Indian Defence Secretary Sanjay Mitra has met with a Russian delegation to announce that India is withdrawing from the joint PMF (Prospective Multi-Role Fighter) or FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) development programme. India’s decision emerged in April 2018, though the decision was reportedly conveyed to the Russian delegation by the Defence Secretary and India’s National Security Adviser Ajit Dov in February 2018.
The Indian version of the aircraft had diverged significantly from the basic Sukhoi T-50 or Su-57 (also known as the PAK-FA), with 43 improvements in the areas of stealth, supercruise, advanced sensors, networking and combat avionics. The Indian aircraft was also envisaged as a two-seater.
Despite this, dissatisfaction with development costs, cost- and technology sharing and performance and capabilities remained, and the Indian Air Force became increasingly concerned that the aircraft would not meet requirements, especially in terms of radar cross section, AESA radar performance, engine performance, maintainability and support costs.
Co-operation and technology transfer was reportedly poor during the development programme, and HAL technicians were denied access to Russian R&D facilities and to the vital computer source codes, without which India was unable to make its own upgrades.
Indian confidence was further shaken when Russia announced that it would only induct a single squadron (18-24 aircraft) of PAK FA aircraft, rather than the 250 to which it had initially committed, and that it would procure additional Sukhoi Su-35 aircraft instead, although Russia subsequently stated an (unfunded) ‘aspiration’ to acquire 220 Su-57s. Indian reservations were exacerbated by the fact that while ten FGFA prototypes have flown, there has been no real progress towards series production. The withdrawal of Indian funding represents a major (and perhaps fatal) blow to the Su-57 programme.
Defence Secretary Mitra did suggest that India could still purchase the basic Su-57 off-the-shelf, once it was fully operational with the Russian military, or that a specialised Indian variant could be relaunched after that milestone is achieved.
But in the long term, India’s interest may switch to the fully indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme to meet requirements for a stealthy, ‘Fifth Generation’ fighter. Indian Air Force Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal B. S. Dhanoa categorically denied reports that the IAF might be interested in procuring the Lockheed Martin F-35.
In the interim, the first of the 36 Dassault Rafale fighters ordered in 2016 are expected to begin to enter service from September 2019, while the abandoned Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement has been superseded by a new request for information for 110 fighters, 82 single-seaters and 28 twin-seaters fighters, 16 of them in fly away condition, and the rest to be built on a local production line with an Indian production agency under some form of strategic partnership.