India has no plans as of now to either join the US-led joint strike fighter (JSF) programme or buy the F-35 `Lightning-II' fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) when it finally becomes operational. "We cannot have two types of FGFA. We have already launched preliminary work for our FGFA after inking the $295 million preliminary design contract (PDC) with Russia last month,'' said a top defence ministry official on Friday.
This comes in the wake of comments made by a top Pentagon official, undersecretary of defence for acquisition, technology and logistics Ashton Carter, in Washington that the US was open to Indian participation in its JSF project. Interestingly, the comments came during a function where an aggressive sales pitch was made for India to select either the American F/A-18 `Super Hornet' ( Boeing) or F-16 `Falcon' ( Lockheed Martin) over their European rivals in the ongoing IAF's medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest.
The other 4.5-generation fighters in the hotly-contested race to bag the $10.4 billion MMRCA project, under which 18 jets will be bought off-the-shelf and another 108 will be manufactured in India under transfer of technology, are Eurofighter Typhoon, Swedish Gripen (Saab), French Rafale (Dassault) and Russian MiG-35 (United Aircraft Corporation). The IAF force matrix for the coming years revolves around the 270 Sukhoi-30MKIs contracted from Russia for around $12 billion, the 126 MMRCA and 120 indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, apart from upgraded MiG-29s and Mirage-2000s. In the decades ahead, the advanced stealth FGFA to be developed with Russia will be the mainstay of India's combat fleet. "Our FGFA will be cheaper than the F-35. Moreover, the intellectual property rights of the FGFA will equally and jointly vest on both India and Russia, with full access to the source code and the like,'' said another senior official.
With a potent mix of super-manoeuvrability and supersonic cruising ability, the "swing-role'' FGFA will of course not come cheap. The cost of designing, infrastructure build-up, prototype development and flight testing has been pegged at around $11 billion, with India and Russia chipping in with $5.5 billion each. Over and above this, each of the 250-300 FGFA India hopes to begin inducting from 2020 onwards will cost around $100 million each. In all, India will spend upwards of $35 billion over the next two decades in its biggest-ever defence project till now.
The Indian FGFA will primarily be based on the single-seater Sukhoi T-50, the prototype of which is already flying in Russia, but will include a twin-seater version and a more powerful engine with greater thrust. "Its complete design will be frozen by the end of the 18-month PDC. Six to seven of its prototypes should be flying by 2017. After that, there will be 2,500 hours of flight-testing over 25 months before the series production begins in 2019,'' he said.