India and Russia have hit another hurdle in moving forward with one of their most prestigious joint defense projects, the co-development and production of the the Sukhoi/HAL Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), known in India as the Perspective Multirole Fighter (PMF).
A senior Indian Air Force official revealed last week that Russia is demanding “an unaffordable price for the aircraft,” Defense News reported on May 24. According to the official, Moscow is allegedly demanding $7 billion from India as part of its share in the development of the fifth generation fighter jet, given that a work-sharing agreement currently under negotiation includes the transfer of sensitive Russian defense technology.
“India is not in a position to pay this kind of money, and the aircraft project appears to be lost,” the official said. India has been driving a hard bargain and the Indian Air Force official’s comment are likely intended to strengthen New Delhi’s bargaining position vis-à-vis Russia. Indian officials in May announced that the deal would not include tech transfers. “We are co-developers. There is nothing called technology transfer in this project,“ a government official said.
The transfer of sensitive defense technology from Russia to India has been one of the most contentious issues between the two sides right from the start, as I explained in March:
Before moving on, India wants a guarantee that it will be able to upgrade the fighter jet in the future without Russian support, which would require Moscow sharing source codes (sensitive computer code that controls the fighter jet’s various systems — the key to an aircraft’s electronic brains). In addition, the FGFA should directly support India’s advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) program — a separate Indian fifth generation fighter project.
At the beginning of the month, the issue appeared to have been resolved, according to Indian accounts, although Russia refused to comment on the negotiations publicly.
Following the official kickoff of the joint project in 2007, both countries concluded a preliminary $295 million design contract for the co-development of the FGFA/PMF in 2010. Right from the beginning both sides were at loggerheads, as I reported elsewhere:
Delays were caused by New Delhi and Moscow disagreeing over many fundamental aspects of the joint development project including work and cost share, aircraft technology, as well as the number of aircraft to be ordered. After evaluating the first PAK FA T-50 prototype (the Russian prototype of the PMF), the Indian Air Force (IAF) wanted more than 40 changes addressing, among other things, perceived weaknesses in the plane’s engine, stealth, and weapon-carrying capabilities.
India and Russia also disagreed over the number of aircraft to be produced:
Russia announced in late 2015 that it would only induct a squadron (18-24 aircraft) of PAK FA fighter aircraft, and procure additional Sukhoi Su-35 aircraft instead. The original deal involved Russia procuring 250 and India 144 aircraft at a cost of around $30 billion by 2022. As a result, India threatened to abandon the project in its entirety. Russia in turn made a number of concessions, including an offer to cut down its financial contribution from $6 to $3.7 billion for three PAK FA T-50 prototypes and substantial technology transfers.
According to senior Russian defense officials, the Russian Air Force could possibly start receiving the first serial-produced fifth-generation T-50 (PAK FA) multi-role fighter jet in 2018.