The Narendra Modi government now has a problem on its hands. The Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Programme (FGFA) was planned about a decade ago and several billion dollars have been spent by both the countries for its design and development.
As far as the Indian Air Force is concerned, the FGFA was part of its future. But with the IAF giving the government its doubts about the project in writing, the Modi government will have problems on its hands. Will it accept the IAF's point and close the programme it has heavily invested in for years? This becomes tricky as the Russians are still India's closest military ally and a decision to not go ahead with it could strain ties. There will also, most certainly, be pressure from the Russians. Going ahead with it would also make the Air Force unhappy.
Along with a report by Air Marshal S Varthaman (retired), the Air Force has sent a note to the Defence Ministry. The note is written by Assistant Chief of Air Staff (Plans) Air Vice Marshal BV Krishna. But while the Varthaman report appears to support the project, the Krishna papers raise doubts. Naturally, the government will have to go by what the Air Force wants and at this point, the IAF does not seem very keen.
Arun Jaitley, the then defence minister, has already sat through a presentation on the subject. At a recent press conference, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa refused to speak about the subject, saying it was classified. But several points about the Air Force's dissatisfaction with the plane have emerged.
1. The radar cross-section surface area, according to the Russians, will be less than 0.5-metre square. The IAF isn't quite sure that will be the case. In any case, there is a belief it should be 0.2-metre square, comparable with the F-35, the American fighter plane. The higher the cross-section, the more visible the plane to radars, making it easier to track it down and fire missiles at it. A higher cross section makes it more vulnerable.
2. The IAF seems to have doubts about the performance of the engine. An engine is easier to maintain if it follows the "modular concept". There appears to be no certainty if that will be so.
3. There is also the issue of maintenance. The Russian aircraft are usually cheaper but they cost more when it comes to maintenance. The FGFA, however, has been an expensive plane to develop and it is still far from ready. Initially, it was felt the plane would be ready by 2017 and then, 2019. That seems unlikely now.
The note has come in the wake of the Varthaman report which has given the fifth generation fighter the go-ahead. The Air Force apart, the DRDO, the ADA and the HAL were part of the study.
Now, high-level sources said a political decision has to be taken.
India and Russia were close military-strategic allies and this programme was part of the future as far as the two countries were concerned. Russia has supplied India with a nuclear-powered submarine, a point its officials often make. But with the Air Force not very happy with the FGFA, it will be up to the government to do decide whether the deal goes through or not. The decision will also have to be taken at the highest level. There are some concerns about what happens if the deal falls through. Would the Russians play hardball on the S-400 air defence system deal? That is something India wants.