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Nod for fighter aircraft project with Russia

Sandeep Dikshit

NEW DELHI: Concerned over Indian Air Force’s (IAF) depleting force levels, the government has accelerated a plan to jointly develop the next generation fighter aircraft with Russia.

The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) has cleared the Fifth Generation Aircraft (FGA), along with the price for an additional order for 40 Sukhoi-30 MKI, said sources in the government. It also approved an aircraft-related joint venture between a Russian company and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).

The original intention was to clear the proposal around the time of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s visit to Russia in December. However, with the project having suffered delay, the longest being on the intellectual property rights (IPR) issue, the government decided to get it off the ground at the earliest opportunity so that both sides could open initial discussions.

The CCS clearance was preceded by hectic activity that included several visits to Russia by senior Ministry of Defence and top HAL officials, who discussed the air staff requirements (ASR) finalised by the IAF.

India was also encouraged by the Russian offer to involve itself right from the start of the project. That would not have been the case had India been involved with the U.S.-led project. Indian participation will make it the only country to be involved in a project of this nature. According to Air Force chief Air Chief Marshal Fali H. Major, it will take five years to develop and flight- test the FGA and another five before it starts flying. However, the sources said the timetable spelt out by the Air Force chief could be preceded by long discussions on the modalities of the complex and daunting project.

The quick clearance dovetails with the government’s intention to reverse the gradual decline in the IAF’s force levels. Although some aircraft are being given mid-life upgrades, the country sorely requires aircraft that are top of the line and can serve for at least 40 years or more.

With the CCS clearance for purchasing additional Sukhois, India will gradually have about 225 of these heavy category fighters in its fleet.

The order for 126 medium multi-role aircraft is expected to fructify in five years and the induction of the light combat aircraft is likely in three to four years.

After getting a brand new fleet in eight years, it would be time to look ahead in the future and that is where the clearance to the project at this juncture will come in handy for the IAF.

In addition India is attempting to plug the ‘technology gap’ both in air and on the ground.

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