Russian rubbish? India reportedly disappointed with stealth fighters from Moscow

Is the Russian arms industry getting soft?

Despite initial high expectations, the Indian Air Force appears to be souring on a joint development deal with Russia for a new fifth-generation fighter jet, according to the Business Standard, a major Indian business publication. The Russian prototype is "unreliable, its radar inadequate, its stealth features badly engineered,” said Indian Air Force Deputy Air Marshall S Sukumar at a Jan. 15 meeting, according to minutes obtained by the Business Standard.

That contrasts sharply with high hopes voiced by the Indian government when the joint project, to which the Indian government has contributed $6 billion, began.

“[The new plane] will have advanced features such as stealth, supercruise, ultra-maneuvrability, highly integrated avionics suite, enhanced situational awareness, internal carriage of weapons and Network Centric Warfare capabilities,” the Indian government said in a December 2010 press release. Those are all hallmarks of “fifth generation” aircraft.


The Indian Air Force did not respond to a request for comment.

But it is hardly surprising that the invisible-to-radar Russian fighter planes don't quite live up to the billing, according to defense experts reached by

“The Russians are certainly not up to speed in avionics,” Robbin Laird, who has served as a consultant to the Marine Corps and Air Force and started the website Second Line of Defense, told “For them to pull off a stealth airframe, and for it to actually be stealthy, the engine technology has to be very good. Americans have done it with the F-22 and F-35. But it’s not easy to do. No one has done it but ourselves.”

India is the largest arms importer in world, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, and its military import large amounts from both Russia and western countries.

“The Indians for a long time have split their fighter industry between western work and Russian work,” Laird said.

“Clearly they want to go more Western because they recognize that the Russian stuff just isn't up to the western standards. You only have so much money to go around, and like everybody else they've got financial pressures,” he added.

Other security experts said that India has a history of incompetence when it comes to military procurement, and so it did not necessarily reflect badly on Russia.

“India has had so many problems absorbing modern equipment and supporting it that it’s difficult to know whether it says anything about the Russian systems at all,” Anthony Cordesman, who has served as a consultant for the State and Defense departments and who holds the Burke Chair in Strategy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told

Laird said that the Indians may be souring on the Russian deal in part to save funds so they can build more French-designed Dassault Rafale fighter jets, which can be built relatively quickly, unlike the still-to-be-designed “fifth-generation” planes under development with the Russians.

“The Rafale is a very nice aircraft, and they'll look at all the stuff the French are putting on that aircraft, and they'll look at the Russian stuff and say, why am I going down that path? Do I trust the Russians really are going to reach to the standards we set?”

Laird said that India would be best off purchasing the already-developed fifth-generation Lockheed Martin F-35 – but that the United States government had not given permission for such a sale, even though Indian officials had asked several times to be able to consider the plane.

“If they get a chance to really look at the F35, they would want it," Laird said. "The Indians have requested 3 times to talk to people about the F-35B, which is the true revolutionary aircraft -- and the administration never answered the mail, they've blown them off, it's typical of the Obama administration. We love our allies except if you want anything.”

He added that India may in fact not be at the level where it should be trusted with F-35s, however, so the administration would be right to turn them down. But he argued that the F-35 is ahead of what Russia has.

“The Russians are good aircraft designers, and they know how to build an agile aircraft, and [the new plane they are working on] is a step forward the path of more agility and flexibility, but the problem is -- it's not all about the frame, it's about what your put in it. The F35 can see around itself, 360 degrees, can see a missile take off 820 miles away, it has a radar that's extraordinary, and the systems are integrated. The Russians I think are nowhere near that at this point.”

Laird admitted that there was a kind of “ho-hum” aspect to those types of features, but said that the information they provide to pilots and commanders would pay off in a combat situation.

Cordesman also said that he was unsurprised by the Indian complaints, given what he knew about Russian air capabilities.

“They’re very good at building airplanes,” Cordesman said. “The problem that Russia, since the collapse of the former Soviet Union, has been putting out the military equivalent of show cars. They look good, but it isn’t always clear how practical they are and how many of the specifications they can actually meet.”

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