Why India needs to fast track the PAK-FA

10 June 2016 Rakesh Krishnan Simha
With two separate Chinese stealth aircraft reportedly in regular production, the Indian Air Force must focus its attention on quickly acquiring its own stealth fleet.
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In February 2016, after a gap of nearly a year, India and Russia revived talks on the PAK-FA. Source:Alexey Filippov/RIA Novosti

With China having completed flight tests of its twin stealth fighters and commencing series production, India needs to show urgency in acquiring the PAK-FA stealth fighter.

China’s J-20 jet has advanced to the eighth prototype and, after flight tests, is ready for regular production. The other stealth fighter, the comparatively smaller J-31, designed for export to customers such as Pakistan, is also ready to roll out.

In its latest report to the US Congress, the US Department of Defence says these fifth-generation aircraft “could enter service as early as 2018” and warns that the new stealth jets could allow the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) to dominate regional skies.

The Pentagon report of May 2016, titled ‘Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China’, says: “China seeks to develop these advanced aircraft to improve its regional power projection capabilities and to strengthen its ability to strike regional airbases and facilities. The PLAAF has observed foreign military employment of stealth aircraft and views this technology as a core capability in its transformation from a predominantly territorial air force to one capable of conducting both offensive and defensive operations. PLAAF leaders believe stealth aircraft provide an offensive operational advantage that denies an adversary the time to mobilise and to conduct defensive operations.”

Based on the latest prototypes, the Pentagon says these fighters feature “high manoeuverability, low observability and an internal weapons bay”. Plus, both aircraft have radars with advanced tracking and targeting capabilities, and protection against enemy electronic countermeasures.

The report doesn’t say whether the J-31 will be solely for export, but it seems likely the smaller stealth jet has been designed – like the American F-35 – with an eye on the export market.

As Pakistan is China’s test market, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) could well be the J-31’s first foreign customer. To be sure, the nearly bankrupt Pakistani economy won’t be able to afford these expensive jets. But China, which has been a reliable supplier of low cost weaponry to Pakistan, could provide the J-20 at cost price. Alternatively, Islamabad could get grants from the US or Saudi Arabia. One way or the other, the PAF will get its hands on the J-31.

More importantly, the Indian Air Force (IAF) must not surrender its pole or leadership position in the region. During the 1960s and 1970s Pakistan – as a more or less loyal American sidekick – received the latest US jet fighters such as the F-85 Sabre, F-104 Starfighter and the F-16 Falcon. But the pendulum of air superiority swung towards the IAF with the arrival of the Russian MiG-29 multirole fighter in 1985 and the Sukhoi Su-30MKI in 1997.

Even a single stealth squadron – of approximately 14 jets – could give the PAF a psychological edge while also terminating the IAF’s 31 year record as possessing the most advanced jets in the region. It is in this backdrop that India needs to fast track the PAK-FA.

Shift in focus

For several years now the IAF has been focussed on the medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA). In the space of less than a decade, the bill ballooned from $10 billion to at least $20 billion for 126 jets. It was during the tussle for funds for the MMRCA that the IAF started showing unhappiness with the PAK-FA. The IAF complained about supposedly sloppy construction, inadequate power plants and underpowered radar.

It was a mystery why the IAF brass would trash its own future stealth fighter, especially considering its only alternative was the American F-35 which is experiencing major cost and performance problems. But now that a former air chief is under investigation for allegedly receiving kickbacks from Italian defence giant Finmeccanica, it indicates these complaints were politically motivated. Clearly, there was a lobby working against the Russian stealth jet to the detriment of the IAF’s combat readiness.

Russia’s change of plans

In 2012, India slashed its planned order size from 200 to 144 planes. (This is in the backdrop of China planning for an air force fleet of 2300 fighters and bombers, as per the Pentagon report.) Three years later, Russia announced it would purchase a single squadron of PAK-FAs – way lower than the 250 stealth jets it had planned earlier.

While the IAF certainly seemed spooked, there was a pretty good reason why Moscow was backtracking on its most advanced jet. The Russian Air Force will procure additional Sukhoi Su-35 aircraft– which has some stealth characteristics.

The Su-35 is also being pitched as a stealth killer. In July 2008, in a simulated dogfight involving an attack by Russia’s Su-35 against a mixed fleet of American F-22 stealth interceptors, F/A-18 Super Hornets and the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, the F-35 was “clubbed like baby seals” by the Russian jet. The war game was conducted at the US Air Force’s Hickam airbase in Hawaii.

In contrast, India does not have the option of falling back on the Su-35, which incidentally has been ordered by China perhaps as a stopgap fighter until the PLAAF’s stealth squadrons are beefed up.

While the IAF’s nearly 300 Sukhois will remain a potent force that dwarfs the PAF’s abysmal fleet strength, it will be an acute embarrassment for India if the Pakistanis acquire a stealth fighter before India does.

Significant progress

While the Chinese jets are about to roll off the assembly lines, the Russians haven't been sitting idle. Russia’s Defence Ministry announced in early 2016 that the new aircraft will be inducted in the Russian Air Force in 2017.

Janes Defence Weekly reports that in April 2016 the Sukhoi PAK-FA conducted trials of munitions launched from its internal weapons bays for the first time.

Its current weapons include two Kh-31 cruise missiles, two air-to-air R-73 missiles and six 250-kg free-fall bombs. Future weaponry include the advanced X-74M2 cruise missile, X-58USHK anti-radar missile and tactical X-35UE anti-ship missile. There have also been significant changes in the airframe structure.

The PAK-FA has several key advantages over competing stealth jets. For instance, at 2440 kph it is faster than Chinese and American aircraft. It also has a huge advantage in terms of endurance - its range of 5500 km beats the 3400 km of the American F-22. The Russian jet's radar allows it to spot incoming threats at a distance of up to 400 km compared with the F-22’s 210 km.

Back to the table

In February 2016, after a gap of nearly a year, India and Russia revived talks on the PAK-FA, with a high level Russian delegation arriving in New Delhi for “cost negotiations”. India, which had already pumped in about $290 million, brokered a new deal. Under the offer, New Delhi will pay $3.7 billion, instead of $6 billion, for the technological knowhow and three prototypes of PAK-FA fighters.

While India appears to have woken up to the realities of stealth warfare in the region, the onus is also on the Russians to wrap up tests and commence series production. Plus, the pace of work needs to pick up on the Indian version which may – like the Su-30MKI – integrate Indian and western avionics into the Russian airframe.

Early induction into the IAF would translate into gains for India’s aerospace industry. Local scientists can study the Russian aircraft and incorporate its features into India’s own future stealth fighter.

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