Fight­ers for the IAF – A Dilemma

IAF will need to in­duct more than 300 com­bat air­craft by 2025 to re­store and main­tain its op­er­a­tional sta­tus. Fur­ther, an­other 100 air­craft would be re­quired by 2032 to re­place those re­tir­ing from ser­vice.


The In­dian Min­istry of De­fence (MoD) is soon to em­bark on se­lec­tion of for­eign orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­tur­ers (OEM) to whom a Re­quest for Pro­posal (RFP) which is a for­mal ten­der doc­u­ment, is to be is­sued invit­ing quo­ta­tions for the sup­ply of sin­gle or twin-en­gine com­bat air­craft for the In­dian Air Force (IAF). With the re­tire­ment from ser­vice of a large num­ber of com­bat plat­forms ac­quired in the 1960s and the 1970s from the then Soviet Union, the com­bat fleet of the IAF has shrunk to around 31 Squadrons as against the au­tho­rised strength of 42. And if no fur­ther in­duc­tions are made, with the phas­ing out of the older fleets, both Rus­sian and Western, the size of the com­bat fleet is ex­pected to re­duce fur­ther to around 26 Squadrons by 2025. The IAF will be left with just 60 per cent of the sanc­tioned strength. In terms of num­bers, the de­fi­ciency would be around 320 air­craft. The 36 Rafale jets and the few light com­bat air­craft Te­jas Mk I ex­pected to join the fleet by then, would pro­vide only par­tial re­lief. The sit­u­a­tion ought to be a mat­ter of grave con­cern not only for the IAF that is ex­pected to be pre­pared to take on the en­e­mies si­mul­ta­ne­ously on both the North­ern and Western fronts, but for the na­tion as well.

In the be­gin­ning of the last decade, the IAF had ini­ti­ated a case for in­duc­tion of 126 fourth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft weigh­ing around 15 tonnes. The plat­form dubbed Multi-Role Com­bat Air­craft (MRCA) was re­quired to re­place the age­ing fleet of the sin­gle en­gine MiG-21 FL and was in­tended pri­mar­ily for air de­fence role. How­ever, the weight limit of the plat­form was re­vised by Air Head­quar­ters to 25 tonnes mak­ing it pos­si­ble for the heav­ier twin-en­gine plat­forms to en­ter the race. The plat­form re­quired by the IAF was then dubbed Medium Multi-Role Com­bat Air­craft (MMRCA) for which the RFP was fi­nally sent in Au­gust 2007 to six

lead­ing global aero­space ma­jors who re­sponded with ei­ther their lat­est prod­ucts or up­dated ver­sions of ex­ist­ing ones, some even of 1970s vin­tage. Af­ter a thor­ough eval­u­a­tion of the six air­craft in the race, the Rafale from Das­sault Avi­a­tion of France was iden­ti­fied as the pre­ferred plat­form with the Eurofighter Typhoon as the sec­ond op­tion. Un­for­tu­nately, eight years af­ter its is­sue of the RFP, the ten­der was fi­nally can­celled ow­ing to some in­sur­mount­able hur­dles thus ag­gra­vat­ing the level of dis­tress for the IAF. Apart from the fi­nan­cial loss suf­fered by all agencies in­volved in the ten­der, its can­cel­la­tion fi­nally im­pinged on the op­er­a­tional sta­tus of the IAF. In turn, the se­cu­rity of the na­tion has been com­pro­mised as well. Also, the de­ci­sion of the In­dian gov­ern­ment in the re­cent past to with­draw from the pro­gramme to de­velop jointly with Rus­sia, a fifth-gen­er­a­tion fighter air­craft (FGFA) also known as the Su-57, has come as an­other de­bil­i­tat­ing blow to the na­tion’s as­pi­ra­tions to add mus­cle to the com­bat fleet of the IAF as also to foray into the fifth-gen­er­a­tion in the do­main of com­bat air­craft.

Strangely enough, in the most re­cent ef­fort to re­build the com­bat fleet of the IAF soon­est pos­si­ble, the ini­tial pro­posal mooted by Manohar Par­rikar, the then Min­is­ter of De­fence, was for a sin­gle-en­gine fighter air­craft to be built in In­dia in large num­bers through col­lab­o­ra­tion with a for­eign OEM not only for the IAF, but also to meet with global de­mand if any. This was in­deed a quick-fix so­lu­tion for the cri­sis sit­u­a­tion the IAF was con­fronted with. How­ever, this time, not the Air Head­quar­ters, but the MoD re­vised the plan and ex­panded the scope in the Re­quest for In­for­ma­tion (RFI) floated in April this year for 110 air­craft to in­clude twin-en­gine plat­forms as well. Osten­si­bly, this was done to ob­vi­ate the pos­si­bil­ity of a sin­gle ven­dor sit­u­a­tion de­vel­op­ing as there were only two likely con­tenders, Lock­heed Martin and Saab. As a sin­gle ven­dor sit­u­a­tion is not ac­cept­able un­der the De­fence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dure (DPP), it could well have led to the can­cel­la­tion of the ten­der. The lat­est or the sec­ond ten­der is vir­tu­ally a re­peat of the MMRCA ten­der and is now be­ing re­ferred to as MMRCA 2.0. What is a mat­ter of con­cern is the strong pos­si­bil­ity that the na­tion might wit­ness a re­peat of the first MMRCA ten­der. The Sec­re­tary of De­fence has how­ever given as­sur­ance that MMRCA 2.0 will not go the way of the pre­vi­ous ten­der. The IAF cer­tainly hopes so too.

The sit­u­a­tion in the global aero­space sce­nario has not un­der­gone much change since the first MMRCA ten­der in re­spect of avail­abil­ity of com­bat plat­forms. For MMRCA 2.0 ten­der, the six global aero­space ma­jors who re­sponded to the pre­vi­ous ten­der with their prod­ucts, in all like­li­hood, will en­ter the fray again. These were Boe­ing with their of­fer of the F/A18 E/F Su­per Hor­net and Lock­heed Martin Cor­po­ra­tion of the United States (US) with the F-16IN Fight­ing Fal­con, con­sor­tium of Eu­ro­pean aero­space man­u­fac­tur­ers Eurofighter GmbH with the Eurofighter Typhoon, Das­sault Avi­a­tion of France with the Rafale, Saab of Swe­den with the JAS 39 Gripen E and Rus­sian Air­craft Cor­po­ra­tion MiG of­fer­ing the Mig-35, an up­graded ver- sion of the MiG-29. Prod­ucts on of­fer by most of the OEMs will largely be the same with some up­grades. Only Saab is ex­pected to of­fer a new ver­sion of the Gripen.

Up to the end of the last decade, the MoD had been procur­ing com­bat air­craft for the IAF through direct Govern­mentto-Gov­ern­ment trans­ac­tion largely from the then Soviet Union. How­ever, af­ter the end of the cold war era and the emer­gence of a uni-po­lar world, the gov­ern­ment in­tro­duced the DPP osten­si­bly to pro­vide the IAF the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore mar­kets in the West as well to pro­vide a wider range of op­tions to the IAF. Un­for­tu­nately, the DPP, the first edi­tion of which was is­sued in 2003 and re­vised pe­ri­od­i­cally there­after, has turned out to be an in­fin­itely com­plex ex­er­cise and un­for­tu­nately, is not struc­tured to ad­dress the im­per­a­tives of na­tional se­cu­rity. Ex­pe­ri­ence in the past sev­eral decades has shown that the is­sue of pro­cure­ment of com­bat plat­forms from the global mar­ket can be bet­ter ad­dressed through direct trans­ac­tion with the for­eign gov­ern­ment in­volved.

In the case of MMRCA 2.0, the MOD does not ap­pear to have learnt any lessons from the MMRCA ten­der that failed and was can­celled more than three years ago. There was re­ally no need to go in for a re­peat of the com­plex MMRCA ten­der. What was re­quired to be done was that a suit­able plat­form from amongst those eval­u­ated ear­lier could have been picked and or­dered through a direct deal with the con­cerned gov­ern­ment. How­ever, since the process of ten­der­ing has al­ready been ini­ti­ated, it may not be pos­si­ble or ad­vis­able to back­track at this stage. Since this is go­ing to be a re­peat ex­er­cise, there may not be the need to carry out ex­ten­sive eval­u­a­tion once again of all the plat­forms that par­tic­i­pated in the pre­vi­ous ten­der ex­cept for those en­trant plat­forms that are new or have sig­nif­i­cant up­grades such as the F-16 Block 70. As the Rafale jet has al­ready been iden­ti­fied ear­lier on as the pre­ferred plat­form, it is likely that this air­craft would re­main the first choice. Per­haps the most crit­i­cal fac­tor that is likely to in­flu­ence the out­come of this ex­er­cise will be the cost of the plat­form. Al­though the num­ber in­di­cated in the RFI was 110, the IAF will need to in­duct more than 300 com­bat air­craft by 2025 to re­store and main­tain its op­er­a­tional sta­tus. Fur­ther, an­other 100 air­craft would be re­quired by 2032 to re­place those re­tir­ing from ser­vice. With the cost of twin-en­gine com­bat air­craft sub­stan­tially higher than those pow­ered by one en­gine, given the num­ber of air­craft the IAF re­quires to in­duct till 2032, the to­tal fi­nan­cial out­lay for the in­duc­tion of a twin-en­gine plat­form in the num­bers re­quired, is likely to be pro­hib­i­tive and may not be af­ford­able. The de­ci­sion to in­clude twin-en­gine plat­form in the RFI, in hind­sight, ap­pears some­what flawed. By opt­ing for MMRCA 2.0, the gov­ern­ment has taken upon it­self a bur­den that it can­not bear. De­spite the as­sur­ances to the con­trary, if the MMRCA 2.0 ten­der too does not suc­ceed, the IAF will be faced with a se­ri­ous dilemma with no easy or ready so­lu­tion in sight.

“Air­bus and the Eurofighter Typhoon in­dus­trial con­sor­tium will re­spond to the In­dian Air Force’s RFI. We stand ready to pro­vide the Gov­ern­ment of In­dia and In­dian Air Force with an up­date on the con­tin­ued suc­cess of the Typhoon pro­gramme, in­clud­ing the con­tin­ued in­vest­ment in the Typhoon ca­pa­bil­ity, op­er­a­tional per­for­mance and grow­ing user com­mu­nity.” —An Air­bus Spokesper­son

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