Winner’s price is $5billion

The heat of competition between Russia’s three major fighter manufacturers is rising as time is nearing for the Russian state authorities to come up with a proposal to Indian on the latter’s request for bids to supply up to 400 single-seat fighters to replace the ageing fleet.

Past summer India indicated it has a need to select a foreign supplier of a single-seat multi-role fighter that will replace the ageing fleet of some 300 MiG-21FL/M interceptors (NATO codename Fishbed) and 100 MiG-23BN fighter-bombers (Flogger). Earlier the indigenous LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) had been an intended replacement, but continuous delays with its development made the Indian government seek another solution.

At first a license production of France’s Dassault Mirage-2000H in 110-130 was considered as a gap-bridging measure until the LCA becomes available, but then the decision was made to purchase directly for Dassault a third batch of 10 aircraft to supplement over 40 Mirage-2000Hs already delivered. Almost simultaneously India asked Dassault, SAAB/BAE Systems and Russian state arms agency Rosoboronexport to submit proposals on a single-seat fighter.

Russian sources estimate the minimal value of the deal at $5billion. According to Indian sources, three Russian types are being looked at by the Indian side as acceptable; these are the RSK MiG MiG-29MRCA (in the MiG-29M1 single-seat variant) (Fulcrum), KnAAPO-produced Sukhoi Su-35 (Super Flanker) and a single-seat derivative of the customized Indian Su-30MKI (Advanced Flanker) twin-seat multi-role fighter in production at IAPO.

According to a well-informed Russian source, Russia’s state arms export agency Rosoboronexport is running an internal competition between RSK MiG, AVPK Sukhoi/KnAAPO and IAPO so as to select the winter by the end of this year and submit its proposal of one winning aircraft to India in late December – early January. Neither IAPO nor AVPK Sukhoi/KnAAPO can field a proposal with India on their own as they do not have an export license permitting such bids. RSK MiG can act on its own, and offer the MiG-29SMT independently in the case Rosoboronexport chooses a Sukhoi design. However, RSK MiG chances to succeed in India will be much higher if the airplane is officially offered by Rosoboronexport. Russian sources report of a hot undercover war raging between the three manufacturers for Rosoboronexport selection, as all believe they are better suited to meet the Indian requirement.

Selection of the MiG-29MRCA promises to reduce operational costs for a whole of India’s Fulcrum fleet and provide the best cost-effectiveness of investment. RSK MiG has already supplied MiG-29s to India, and is negotiating two new contracts that independent Russian and Indian specialists consider “inevitable” and “a matter of time and funding available to the Indian defense ministry”. These are the long-awaited order for up to 40 MiG-29Ks to equip the ex-Russian navy aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov that the Indian Navy has committed to buy from Russia after a major upgrade. It is believed that firm contracts on both the fighters and the ship will be signed during Russian president Vladimir Putin official visit to New Delhi planned for December this year.

The second envisioned contract is for upgrade of in-service MiG-29s to keep up with the modern requirements. There are indications that RSK MiG continues to persuade the Indians to commit to a more radical variant of the upgrade that the Indian air force is asking for. RSK MiG is keen to have Indians as a customer for the MiG-29SMT featuring a glass cockpit and a large arsenal of precision-guided munitions, while the Indians are trying to limit the modernization to replacement of the N-019 radar with the more advanced Phazotron-NIIR Zhuk-ME, while preserving the old dial-type mechanic instruments in the cockpit to reduce cost and eliminate the need to re-train the pilots.

AVPK Sukhoi that is in the process of absorbing KnAAPO production factory as its direct control, is keen to secure a launch customer for its Su-35. Arguably the best fit to the Indian requirements, although with less cost-effectiveness that the Fulcrum solution, the Su-35 still needs some time and money to achieve military certification. The Su-35 represents an export version of the Su-27M developed for the Russian air force but not launched into mass production due to a lack of budgetary funding available for the Service. The Russian air force operates a handful of Su-27Ms, with four airframes being transferred form combat evaluation units to the Russian Knights (Russkiye Vityazi) air display group. In 1992-99 Sukhoi’s KnAAPO (Komsomolsk-upon-Amur Aircraft Production Association) built 12 Su-27M/Su-35 singe-seat fighters, followed by a single Su-35UB twin seat aircraft in 2001.

The Su-35 is understood to be supported by Russia’s KVTS, the Committee for Military Industrial Cooperation with Foreign Countries. If India selects the airplane, the Russian air force will benefit, as it still considers mass production of the Su-27M for its own should the budgetary funding are sufficient, and using avionics developed for retrofit of its Su-27 fleet. Selection of the Su-35 promises the Indians certain benefits as the aircraft has much in common with the Su-30MKI despite the two types being produced at different manufacturing sites. On the negative side is the fact that KnAAPO has large cooperative programs with China, the country being listed among India’s potential war opponents. Manufacturing fighters for Indian and Chinese customers at one plant has been seen as unacceptable and fraught with unwanted military-political problems by many Russian officials. Although IAPO currently supplies China with Su-27UBK operational trainers and India with Su-30MKI fighters, this situation will not last long – the completion of the last Su-27UBKs is being finalized, with follow-on orders in sight.

Possibilities are the Su-35 produced by AVPK Sukhoi’s KnAAPO factory in Komsomolsk-upon-Amur, that has built all single-seat Flankers, or a new customized Indian single-seat version of the Su-30MKI or Su-30KN produced by IAPO. The latter variant seems more likely because IAPO is already heavily involved in Indian programs with its Su-30K/MKIfighters and MTA (Multirole Transport Aircraft) being developed jointly with Ilyushin and HAL. KnAAPO supplies Su-27SK and Su-30MKK fighters to China, which makes Indian connection problematic. Whatever the choice, the aircraft will certainly have many hardware items developed for the Su-35, an export derivative of the Su-27M developed for the Russian air force being developed on Sukhoi’s own funds.

Selection of the Su-35 may lead to problems with intellectual property rights. The Indians will most certainly want to achieve the highest commonality with the Su-30MKI, whose development (and financial management of the whole program) is lead by IAPO, a natural competitor to KnAAPO for both foreign and Russian orders. For the same reason the Su-35 can not be launched in production at IAPO – most of the research and development work on the aircraft has been financially managed by KnAAPO.

IAPO is facing the most challenging situation. The company has been heavily involved in various Indian programs for many years, and hence politically is a more suitable partner for the Indian side than KnAAPO and even RSK MiG. Having fulfilled contracts for delivery of 18 Su-30Ks to India, IAPO is now fulfilling the $3.2billiion contract for delivery of 32 Su-30MKIs by 2004. Also, it holds a separate contract for support of license production at India’s HAL of 140 Su-30MKIs from 2004 onwards.

Making a truly capable single-seat multi-role fighter on the base of the Su-30MKI optimized for two crew members’ operations, in the relatively short time is a big challenge, especially in the view of the continuing personal fight between IAPO chairman Fiodorov and APVK Sukhoi general director Mikhail Pogosyan for power and influence. The situation is not a cul-de-sec, however, with IAPO having the high-class team of Russian Avionics company under its control. Headed by Mikhail Korzhuyev, the former general director/general designer at RSK MiG, Russian Avionics holds a valid license for development of military avionics. It might happen that Korzhuyev’s team is selected to integrate an avionics package for a single-seat derivative of either the Su-30MKI or Su-30KN. The avionics set for the Su-30KN has been tested by the Russian air force pilots who generated the most positive reports on its quality, characteristics and combat worthiness. The set was developed in view of use on both twin and single-seat airplanes, including the MiG-29.

The current fight between the leading Russian fighter companies is just one more in the long chain. Although President Putin personally addressed the matter in its last year’s decree on AVPK Sukhoi (then calling it “Sukhoi Holding Company”) in order to eliminate the antagonism inside so-called “Sukhoi cooperation”, the matter still stands unresolved. Yet the heads of AVPK Sukhoi, IAPO and KnAAPO have been repeatedly advised “to put an end to the most unhealthy and destructive internal competition” that might cost them their jobs, they remain caught in the fighting due to the unsolved issues of power, finance and property in the “Sukhoi cooperation”. In the current case, however, the fight for the envisioned $5billion order is likely to be limited to undercover maneuvering rather then a big PR campaign.