China may have operationalised its new fifth generation fighter aircraft – the only nation in the world other than US with this capability. On the other hand, Indo-Russian plans for an advanced counter to this remain uncertain, with the decision to go ahead now at the doorstep of the top echelons of government.
The J-20 ‘Black Eagle’ fighter jet has been flying since 2011, with China officially announcing its entry into combat service last week, albeit with an older engine that will reduce performance. In contrast, India and Russia have not been able to move ahead on signing a joint development plan for a new fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), that is being negotiated since 2010.
Sources have told ThePrint that despite some progress seen in the first two years of the BJP government when the project was brought back to the table in cross-governmental discussions, talks have hit a major roadblock that can only be resolved with the direct intervention of the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO).
At one end is the Indian Air Force, which has expressed certain reservations on the performance characteristics of the proposed new fighter jet, including its stealth capabilities, the jet engine technology, and weapons package.
The biggest constraint, however, appears to be a lack of resources, with the Air Force not allocated even half of its projected demand for capital budget in the current and next financial years. In fact, resources are so stretched that the Air Force will struggle to meet its committed liabilities – the money required to make tranche payments of past purchases.
At the other end is Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the proposed joint venture partner to manufacture the FGFA in India under an intergovernmental agreement. Faced with a lack of orders – the Su-30 MKI line will come to a halt within two years as all planes will roll out – HAL is keen to go ahead with the FGFA at the earliest.
In fact, it is learnt that HAL had a proposal at hand to use its internal resources to initially fund the developmental project with Russia – a sum to the tune of $ 4.5 billion – and manufacture the planes only after technical clearances from the Air Force. This proposal to tide over the resource crunch faced by the Air Force appears to have hit a roadblock as well.
While India has already spent $300 million on a preliminary design contract for the project with Russia that was completed in June 2013, the joint FGFA is now at a delicate edge, with a decision to be taken by the senior-most leadership on its future.
Time, however, may be running out, with Russia believed to have strongly conveyed that in case India does not take a call within the coming months, Moscow will go ahead with a different partner for the next generation fighter programme to meet its deadlines.
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