The scrapped MMRCA contract is in the past. But India’s new $25 billion race for 150 fighter aircraft is attracting global players again at the 11th Aero India exhibition
Nothing excites the global arms industry more than big ticket multi-billion dollar orders. This is especially true when it comes to India, a country that has been the world’s largest arms importer for nearly a decade now.Ever since India’s defence ministry sought global bids for 126 Medium Multiple Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in 2005, successive instalments of the biennial Aero In-dia—where the six global contenders (RAC MiG, Dassault, Saab, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Eurofighter) displayed their jets to Indian decision-makers—has thrummed with anticipation over who would win the $10 billion contract, the ‘mother of all defence deals’. The final selection of the French Dassault Rafale in 2012 robbed subsequent Aero Indias of their sheen, but the MMRCA deal was then scrapped in favour of an off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafales for 7.8 billion Euros. India, it would seem, had had its fill of fighter aircraft—but for two major events of the past few weeks.
Late last year, the MoD announced it was looking to build a new single-engine fighter in India, as part of its ‘Make in India’ strategy to indigenise imports. And, on January 17 this year, the Indian Navy issued a request for information from
manufacturers for 57 carrier-based fighter aircraft. Both these programmes could be worth over $20 billion.
Five of the six aircraft that were in the original MMRCA fray are now back in the reckoning. The Dassault Rafale, the Boeing F/A-18 and the MiG-29K are contenders for the naval contract, while Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and Sweden’s Gripen are strong contenders for the ‘Make in India’ fighter. Saab executives have also hinted at reviving its Sea Gripen programme for the naval contract.
Both the IAF and the navy’s contracts, it would seem, are rooted in the delays and disappointments of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme. The IAF feels the LCA won’t be able to plug the gap caused by the phasing out of its 230-plane MiG fleet over the next decade, and wants a fighter over and above the 120 Tejases it is committed to buying. The navy, one of the prime funders of the LCA over two decades ago, feels the aircraft in its present form is unsuited for aircraft carrier-based operations and hence wants a new multi-role naval fighter.
None of these wishes is likely to be granted in a hurry, particularly since the ‘Make in India’ fighter jet is contingent on a major policy shift—approval for a ‘strategic partnership’ policy that will allow the MoD to nominate a private sector firm of its choice. The MoD is yet to finalise this policy, a move that could lead to tie-ups between domestic and foreign private sector manufacturers. The snail-paced decision-making process within the MoD is a big concern. It could be close to a decade by the time the naval MMRCA fighters take off. But until then, these two aircraft contracts promise plenty of excitement on the ground and in the air.
F/A-18 SUPER HORNET CONTENDER FOR 57 naval fighters. Total project cost: over $15 billion
HAL HTT-40 CONTENDER FOR 100 units for the air force, navy, army and coast guard
THE $25 BILLION JET BUY
LIGHT UTILITY HELICOPTER CONTENDER FOR 400 units for the air force and the army SAAB GRIPEN ‘E’ LIGHT COMBAT HELICOPTER CONTENDER FOR 57 naval fighters, 120 light fighters. Total project cost: over $20 billion CONTENDER FOR 200 units for the air force and the army SINGLE ENGINE LIGHT MULTIROLE FIGHTER CARRIER-BASED MULTIROLE NAVAL FIGHTER How many: 100 Cost: Approx. $10 bn User: Indian Air Force How many: 57 Cost: Approx. $15 bn User: Indian Navy