During the Zhuhai, China’s aviation shows a new wide-body aircraft developed jointly by Russia and China was unveiled.
This brought to light the issue of India not being able to tackle its strategic partnership in aviation with Russia since the last 20 years. The new aircraft which is likely to be launched into the market by 2025 is a highly advanced commercial wide-body aeroplane. Both Russia and China have a 50 per cent stake and share financial and technological risks as well as benefits.
India and Russia were to partner in two potential industrial projects – the FGFA and the MTA. Both these joint ventures had reached a high stage of development, to the extent that an R&D contract for MTA was ready to be signed; but India unilaterally pulled-out from both.
Moving forward, Russia has concluded the development of its 5th generation fighter plane, the Su-57 – for induction into the Russian Air Force in the coming year. At the Army-2018 exhibition held near Moscow last August; the UAC and Russian MoD had signed two major contracts for supply and induction of Su-57 and MiG-35 fighter aircraft into its Air force.
Since India missed this opportunity for joint FGFA R&D, the only realistic option left for it now was to engage into a licensed production of the aircraft after the completion of the Russian Su-30MKI program. It is the same scenario with the joint Multirole Transport Aircraft (MTA) project. There are plans that the Soviet-era Antonov transport aircraft in the Russian Air Force is to be replaced latest by 2025. According to reports a new Medium Transport Aircraft, Ilyushin (Il-276) is being designed as a replacement by United Aircraft Corporation – a Russian Aerospace and Defence Corporation. So this opportunity for India to be involved in the project is less likely as well.
For the Su-30MKI project, there is a clear-cut and predictable India-Russia Industrial partnership which includes - license production, overhauling and up gradation & modernization. What should be the expectations of India in such a scenario? What would be the fate of all the investment in Russian aircraft manufacturing and technology transfer; and what of the production tie-ups in the field of technical co-operation that have gained maturity between Indian and Russian aeroplane manufacturers?
Russia and India have worked as very strong strategic industrial partners to produce the Su-30MKI aircraft under the ‘Make in India’ program and this has been an ideal contract acceptable to both sides as far as military cooperation is concerned. The program which is likely to last for another couple of years till all aircraft have been produced is going to be transformed into something else. Whether it would be a production of another type of aircraft or up gradation of the Su-30MKI fleet is yet to be seen. As of now only ‘after sales support’ and ‘repair and overhaul’ of the existing fleet by HAL and IAF specialists can be foreseen. But is this sufficient – is to be seen.
What could be other possible options? Definitely, they are not exclusively in the military sphere, as is evident by looking at the Chinese example. As one can see, Russia is keen to assist India on civil projects as well. It is presently working on two aircraft types; the Il-112 light transport aircraft and the Il-114 regional turboprop; both are seen to be a good option for India.
Not only India, but China also sees Russia as a reliable partner so isn’t this the right time for India to rethink the scenario of partnerships and aviation programs? There are many aspects to co-partner, both in the military as well as civil areas and they would prove to be a better deal than investing in European fighters that come at an exorbitant price