India's quest for a futuristic stealth fifth-generation fighter, which will see the country spend around $35 billion over the next 20 years in its biggest-ever defence project, has zoomed into the decisive phase now.
India and Russia are getting all set to ink the full and final design or R&D phase contract for the 5th Gen fighter by this year-end or early-2013, say sources. It will again underline India's firm rejection of the US offer of its Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) or the F-35 'Lightning-II'.
Ahead of the R&D contract, under which India wants to induct over 200 stealth fighters from 2022 onwards, a senior team of Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) engineers and IAF experts is going to Russia within a fortnight to ensure that the "full documentation and other work" of the earlier preliminary design contract (PDC) has been completed.
During his visit to Moscow last week, IAF chief Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne reviewed the performance of the 5th Gen fighter, called Sukhoi T-50.
While the Indian fighter will primarily be based on the T-50, it will be tweaked to IAF requirements.
India had inked the $295 million PDC with Russia in December, 2010. The R&D contract on the anvil is pegged at $11 billion, with India and Russia chipping in with $5.5 billion each.
"The three Russian T-50 prototypes have flown around 180 sorties till now. HAL's Ozar facility at Nashik will get three prototypes in 2014, 2017 and 2019...they will be flown by IAF test pilots," said a source.
"Russia has already given the draft R&D contract to us. It will include the cost of designing, infrastructure build-up at Ozar, prototype development and flight testing. So, India will have scientists and test pilots based both in Russia and Ozar during the R&D phase up to 2019. HAL will subsequently begin manufacturing the fighters," he added.
Interestingly, after first specifying the requirement for at least 166 single-seat and 48 twin-seat of these 5th Gen fighters, India is veering around to the view that it will go in for only single-cockpit jets now.
"Both F-35 and T-50 are single-seaters. A second cockpit will compromise the stealth capabilities by at least 15% apart from adding to the weight and reducing fuel capacity. Moreover, R&D costs could go up by another $2 billion for the twin-seater," he said.
IAF is confident the swing-role fighter will meet its future operational needs.
As a critical interim measure and confronted with a declining number of fighter squadrons, IAF also wants the almost $20 billion MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project to acquire 126 French Rafale fighters to be sealed within this fiscal.
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