Saturday, December 13, 2014

Is IAF Intransigence Scuttling the FGFA and MTA Projects?

Scale model of PMF/FGFA at Aero India 2013

According to press reports, the IAF is playing hardball with Russia over the FGFA and MTA projects.

India's HAL and Russia's United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) signed a preliminary contract for the development of a FGFA for the IAF on December 21, 2010 during the visit by Russian of President Dmitry Medvedev to India. Four years later, the two countries are still struggling to finalize the contract.

According to the TOI, the final R&D and design contract for the FGFA has been held up because the IAF wants iron-clad assurances on the stealth capabilities, engine performance, sensors and weapons fit of the aircraft.

To the uninitiated, IAF demands may sound reasonable, but I have serious reservations. Before I elaborate on the reservations I would like state that the opinions I express below are are based entirely on what has been reported in the press. I have now inside knowledge.

FGFA

Under the FGFA project, India and Russia plan to jointly develop a version of the Russian T-50 stealth fighter customized for IAF requirements. The Indian version, referred to as Perspective Multi-role Fighter (PMF), would use the same airframe, engines and main systems as the T-50, but differ in its avionics and weapon suite. Russia plans to use the jointly-developed PMF fighter as an export version of T-50. The fighter is expected to enter IAF service by 2022.

Development of the PMF version of the T-50 is expected to cost $11 billion with India and Russia contributing $5.5 billion each.

It is pertinent to reiterate that the PMF would be customized version of the T-50, just as the Su-30MKI is a highly customized version of the basic Su-30 design.

Flight tests of the T-50 started in January 2010. State testing of the aircraft started in May, 2014. Deliveries of the aircraft to the Russian Air Force are scheduled to start in 2016, They could commence even earlier if state testing doesn't throw up any surprises.

Currently the T-50 is powered by two NPO Saturn AL-41F1 (Product 117) engines. Product 117 is an upgraded version of AL-41F1S engine developed for Su-35.

Eventually, the T-50 would be powered by the Product 30 engine, which would be 30% lighter and feature higher thrust and 30% lower life-cycle costs than the Product 117 engine.

Considering that the T-50 hasn't completed its development life cycle, hasn't been tested with its planned weapon fit, and its final engine is in early stages of development, is it reasonable for the IAF to seek iron-clad assurances on the aircraft's performance from Russia?

All that the Russians could practically agree to at this stage is that the PMF would be developed from the final version of the T-50.

If that doesn't satisfy the IAF, it may well be best to wait for the induction of the T-50 into the Russian Air Force in 2016. The IAF can then test fly the aircraft and if satisfied sign the final contract to develop the PMF. Such an approach would delay PMF induction even further.
Scale Model of the MTA on display at DefExpo 2014

MTA

Coming to the MTA - according to the TOI, one of the reasons why the MTA project has ground to a halt is because the aircraft will not meet IAF' high-altitude performance requirements.

When did the IAF discover these shortfalls? Weren't the specs agreed upon when the preliminary agreement was signed in November 2007!

There could be two reasons for high altitude performance shortfalls - Inadequate engine performance or an airframe design that is optimized for different flight envelope.

It's customary to design a military aircraft around proven engines and technology available in the country, The MTA, a joint project, would have to be developed around an engine available either in India or Russia. India is decades away from developing a fuel efficient high bypass turbofan that could power the MTA, but Russia has developed several such engines.

Agreeably, Russian turbofans have lower fuel efficiency and higher life cycle costs than western engines. As such, India would want the MTA designed around a western engine, but the Russians maybe averse to powering a military transport they intend to use with western engine, particularly after western sanctions were imposed upon the country consequent to the Ukrainian crises.

If differing engine preferences are the problem, India needs to accommodate Russian sensitivities, or risk losing support of its most reliable and trusted military partner.

It's possible that engines aren't the problem. Instead, differences have emerged between India and Russia over the flight envelope for which the aircraft is to be optimized. That could only have happened if the aircraft was not carefully speced by the IAF before India and Russia signed a preliminary agreement to develop the aircraft. Or perhaps, the IAF has now changed the speces?

Going by the information available in the public domain there appears to be an IAF overreach in play. If so, MoD must oversee and question IAF procurement planning to ensure the service remains in tune with national interests.

IDP Sentinel memebers can read more about the PMF/FGFA and MTA projects at the links below.