Farce Generation Fighter Aircraft

It's been known for a long while now that the PAK-FA, Russia's fifth generation fighter programme, is well off the drawing board. In fact, I was in Moscow when United Aircraft Corporation (UAC) chief Alexey Fedorov announced that the programme's design phase had been passed and approved, and that certain fabrication would shortly begin. This in itself should have set the alarm bells ringing. Reason – the Indian government and air force have been vigorously insistent – reasonably so – that they be part of the design phase. As it happens, this was not to be. It emerges that a dossier of baseline QRs was forwarded to the Russians in late 2006, but these were returned as the design phase was already frozen.

And now, there are statements from the Russians – forget for a minute the rhetoric emerging from the Indian Defence Minister about "new heights in defence relations" – that the PAK-FA will be "jointly modified" for the Indian Air Force. Cool. Really simple question in that case – isn't "joint modification" precisely what happens when India "buys" fighters. Isn't modification what happened with the Sukhoi-30s? Isn't modification what will happen with 126 MMRCAs? What in hell place does "joint modification" have in a joint venture programme that's likely to cost India $5 billion? Zip. Zero. Nada. As usual, we're being had.

This takes nothing from the fact that the PAK-FA (if it's ready by 2015 as promised), could be a fantastic machine. Let's not forget that IAF alterations – even if they're under the "joint modification" plan – will mean an excellent plane by any means. We've been through the technology and all the rest of it that should ostensibly under the FGFA's hood, but what about the money, the credibility.

Ironically, instead of re-emphasising trust and credibility while India ponders about Washington's word of assurance, Russia has categorically reneged on contracts, accentuated its reputation for non-reliability and put itself across not just as a newly capitalist nation, but a ferociously unfeeling state dismissive of the past. The recent past does not augur well – our Ilyushin-38 upgrade programme is stuck in Russia. There are problems with the three follow-on Talwar class frigates regarding weapons configuration and price escalation. The Gorshkov mess we're all aware of. And most recently, India bowing to Russia's demand for a 5 per cent cost escalation on the enormous Flanker deal signed in the late 1990s. This last deal was one built on political good faith – India didn't need these fighters at the time. It was a political favour to Moscow, still reeling from the aftershock of shutting down Red Russia. The vicious commercialization of relations has caught India off guard – New Delhi remains in a dream world of the past. Hilariously, Russia has voiced problems about investing India's debt to Moscow as India's share of the FGFA investment. Sorry, but I can't think of a single reason why this should be so. A political leash for the future?

Russia has changed. Big time. And it's time the country sat up and took notice. While India was sitting in a corner wondering about whether to engage the US – was it trustworthy enough? – Russia sulked, instead of seizing the day and re-establishing trust, faith and credibility. Now, it's just like another Washington. How ironic is that. And what of the MCA?

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