Scrutinising the Sukhoi Corporation's work on the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft -- a project that India will soon sign up to co-develop -- gives one an idea of Russia's size, and its aerospace expertise. During daytime, in Moscow, the Sukhoi Design Bureau conceptualises FGFA components; by 10 pm the drawings are electronically transmitted over 5,000 kilometres to a manufacturing unit in Siberia. Here, at KnAAPO (Komsomolsk-on-Amur Aircraft Production Organisation) -- seven time zones away -- it is already 5 am next morning. Within a couple of hours, the drawings start being translated into aircraft production.
Having designed over 100 aircraft (including India's Su-30MKI), built over 10,000 fighters, and with 50 world aviation records to its credit, Sukhoi understandably regards Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd -- its partner-to-be in designing the FGFA -- as very much the greenhorn.
But the newcomer wants its due. Bangalore-based HAL has negotiated firmly to get a 25 percent share of design and development work in the FGFA programme. HAL's work share will include critical software, including the mission computer (the Su-30MKI mission computer is entirely Indian); navigation systems; most of the cockpit displays; the counter measure dispensing systems; and modifying Sukhoi's single-seat prototype into the twin-seat fighter that the Indian Air Force wants.
India will also contribute its expertise in aircraft composites, developed while designing the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.
Russia has traditionally built metallic aircraft; just 10 percent of the Su-30MKI fuselage is titanium and composites. The FGFA's fuselage, in contrast, will be 25 percent titanium and 20 per cent composites. Russia's expertise in titanium structures will be complemented by India's experience in composites.
With India's work share almost finalised, the 2007 Russia-India Inter-Governmental Agreement to build the FGFA will soon evolve into a commercial contract between Russia's United Aircraft Corporation and HAL. Ashok Baweja, until recently the chairman of HAL, told Business Standard: "When HAL and UAC agree on terms, they will sign a General Contract. This will include setting up a JV to design the FGFA, and precise details about who will fund what."
This contract will mark a significant shift in the aeronautical relationship between India and Russia. For decades, HAL has played a technologically subordinate role, assembling and building fighters that Russia had designed. Now, forced to accept HAL as a design partner, the Russians have negotiated hard to limit its role.
The reason: Russia is sceptical about India's design ability in such a cutting edge project. In June 2008, Business Standard interviewed Vyacheslav Trubnikov, then Russia's ambassador to India, and an expert on Russia's defence industry. Contrasting the Su-30MKI with the Tejas LCA, Trubnikov pointed out snidely, "I know perfectly well the Russian ability. But I don't know what contribution the Indian side might make. So, one must ask the question to the Indian designers, to HAL What is their claim for building a fighter of the fifth generation type? Either avionics, or engine? What might be India's contribution? To be absolutely frank, I don't know."
For long, the UAC argued that HAL could not expect a major role in the FGFA because Sukhoi had finished much of the work while New Delhi dithered about joining the project. UAC asserts that 5,000 Sukhoi engineers have worked for five years to design the FGFA. Such claims are hard to verify, but it is known that the Sukhoi Design Bureau has about 8,000 engineers, distributed between many different programmes.
With Sukhoi's ploughing on alone, Minister of State for Defence Pallam Raju admitted to Business Standard: "The longer India waits to join the project, the lesser will be our contribution. But, we are not sitting idle. Through the defence ministry's existing programmes [such as the Tejas LCA] we are building up our capabilities."
Most Indian officials agree that India has not lost much. Even if the FGFA makes its much-anticipated first flight this year, it is still at a preliminary stage of development. Ashok Baweja assessed in early 2009, "The FGFA's first flight is just the beginning of the programme. My understanding is that the Russians are going ahead (with the test) to validate the FGFA's "proof of concept" (conceptual design). Whatever composite materials they have now, they'll use. But, because the composites will change the FGFA will keep evolving for a fairly long time."
A top ministry official estimates, "It will take another four-five years to develop many of the FGFA's systems. Then, the aircraft will undergo at least 2,000 hours of certification flying and, possibly, some reconfiguration. The FGFA should not be expected in service before 2017. And the twin-seat version may take a couple of years longer."
With just a 25 percent share of design, South Block policymakers still believe that the FGFA project is a vital step towards India's emergence as a military aeronautical power. "Developing 25 percent of this fighter is far better than just transferring technology to build it in India, as we did with the Su-30MKI," points out a defence ministry official.Ashok Baweja puts the project in context. "India can only (develop the FGFA) by partnering with Russia. They have so much experience. It's not just the design you must also have materials maraging steel, titanium, composite alloys, and the industrial base to convert these into high-tech components like gyros, sensors and optics. The FGFA will give us important experience for building fighters hereafter."