics testing was underway and aircraft performance in various configurations was satisfactory.”
Elaborating on what the UAC chairman had said earlier, the Russian deputy minister of industry and trade, Andrey I. Boginskiy, told FORCE that, “The preliminary design phase has long finished. We are in talks for the second and final design phase. Since Russia is developing its (PAF-FA) project and flying the prototypes, we want the Indian side to sign the contract (for final design phase).”
As the parting shot on the FGFA, Boginskiy said, “It is not a buyer or seller relationship (between India and Russia). We will give you competence, capability and technology to develop the 5th generation aircraft. You will get what you want. We will translate the decisions made very quickly.”
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