A Fighter Made in India?

Failure of the contract for 126 MMRCA has accentuated the urgency for the IAF to explore other options to procure combat aircraft to arrest the disconcerting erosion in operational capability

Issue: 2 / 2016By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Photo(s): By PIB

On February 16 this year, the Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar told the media that “by the end of the current year, India is likely to select at least one fighter aircraft that will be manufactured within the country by the private sector under the ‘Make in India’ scheme to meet the requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF)”. He went on to say that the facility required for manufacturing the selected fighter aircraft will be set up in the next three years or so. The Minister of Defence clarified that this project would in no way conflict with the ongoing programme related to the light combat aircraft (LCA) Tejas which, according to him, was to be scaled up.

Combat Fleet of the IAF

On account of the rapidly dwindling size of the fleet of combat aircraft on its inventory, the IAF today is indeed in a precarious state in respect of its operational capability. The fleets of MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighter aircraft that today constitute a large part of the inventory, have already been overtaken by obsolescence. As such, even with the maximum permissible life extension, their retirement from service in a few years from now will be inevitable. By the end of this decade, it is estimated that as against the newly authorised strength of 42 squadrons, the combat fleet of the IAF will effectively be decimated to 25 squadrons. Stated more explicitly, by 2020, the IAF will be deficient by around 300 combat platforms if no fresh inductions are witnessed by this date. This situation is not at all inspiring for the IAF especially when the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) of China is enhancing its deployment in Tibet and is becoming increasingly belligerent.

On the Western front, ignoring the concerns expressed by India, the US is set to transfer to the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), eight of the latest version of the F-16 aircraft designated as the Block 52 variant. This consignment of fighter aircraft to a large extent is being financed by the US by way of aid. As per the US Government, these aircraft are being supplied to the PAF to combat insurgency and terrorist groups, an explanation that even the most naive will not be able to digest! Apart from US military aid, in collaboration with China, Pakistan has begun manufacturing the JF-17 Thunder, a third-generation combat aircraft which it plans to induct into the PAF in large numbers. Currently, the PAF has 66 JF-17 Thunder aircraft on its inventory and plans are to induct up to around 250 to replace the ageing fleets of Mirage III and Mirage V fighters of French origin.

Other than the twin-engine HF-24 Marut which was designed, developed and built by the Indian aerospace major the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under the stewardship of the German designer Dr Kurt Tank but was unfortunately given a premature burial, since its inception, the IAF has always operated combat aircraft either procured through direct purchase from abroad or built under licence by HAL. This facilitated periodic modernisation of the combat elements of the IAF, the last phase of which was initiated with the signing of contract in November 1996 between the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) and Rosvoorouzhenie State Company of Russia for the supply of 40 Su-30MKI fourth-generation aircraft. The first ten Su-30MKI fighters were inducted into the IAF on September 27, 2002. Meanwhile, contract for licensed production 140 Su-30MKI fighters was signed in December 2000. With additional orders placed subsequently, the total number as of date stands at 272 aircraft equivalent of 14 squadrons. Deliveries against this order are expected to be completed by 2019. As things stand, this fleet will be the mainstay for the IAF for some time to come. All other aircraft on the inventory such as the Mirage 2000, the MiG-29 or the Jaguar are of earlier generation and do not have much service life left, around a decade or so.

The Tejas Mk II and AMCA are much too far in the future to be in the reckoning. Under the circumstances, the only viable option to acquire combat aircraft in the numbers required appears to be the system of licensed manufacture of a proven platform

Efort at Modernisation

Effort by the IAF at further modernisation of the combat fleet since the conclusion of the Su-30MKI contract in 2002 has literally been an unmitigated disaster. After seven years of effort since the issue of request for proposal (RFP) for 126 (six squadrons) of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), the tender was cancelled. However, in April 2015, a solution was found albeit partially, by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, to procure 36 Rafale jets, equivalent of two squadrons, from Dassault Aviation through a direct deal with the Government of France. Unfortunately, the contract negotiations appear to have got bogged down over pricing issues and as such, finalisation of the contract for 36 Rafale jets remains clouded in uncertainty. Even with the induction of 36 Rafale jets, the IAF will still be short of nearly 270 aircraft. The solution to the dilemma before the IAF obviously lies in the age-old practice of licensed production by the Indian aerospace industry as well as indigenous production of combat aircraft. Unfortunately, the wait for the LCA Tejas for the IAF appears to be endless much inspiring rhetoric from the highest echelons of the Indian aerospace industry notwithstanding!

Failure of the contract for 126 MMRCA has accentuated the urgency for the IAF to explore other options to procure combat aircraft to arrest the disconcerting erosion in operational capability. Perhaps the easiest option as suggested by the Minister of Defence is to order more of the Su-30MKI aircraft which in all likelihood will be done. The other option logically should have been induction of the LCA Tejas Mk I and Mk IA. However, given the factors such as deficiencies in the platform, its inability so far to obtain final operational clearance (FOC) and the excruciatingly slow rate of production, the IAF would be hesitant to display the desired level of confidence both in the platform and in the capability of the Indian aerospace industry, successful debut of the aircraft at the Bahrain International Air Show 2016 notwithstanding. The Tejas Mk II and the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) are much too far in the future to be in the reckoning. Under the circumstances, the only viable option to acquire combat aircraft in the numbers required appears once again to be the age-old system of licensed manufacture of a proven platform by not only the Indian aerospace industry in the public sector, but in the private sector as well.

Options for Indigenous Production

For licensed manufacture of a combat platform in India, there are a number of options available for consideration. “We are ready to manufacture F-16 in India and support the ‘Make in India’ initiative,” Phil Shaw, Chief Executive Officer of Lockheed Martin India Private Ltd told reporters at the Singapore Airshow 2016. The offer is reportedly for F-16 IN Super Viper, a version of the platform that is more advanced than that supplied to PAF. Apart from the Indian market for the F-16, the US aerospace major will be able to produce this aircraft in India for the global market at a much lower cost. This joint venture will provide a major boost to the Indian aerospace industry and will definitely be a win-win situation for both. But perhaps the major impediment for India to elect to enter such a partnership with the US will be the latter’s relationship with Pakistan and the continuing supply of F-16 fighters to the hostile neighbour. In addition to Lockheed Martin, the US aerospace and defence major Boeing has also shown keen interest in building the F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters under the ‘Make in India’ plan.

The other proposal to make a fighter aircraft in India is from Airbus to create what has been described as a “Eurofighter City” in India wherein through collaboration with the Indian aerospace industry, Airbus will manufacture the Eurofighter Typhoon for the IAF as well as for the global market and create thousands of jobs in India in the process.

Another player on the scene is the Swedish aerospace and defence company Saab AB. The company is already working in India with Bharat Electronics Ltd, HAL as well as with Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering Company Ltd. The company has also set up a research and development centre in Hyderabad in partnership with Tech Mahindra Ltd. In 2011, Saab had proposed a joint venture with the Indian aerospace industry with 51 per cent stake for the co-development of the Tejas Mark II. Saab has now offered to develop, manufacture and undertake the final assembly of the latest and most advanced version of its fifth-generation Gripen fighter jet in India. Given the similarity between the Gripen and the LCA Tejas as well as willingness on the part of Saab to join hands to develop the Mk II version of the latter, a partnership with Saab for making a fighter jet in India will enable the Indian aerospace industry kill two birds with one stone!