India Cuts Order of FGFA Fighter. F-35 on the Horizon?

India has scaled back the purchase of a jointly developed fighter with Russia. Did New Delhi find a better option?

Fresh tensions in Indo-Russian bilateral ties are bound to surface soon as India is set to cut its Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) order by one-third. India will now be inducting only 144 FGFA instead of the originally scheduled 214. The reduced purchase size could be to accommodate potential interest in the Lockheed Martin F-35A aircraft, which had earlier been rejected by both the Indian Air Force and the Defense Ministry. Both of these organizations have denied the F-35 rumors.

Significantly, all of the 144 FGFA India now intends to purchase will be single-seater jets. Earlier, the Indian Air Force planned to procure 214 units– 166 single-seaters and 48 twin-seaters.

According to sources, India’s decision to reduce the number of jets it will purchase was driven primarily by two overarching concerns: production delays and cost over-runs, both of which have been major irritants in Indo-Russian defense ties. The first prototype of the fighter jet is likely to be delivered to India in 2014, followed by additional planes in 2017 and 2019. Earlier, India expected to induct the jets into service sometime between 2017 and 2018. Recently Russia said the FGFA would not be delivered until 2020.

Still, the news of India’s reduced purchase is likely to irritate Russia and it will be worth closely watching how Moscow responds. Russia has already delayed President Vladimir Putin’s trip to India by seven weeks. Putin was initially scheduled to visit New Delhi from October 31 to November 1st, but will now arrive in the Indian Capital on December 24.

India's Hindustan Aeronatics Limited (HAL) is to build the FGFA, a derivative of the Sukhoi T-50, in India. India and Russia signed a 50:50 joint venture to build the aircraft in December 2011.

Rajeev Sharma is a New Delhi-based journalist-author who has been writing on international relations, foreign policy, strategic affairs, security and terrorism for over two decades. He is a regular contributor to The Diplomat's Indian Decade blog.