Procurement: India, The F-35 And The Impossible Dream

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May 12, 2018: India is now facing the possibility of having to seek American F-35s if they want to have any stealth fighters to match those China is already producing and Pakistan is planning to order. This all comes down to India being forced to face the fact Russia is unable to keep up when it comes to developing and manufacturing the latest combat aircraft and military technology in general. That is why India told Russia it was no longer supporting or buying the Russian Su-57 stealth fighter.

In April 2018 India revealed that it had, in February, withdrawn from the joint development and manufacturing agreement with Russia regarding their Su-57 stealth fighter. That agreement committed India to eventually contribute over $8 billion to developing and building Su-57s. India said they might still purchase the Su-57 once it is ready for sale and might even rejoin joint development efforts. But for now, India is writing off nearly $300 million it has already invested. Because of that it is no longer obligated to spend over $8 billion to develop and manufacture an aircraft they have lost confidence in.

This project is way behind schedule while the Chinese already have one stealth fighter in service and others about to be. The American F-35 is getting good reviews and Russia is getting a close-up view because Israel recently put its first F-35s into service. At the moment Indian officials are dismissing the talk of buying F-35s. That will not change the situation India will find itself in if the Su-57 never becomes a contender and the Chinese stealth fighters do.

Some Indian Air Force officers who had first-hand experience with the Su-57 now feel free to express their frustrations with the Russian developers. As one Indian officer put it, all the current version of the Su-57 could do was take off and land. That may be overstating the situation but not by much. The Su-57 currently lacks the needed engines, sensors and electronic combat and communications systems the Russians promised. Worse the Russians refused to be open with their development partner and that may have been the key reason for abandoning the Su-57.

Were the Indians reminded of all those cost and tech problems the F-22 had? Many said it was something of an American disease. Now Russia appears to have caught an even worse case of it and their own Su-57 is the victim. In mid-2016 Russia admitted that the air force would have to make do with upgraded Su-27/30s rather than the new Su-57 (formerly known as PAK-FA or T-50) stealth fighter. The 2016 plan was for a few Su-57s being purchased for the Russian Air Force but most would be built for export customers. Russia has not yet announced how they plan to deal with the loss of Indian development money and future orders.

In 2016 Russia also told India that the planned upgrade of 194 Indian Su-30MKIs with some of the Su-57 features would delay development of the Su-57. India was apparently OK with that in 2016 as even then Indian air force experts were increasingly doubtful about how soon the Su-57 would be ready, at what price and how effective it would be. The Su-30MKI upgrade was to include an internal bomb bay, “super-cruise” (the ability to travel at supersonic speeds without using the afterburner) and upgraded electronics which will include improved sensors and more efficient cockpit controls. All of this made the Su-30MKI stealthier as it will be able to use passive (heat sensing) “radar” and longer range missiles. This is also a characteristic of stealthy aircraft. All this would cost about $42 million per aircraft. This would give India what is called a 4.5 generation fighter, compared to the 5th generation Su-57. But, like the Su-57 itself, the promised generation 4.5 Su-30MKI is now no more.

As recently as late 2015 there was more optimism. Back then the head of the Russian air force announced that their new “5th generation” Su-57 stealth fighter was passing all its flight tests and was now expected to enter service in 2017. This was surprising because earlier Russia announced that they were reducing the number of production Su-57s to be built by the end of the decade from 52 to 12. Russia already has five development models of the Su-57 flying, although one was damaged in a fire. The Russian announcement did not cover specific reasons for the change. But Indian Air Force officials have been criticizing the progress of the Su-57 program since early 2015. This aircraft is the Russian answer to the U.S. F-22 and according to the Indians, who have contributed $300 million (so far) to development of the Su-57, they are entitled by the 2007 agreement with Russian to have access to technical details. The Russians were accused of refusing to provide development updates as often and in as much detail the Indians expected. The Indians know from experience that when the Russians clam up about a military project it is usually because the news is bad and the Russians would rather not share.

The Russians have been trying to conceal Su-57 problems since 2013, when Indian pilots and aviation experts had a chance to examine Russian progress and noted that the Su-57 as it was then put together was unreliable and far from finished. The Russian radar, which promised so much has delivered, according to the Indians, insufficient performance and as of 2018 that had not changed. The Indians also noted that the Su-57s stealth features were unsatisfactory. Instead of answers to these questions, all the Indians got until early 2015 were excuses and promises. Russia insisted this is all a misunderstanding, until their latest bunch of explanations and promises for solutions soon. That routine gets less effective with time and eventually fails completely.

In early 2015 the Russians were portraying the Su-57 as a specialist aircraft to be built in small numbers. This is what the United States ended up doing with the F-22, which entered service in 2005. That decision was triggered by development problems and a final price per aircraft that was deemed (by Congress) too high to be affordable. The less expensive F-35 is moving in the same direction despite years of U.S. Air Force assurances that the F-35 benefitted from the F-22 experience. That was true, but the benefit did not bring the F-35 cost down sufficiently to prevent reductions in the number to be built. While only 195 F-22s were built, more than ten times as many F-35s are to be built. But that is less than the planned amount. Originally 750 F-22s were planned, with no exports allowed. The F-35 is to be exported and it was hoped that a thousand or more would be sold overseas. But the rising cost of development and production is leading to reductions in U.S. and foreign orders. That turned around as deliveries began in 2016 and when foreign customers began receiving their F-35s in 2017 the reviews were better than expected and suddenly the F-35 is a wonder-weapon.

In contrast, the Su-57 is a 34 ton fighter that is more maneuverable than the 33 ton Su-27 it will replace. In theory, the Su-57 has much better electronics than existing Russian fighters, is stealthy and can cruise at above the speed of sound. Russia promises a fighter with a life of 6,000 flight hours and engines good for 4,000 hours. Russia promises world-class avionics, plus a very pilot-friendly cockpit. The use of many thrusters and fly-by-wire will produce an aircraft even more maneuverable than earlier Su-30s (which have been extremely agile). The problem the Indians have is that, even before 2018, the improvements did not appear to be worth the additional investment. The Su-57 costs at least 50 percent more than the Su-27. That would be some $60 million (for a bare-bones model, at least 50 percent more with all the options), about what a top-of-the-line F-16 costs. The Su-27 was originally developed to match the American F-15.

The Su-57 is not meant to be a direct rival for the F-22 because the Russian aircraft is not as stealthy. But if the maneuverability and advanced electronics live up to the promises, the aircraft would be more than a match for every fighter out there other than the F-22. If such a Su-57 was sold for under $100 million each there would be a lot of buyers. But it looks like the Su-57 will cost more. For the moment the Su-57 and the Chinese J-20 (and J-31) are the only potential competitors for the F-22 and F-35. While the Su-57 is the biggest disappointment the Chinese have admitted less serious problems with the J-20 and J-31. At the same time, China has taken their stealth fighter designs farther than the Russians did and the J-20 appears close to being combat ready.

Like the F-22, Su-57 development expenses are increasing, and it looks like the Su-57 will cost at least $120 million each (including a share of the development cost) but only if 500 or more are manufactured. Russia hoped to build as many as a thousand. Few F-22s were built because of the high cost. American developers are now seeking to apply their stealth and other technologies to the development of combat UAVs. Thus, by the time the Su-57 enters service in large numbers during the 2020s, it may already be made obsolete by cheaper, unmanned, stealthy fighters. The United States, Russia, and China are all working on applying stealth technology to combat UAVs. Thus the mass produced 6th generation unmanned fighter may be the aircraft that replaces most current fighters

The Su-57 flew for the first time in January 2010, 13 years after the F-22 did so. Once the Su-57 flew it was believed that the first 70 production models would be ordered by 2016 and be delivered by the end of the decade. The order number was later reduced to 52 and now it is 12. Some of the prototypes were to be handed over to the Russian Air Force or testing but that has not happened yet.

Russians and Indians have been doing a lot of tinkering since the first Su-57 flew. While the Su-57 is the stealthiest aircraft the Russians have, it is not nearly as stealthy as the F-22, or even the F-35 or B-2. The Russians are apparently going to emphasize maneuverability instead of stealth. India wants more stealth and would prefer a two-seat aircraft. The problems with the Su-57 engines and the defensive electronics proved difficult to solve. This puts theSu-57 at a big disadvantage against the F-22 or F-35, which try to detect enemy aircraft at long distance, without being spotted, and then fire a radar guided missile (like AMRAAM). These problems are apparently the main reason for the delays.

The Russians must export their "Fifth Generation Fighter" (which they admit is not true 5th Gen) for the project to survive. India was the key customer whose experience would attract other foreign customers. With the Indian participation, Russia now had the billions of dollars it would take to carry out the Su-57 development program. India was not just contributing cash but also technology and manufacturing capability. There are few potential export customers for the Su-57. Most potential Western nations prefer the F-35. China is unlikely to be a customer because they have two “stealth fighter” designs in development and flying. Russia thought India was too heavily invested to easily withdraw from the Su-57 effort, but even in 2016, it was clear that withdrawal was possible if it became obvious that the Su-57 development was going to get a lot more expensive and take a lot longer. The Russians already understood that had told its air force generals to prepare for a future full of Su-30s. Russia could not afford to buy a lot of Su-57s and Russia was to be the major user. This bothered the Indians, who are having lots of unexpected reliability and performance with the 250 Su-30s they operate. That is more Su-30s than Russia and more than any other user. India expected better tech support and was not getting it.

Meanwhile, China declared that its J-20 stealth fighter had officially entered service in September 2017. That turned out to be a bit premature because by the end of 2017 it was clear that production of the J-20 had stalled. The manufacturer had planned to build three a month initially but since mid-2017 production appears to have been zero. There are several potential problems with the J-20 but the main ones have to do with stealth (the delicate materials on the airframe that make radar detection less effective) and engines. The most obvious problem is the engines. The WS-10s currently installed are a stopgap and not efficient enough to support supercruise (go supersonic without using the afterburner and becoming easier to spot). China has had persistent problems developing high-performance jet engines. China has been developing the more powerful (and supercruise ready) WS-15 engine since the 1990s for a larger aircraft like the J-20 but has not been able to get the engine to work. Officials also confirmed rumors that a WS-15 exploded during a 2015 static (on the ground) test. That failure had been a secret but when an engine this big fails by blowing up the incident is difficult to hide.

No date was given as to when the WS-15 would be available for use or whether it would have the same vectoring (ability to move the hot jet exhaust in different directions in order to make the fighter more maneuverable) the F-22 uses. At first, a more powerful and reliable version of the WS-15 for J20 was believed possible by 2020 but changes in the shape and weight of the WS-15 would require modifications to the shape of the J-20 and that would require a lot of testing to ensure that stealth was not compromised. The factory would have to install new or modified manufacturing equipment and suppliers would have to do the same to produce the new airframe components. Meanwhile, the WS-15 reliability problems are still not completely resolved. Another potential J-20 problem is its ability to operate effectively in a wide variety of climates. For example, development and pre-production J-20s were flown frequently in a wide variety of climates during 2017 and that may have revealed unanticipated problems requiring fixes that are still in the works.

In early 2017 Chinese officials revealed that at least a dozen J-20s had been delivered to the Chinese air force as part of a new fighter squadron. This information was apparently released to help with export sales because at the time Chinese media was reporting that Pakistan had agreed to buy J-20s. Numbers were not announced and there are still questions about how effective the J-20 actually is. Pakistani interest in the J-20 may have more to do with the fact that China is the only major-power ally they have, their main supplier of weapons and, best of all, a neighbor.

India would not buy weapons, especially advanced ones from China so once the announcement about withdrawing from the Su-57 became public the discussion turned to how quickly India could get the F-35. Japan is already receiving their F-35s and South Korea will be receiving its first F-35s in 2019. Japan is assembling most of the F-35s it is buying. Not mentioned is the biggest obstacle to India getting the F-35; the India defense procurement bureaucracy. These civil servants can delay needed purchases for decades and continue to demonstrate that rare skill. Even if India decides to purchase the F-35 it will be a long time before they have it operational.

 

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