MMRCA 2.0 Con­tenders

Amid the row over the re­cent Rafale deal, the good news is that the Cen­tre is all set to clear pur­chase of 114 new fighter jets worth over $20 bil­lion


Not very long ago, the In­dian Air Force (IAF) was three times the size of Pak­istan Air Force (PAF) and had a more mod­ern com­bat air­craft in­ven­tory than China. This has changed in the last two decades. As Air Chief Mar­shal B.S. Dhanoa, Chief of the Air Staff men­tioned in a re­cent sem­i­nar “The IAF is to­day down to 31 com­bat squadrons as against the au­tho­rised strength of 42. While we have com­mit­ted to pur­chase 12 squadrons of the Light Com­bat Air­craft (LCA) Te­jas, we need fourth gen­er­a­tion plus air­craft. China has nearly 900 mod­ern com­bat air­craft in an in­ven­tory of over 1700”. The IAF’s edge over the PAF is at an all­time low of 1.5:1. China’s de­fence bud­get be­ing over three times that of In­dia, she will con­tinue to be ahead. Ac­qui­si­tion plans of the IAF have been ad­versely af­fected by in­ad­e­quate al­lo­ca­tion of funds, tardy de­ci­sion-mak­ing, po­lit­i­cal slugfest forc­ing cau­tion and de­layed Te­jas project. At the cur­rent pace, it may take over 20 years to reach the au­tho­rised level of 42 squadrons. Un­der the pre­vail­ing cir­cum­stances, a two-pronged ap­proach is re­quired namely to drive ‘Make in In­dia’ hard and ac­cel­er­ate pur­chase of al­ready selected plat­forms. Amid the row over the re­cent Rafale deal, the good news is that the Cen­tre is all set to clear pur­chase of 114 new fighter jets worth over $20 bil­lion.


The fourth largest Air Force in the world, to­day the IAF has less than 600 com­bat air­craft con­sist­ing of 12 squadrons of Su-30 MKI, three squadrons each of up­graded MiG-29, and Mi­rage 2000-5 Mk2, five squadrons of Jaguar, three squadrons of MiG-27 and five squadrons of MiG-21 Bi­son that will serve till 2024. The first squadron of Te­jas Mk I formed on July 1, 2016, now has nine air­craft. Full squadron strength will be avail­able by mid 2019.


The IAF has or­dered 20 LCA Te­jas Mk I with Ini­tial Op­er­a­tional Clear­ance, 20 LCA Te­jas Mk I with Fi­nal Op­er­a­tional Clear­ance

and 83 Mk IA equipped with AESA radar and an elec­tro-op­tic EW Sen­sor suite. It will be of lower weight and with eas­ier ser­vice main­tain­abil­ity thus re­duc­ing down­time of the air­craft. It will also have a mid-air re­fu­el­ing probe. All LCA ASQRs will be met only by the larger Te­jas Mk II with more pow­er­ful GE F414 en­gine. The first flight of Mk II is un­likely to be ear­lier than 2025. The Mk II will be a new air­craft and will re­quire ex­ten­sive flight test­ing. In­duc­tion into ser­vice could be around 2030. HAL and DRDO have started de­sign­ing a fifth-gen­er­a­tion, stealth, multi-role Ad­vanced Medium Com­bat Air­craft (AMCA). This is likely to be a 20 tonne-class to re­place the Jaguar and Mi­rage 2000. The IAF re­quires around 250 AMCAs.


36 Rafale jets con­tracted through Govern­ment-to-Govern­ment (G2G) deal, will ar­rive be­tween 2019-22. The IAF will re­quire around 500 new air­craft by 2035 to com­pen­sate the phas­ing out and to make good the ex­ist­ing short­falls. The IAF was keen to quickly ac­quire sin­gle-en­gine, rel­a­tively cheaper fighters and make good the num­bers, but that would have meant re­strict­ing the com­pe­ti­tion to F-16 and Gripen. The Govern­ment de­cided to open the com­pe­ti­tion to twin-en­gine air­craft also. RFI was is­sued in April 2018 to the six con­tenders who par­tic­i­pated in the MMRCA ten­der namely Lock­heed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and Boe­ing’s Ad­vanced Su­per Hor­net F/A-18E/F, Das­sault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Rus­sian MiG-35 and Eu­ro­pean Eurofighter. A new par­tic­i­pant is the Sukhoi Su-35. Re­sponse from ven­dors were re­ceived in July 2018.


Af­ter a gru­elling se­lec­tion process in MMRCA-1, the omni-role Rafale came out a win­ner. It has been op­er­a­tionally tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. The Rafale is uni­ver­sally ac­knowl­edged as a good air­craft. Due to some in­sur­mount­able prob­lems, the ten­der for 126 MMRCA was can­celled. In­stead, the NDA govern­ment set­tled for 36 Rafale jets off-the-shelf through a G2G deal. In view of the de­plet­ing num­bers, one school of thought is to order ad­di­tional Rafale jets. De­pend­ing on the num­bers, they could be ei­ther man­u­fac­tured in In­dia or pur­chased off-the-shelf.


The F-16 is a sin­gle-en­gine, air-su­pe­ri­or­ity, multi-role fighter which first flew in 1974 and has since been op­er­ated by 26 coun­tries. It has been up­graded a num­ber of times. The Block 70 which is be­ing of­fered to In­dia, is the lat­est vari­ant. Lock­heed Martin is pre­pared to re­lo­cate the F-16 pro­duc­tion line to In­dia mak­ing In­dia the global sup­ply chain hub. With 2242 F-16 still fly­ing in 26 coun­tries, it will be a very sig­nif­i­cant move. The F-16 Block 70, which en­tered ser­vice in 2014, is built to ex­ploit the air­craft’s long com­bat ex­pe­ri­ence and in­tro­duce new front-end tech­nolo­gies in­clud­ing Northrop Grum­man’s ad­vanced APG-83 AESA radar and en­hanced bat­tle-space aware­ness avion­ics. On of­fer are also sev­eral weapons in­clud­ing lat­est ver­sions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The struc­tural life of the air­craft has been ex­tended to see it fly­ing till 2040. Lock­heed Martin has a joint ven­ture com­pany with Tata Ad­vanced Sys­tems Lim­ited (TASL) which has proven ex­per­tise through man­u­fac­ture of air­frame com­po­nents for the C-130J and the S-92 he­li­copter. TASL will soon make F-16 wings. In­ter­est­ingly, PAF has around 100 older F-16 Block 52s, first in­ducted in 1982.


The JAS 39 Gripen first flew in De­cem­ber 1988. The 250 Gripen built are fly­ing in Swe­den, Czech Repub­lic, Hun­gary, Brazil, South Africa and Thai­land. The air­craft has been sourced roughly 67 per cent from Swedish or Eu­ro­pean sup­pli­ers and 33 per cent from the US. One ad­van­tage is that all op­er­a­tors have ac­cess to Gripen’s source code and tech­ni­cal doc­u­men­ta­tion, al­low­ing for up­grades and new equip­ment to be in­de­pen­dently in­te­grated. The Next Gen­er­a­tion ver­sion on of­fer to In­dia can be with more pow­er­ful EJ 200 power-plant, new avion­ics and AESA radar. SAAB has pro­posed sig­nif­i­cant trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy and to make In­dia ‘an in­de­pen­dent man­u­fac­turer’ of the Gripen. With back­ing of the Swedish govern­ment, SAAB has tied with the Adani group as their pro­duc­tion part­ner in In­dia.


The Boe­ing F/A18E/F Su­per Hor­net is a twin-en­gine mul­ti­role fighter. The air­craft evolved from YF-17 which had lost the com­pe­ti­tion to F-16 in mid 1970s. The F-18 first flew in 1978 as Hor­net and is op­er­ated by the US Marines, the US Navy, Royal Aus­tralian and Span­ish Air Forces. The Su­per Hor­net has a new larger air­frame and has seen ex­ten­sive avion­ics up­grades and has taken part in the Gulf and Mid­dle East wars. The vari­ant be­ing of­fered to In­dia, with Make-inIn­dia pro­vi­sion, will be Ad­vanced Su­per Hor­net with a new AESA radar. Boe­ing and Tata In­dus­tries have a joint-ven­ture com­pany at Hy­der­abad for Apache fuse­lage and other aero-struc­tures. The new en­tity would sup­ply com­po­nents for Boe­ing mil­i­tary air­craft world-wide, in­clud­ing for the Su­per Hor­net. This is the first time the Su­per Hor­net is be­ing of­fered for pro­duc­tion in a for­eign coun­try. The In­dian Navy is look­ing for 57 twin-en­gine ship­board fighter jets for which F/A-18 and Rafale are the con-

HAL and DRDO have started de­sign­ing a fifth-gen­er­a­tion, stealth, multi-role Ad­vanced Medium Com­bat Air­craft (AMCA) for the IAF

ten­ders, even though ex­perts are ques­tion­ing such re­quire­ment be­cause nei­ther air­craft can land on ex­ist­ing In­dian car­ri­ers.


The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin-en­gine, ca­nard-delta wing, mul­ti­role fighter man­u­fac­tured by a con­sor­tium of Air­bus, BAE Sys­tems, and Leonardo formed in 1986. It en­tered op­er­a­tional ser­vice in 2003 and around 600 have been built till date and is flown be 10 Air Forces. It is an ag­ile-fighter that has seen op­er­a­tions in Libya. Eurofighter was short-listed af­ter tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion dur­ing MMRCA com­pe­ti­tion along with the Rafale; but lost out on com­mer­cial bid.


The MiG-35 is a Rus­sian multi-role fighter which is es­sen­tially a fur­ther de­vel­op­ment of the MiG-29-M2. First pre­sented in­ter­na­tion­ally dur­ing Aero In­dia 2007, It has im­proved avion­ics and weapon sys­tems, a new AESA radar and pre­ci­sion-guided tar- get­ing ca­pa­bil­ity. With IAF hav­ing al­ready up­graded the MiG29s, it has al­ready par­tially im­bibed the new tech­nolo­gies.


The Su-35 is an im­proved de­riv­a­tive of the Su-27 air-de­fence fighter. It is a sin­gle-seat, twin-en­gine, su­per-ma­noeu­vrable air­craft. The first vari­ant known as the Su-27M, made its maiden flight in 1988. Sukhoi re-des­ig­nated the air­craft as Su-35 to at­tract ex­port or­ders. It has seen im­prove­ments ever since with re­designed cock­pit and weapons-con­trol sys­tem. A sole Su-35UB two-seat trainer was also built in the late 1990s that re­sem­bled the Su-30MK fam­ily. In 2009, the Rus­sian Air Force be­came the launch cus­tomer of the air­craft. The Chi­nese Peo­ple’s Lib­er­a­tion Army Air Force and In­done­sian Air Force have or­dered the air­craft in small num­bers.


Bulk of the cap­i­tal bud­get of the IAF is al­ready com­mit­ted to past li­a­bil­i­ties. The 114 air­craft are likely to cost $20 bil­lion. With a back­log of mod­erni­sa­tion and to re­build 42 squadrons, govern­ment would have to al­lot ad­di­tional funds. Any deal for the new fighter would have to have in-built in the con­tract max­i­mum tech­nol­ogy trans­fer and sup­port for In­dia’s LCA, AMCA, AESA radar and air­craft en­gine pro­grammes. The Saab Gripen JAS-39 is the more re­cent air­craft with fairly mod­ern tech­nolo­gies. Swe­den be­ing a smaller po­lit­i­cal player for In­dia, it will be eas­ier to get a good deal from Saab. They are will­ing to share the source-code. How­ever, only 250 Gripens are fly­ing world over giv­ing lit­tle busi­ness lever­age for ex­ports. Also, the orig­i­nal Saab plant will not be shut down. Nearly 30 per cent air­craft sys­tems are sourced from USA, which can have com­pli­ca­tions later. Swe­den can also be of lit­tle help to In­dia in­ter­na­tion­ally for NSG ap­proval or seat in the Se­cu­rity Coun­cil. The two Amer­i­can air­craft bring with them the US in­ter­na­tional mus­cle power. F/A-18 is a twin-en­gine air­craft and there­fore costlier. Its air­frame has re­cently been re­designed. Boe­ing has sig­nif­i­cant pres­ence in the coun­try. The F-16 is a sin­gle-en­gine air­craft and has the largest fleet in the world, many of which will be fly­ing well past 2035. In­dia can get huge busi­ness world­wide for main­te­nance and over­haul. Lock­heed has made a fol­low-on of­fer of F-35 at a later stage. Since the IAF gen­uinely re­quires a sin­gle-en­gine air­craft, the F-16 will have an ad­van­tage. The MiG-35, though a con­tender in the MMRCA, with the MiG-29 up­grade, the tech­nolo­gies have al­ready been im­bibed. So the MiG-35 is un­likely to be a con­tender. The Su-35 also has lot in com­mon with the up­graded Su-30 MKI, of which the IAF has sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, as such may not be a con­tender. Ear­lier, the Eurofighter had lost out to Rafale on the com­mer­cial bid, there­fore, Rafale will have an ad­van­tage over it. The Rafale also has the ad­van­tage of a naval vari­ant thus ad­van­tage of num­bers. All th­ese air­craft have been ex­ten­sively eval­u­ated dur­ing MMRCA se­lec­tion, as such, only the newer sub-sys­tems re­quire a look. A G2G ap­proach would be the best for the selected fighter, for both cost and time sav­ings. Among the twin-en­gine, it is best to buy more Rafale jets be­cause sig­nif­i­cant ex­pen­di­ture has al­ready been in­curred on two-air­base in­fra­struc­ture and weapons. In ad­di­tion, a cheaper sin­gle-en­gine fighter be­tween Gripen and F-16 be cho­sen. A very early de­ci­sion is op­er­a­tionally most crit­i­cal.


Hope we do not tie our­selves in knots again. Past ex­pe­ri­ence shows that RFP, which needs to be evolved be­tween the var­i­ous de­part­ments of the IAF and also with DRDO and HAL among oth­ers, may take nearly two years to is­sue. This fig­ure needs to be re­duced to six months. In a hurry to get air­craft, the IAF would pre­fer in­cre­men­tal test­ing of only the new sys­tems on of­fer and quickly clear the air­craft that meet the tech­ni­cal pa­ram­e­ters. The DPP al­lows for the trial process to be skipped where they have been car­ried out be­fore. Ide­ally this ex­er­cise must fin­ish in a year. If the fi­nal in­tent is to go through G2G, then maybe the IAF should just use the RFP re­sponses and do no test­ing. One ap­proach could be to ask only for sin­gle tech­ni­cal-com­mer­cial bid and not two sep­a­rate ones. There­after, there could be a G2G deal to sig­nif­i­cantly save time. The IAF must work for wrap­ping up the con­tract in two to three years. Win­ner of this con­tract will build a fac­tory that will not only pro­duce jets for the IAF, but hope­fully mak­ing it a man­u­fac­tur­ing base for ex­ports. So a lot is at stake. Hope In­dia suc­ceeds this time.

The In­dian Navy is look­ing for 57 twinengine ship­board fighter jets for which F/A-18 and Rafale are the con­tenders




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