Slashing its requirement by a third, the Indian air force (IAF) says it will induct only 144 of the Fifth-generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) that it is currently co-developing with Russia. The new figure is a dramatic drop from the IAF’s earlier stated requirement of 214 fighters.

Significantly, while the IAF had earlier planned for the 214 to be a mix of 166 single- and 48 twin-seat fighters — the latter to have been developed by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) — the new figure is an all single-seat requirement, a clean break from any IAF aircraft purchase before. Time and cost constraints have forced the IAF’s hand, and it is now virtually certain that a twin-seat version of the aircraft will never be built.

The Indian version, in effect, will be a modified version of the PAK FA fighter that Russia currently has in flight test. An $11 billion co-development agreement is expected to be signed in December toward a program that is expected to cost both countries a total of $30 billion.

Russian Defense Minister Anatoly Serdyukov, who was in India earlier in October, also revealed a three-year slip in the timeline for the aircraft to enter service, to 2020. The IAF had so far been banking on a 2017-18 time frame for deliveries to begin. The slip also is understood to have forced a reconsideration of numbers and configuration.

A senior IAF officer who is part of negotiations with HAL and Russia says, “Plans to develop a twin-seat version have been shelved for the moment. Our requirement is now for an all single-seat fleet. This helps cut down on development time and cost. There have been apprehensions about delays that HAL may encounter in building a modified twin-seat variant. With the reworked requirement, there’s a far better chance of staying on time and cost.”

HAL recently revealed a wind-tunnel model of its single-seat version, though it remains unclear just how different the Indian version is from the three T-50s now in flight test, especially since the HAL version will primarily involve separate avionics, sensors and weapons — not modifications to the airframe itself. A team from Russia’s Sukhoi Design Bureau is currently in Bangalore participating in wind-tunnel tests that are set to begin shortly at the National Aerospace Laboratory (NAL).

IAF head Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne has indicated that his test teams will receive three aircraft in 2014, 2017 and 2019, the last being a final production version of what the Indian government has officially designated the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF) for now.

Speculation here among analysts and officials that the reduced purchase numbers could have been to accommodate potential interest in the Lockheed Martin F-35A has been denied both by the IAF and defense ministry, which say that India’s FGFA program is on a course that cannot be changed now. India’s other futuristic fighter project, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), is currently in the advanced design and configuration phase. While the IAF supports the AMCA effort, it has decided to focus its energies for now on the Indo-Russian platform. The AMCA is now significantly different from when it was first unveiled in 2009; its planform and contours have taken on a markedly more Lockheed F-22 Raptor-like sensibility.

“It is envisaged that the Indian FGFA will be an MKI version of what the Russians may ultimately designate the Su-50. The IAF and HAL will have total control over all electronics, systems and weapons,” a HAL official who was part of a delegation to Russia said recently.

He also denied suggestions that the IAF had made these drastic decisions on the FGFA because it did not believe HAL could handle such a complex project. “The new requirement and configuration has been frozen after the IAF and HAL held detailed discussions on what was and what wasn’t possible, keeping in mind very strict timelines. We also have to account for delays on the Russian side,” he said. Russia will supply the FGFA’s turbofan engines as well as a full range of stealth technologies, almost entirely unexplored in the Indian complex.

An official with the Russian Trade Federation in Delhi says, “It is important to the Russian government that this program does not falter in any way. The loss of the [Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft] competition was big for Moscow. And even though this is a co-development program, we have to work positively to ensure that the aircraft is ready for both our air forces on or before the planned period.”

Officials from UAC/Rosoboronexport will be in India toward the end of October for final discussions on the complex research and development agreement that will be signed in December.

T-50 photo: Sukoi