Question: Why is India opted out of Russia’s 5th Gen Fighter Jet program ~Mihir Garg
Pulling out of Russia’s Su57 program was no knee jerk reaction. It came down to India pulling out of the program in 2018 after several set backs even after putting up funds for the development.
The first and foremost reason was the delays and cost escalation. Way back in 2012 itself the project was reported to be delayed hugely to the dismay of IAF requirements. These delays in development of the Russian version on which the HAL-Sukhoi prototype was to be built caused both Russia and India to cut down projected numbers. Initially it was planned that both India and Russia will buy around 250 aircrafts each of their custom variants. But this numbers kept falling with Indian numbers going down from 250 to 147 and finally less than about 120. Meanwhile the Russians had cut the numbers down to less than a third. This resulted in much greater cost.
Technology: The final Nail!
Till 2016, even with all the problems Indian side was optimistic. Ready to give up 50:50 workshare agreement, agreement to buy initial production variants from Russian production line and even agreeing to buying a batch of Aircrafts first with reduced capabilities.
It was in 2017 when Indian side visited Russia to check out the status of project that came as a shock. The engine and AESA radar system for the aircraft was to be the responsibility of Russians predominantly. But it was found that the promised more powerful engine (necessary for powering the heavier twin seater variant to be used by IAF) was no where near completion and Russians insisted that for the time being India continue with a modified Al41 engine used by Su35. Next technological issue came in the form of AESA radar. The development prototypes were found to be not up to the mark. And it would have fallen behind in performance even to some western AESA radars in development for installation on 4.5th gen fighters. And final blow came in the form of stealth features of the aircraft. The RCS and Heat signature of the aircraft was found to be higher than that it was projected making the aircraft stealth. It was then estimated that the engines and radars and stealth improvements desired by IAF will not come for few more years. Meaning IAF couldn’t get the prototype for development anytime before 2023 and a production level variant before 2027-28.
At this point Russia insisted that IAF buy few batches of Russian built Su57 Aircrafts instead. But that Aircraft would have been very costly to import and would not have been a true 5th generation fighter jet. Prime Minister of India meanwhile wanted to incorporate Make in India even in Defence sector. It was then in 2018 when IAF chief stated that India will not import any 5th generation aircraft and the project was put on hold!
Su57 MKI , a possibility?
The HAL PMF dream might have died down but a Su57 PMF is still a possibility. The Russians have stated that they are ready to resume the work for an Indian tailor made variant of Su57 if India wanted to resume.
As of today the focus is on AMCA MK1. But it’s speculated that Pakistan might get their hand on a Chinese 5th generation fighter in next few years and China already has deployed J20 near LAC. This would pressurise IAF to seek relief as AMCA will take time before it is ready for production. The options are Su57 in MKI format or F35. The F35 program was cancelled with Turkey after it bought S400 system, therefore this situation makes the Su57 MKI the lone player.
It is possible that if need arises in next couple of Years this project can be restarted in a scaled down program. Instead of a new aircraft derived from Su57, it can be an improved iteration of Su57 if needs arise. It all depends upon the threat posed by PAF and PLAAF. If it’s found that a 5th generation fighter is immediately required, then we will always have the option of falling back Russian built batch of 36-54 aircrafts imported with more powerful engines and an AESA of our choice.
But we still hope that AMCA program is given more impetus and the MK1 version comes online early.