India and Russia have crossed the first milestone towards the development of the fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA), completing the preliminary design of the plane.

“The preliminary design contract (PDC) for the Russian-Indian fifth generation aircraft has been executed,” Russia’s Sukhoi aircraft company announced on Wednesday.

The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) signed the $295-million PDC contract in December 2010 with the Sukhoi company, which is responsible in Russia for developing the PAK-FA (perspective aviation complex-frontline aircraft), as the FGFA is called in Russia.

“The aircraft design has been fully developed,” Sukhoi said in a press release. “Both parties have agreed upon on the amount and division of work during the research and development (R&D) stage. A contract for the R&D is being prepared. It is to be signed this year.”

Under the PDC contract Sukhoi has also trained Indian engineers and provided HAL with the data and software needed to create a single working environment. A team of HAL engineers and IAF experts has been working at Sukhoi’s design bureau in Moscow, while Russian engineers have been assigned to HAL.

Four T-50 aircraft, the Russian prototype of the fifth generation fighter, have already performed more than 200 test flights since January 2010.

The customised FGFA version will have “some differences” from the Russian prototype to meet “specific requirements of the Indian Air Force,” the Sukhoi announcement said.

Russian experts said the FGFA will differ in “mission hardware and software,” as well as weapons. India has dropped its initial plan to redesign the single-seat T-50 into a twin-seat version.

Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne told reporters at Aero India-2013 that India is to receive from Russia the first prototype of the fifth-generation fighter in 2014, followed by two more in 2017 and 2018. The FGFA is expected to go into series production by 2022.

This is India’s biggest-ever defence project and its largest defence deal with Russia. It is expected to cost India more than $30 billion. However, last year India scaled down its original plan to acquire 214 planes by one-third, to 144 aircraft, citing time and cost factors. Russia plans to induct 60 planes at an estimated price tag of $100 million per aircraft.

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