Select the Right Combat Platform

Unless the selected platform offers a ready global market, setting up a production facility to manufacture the aircraft exclusively for the IAF may not be a viable proposition

Issue: 9 / 2017By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

After the cancellation of the tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft in 2015 for which the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France had been selected by the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Ministry of Defence (MoD) then headed by Manohar Parrikar, embarked on a search for alternatives to restore the operational edge of the combat fleet of the IAF. Over the years, the operational capability of the combat fleet had been considerably eroded on account of retirement from service of the ageing fleets of the MiG-21 and the MiG-23 that had been overtaken by obsolescence.

One option that came up for consideration was to invite a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM) to manufacture a proven single-engine combat platform in India in collaboration with a selected partner from the Indian aerospace industry. Conceived to be under the newly introduced policy on Strategic Partnership in defence procurement, the aim of the exercise was to produce the selected aircraft in large numbers to not only meet with the requirement of the IAF which was around 200 aircraft at that point in time, as also to cater for the demands of the global market should there be any.

As setting up of a production line in India to manufacture a modern combat platform would entail colossal investment, it would only be logical and financially expedient to select a platform that would not only be relevant for another four to five decades after operationalisation and mid-life upgrade, but would also generate demand for aircraft and spares from other air forces across the globe operating the aircraft or from prospective customers. The other important consideration would be genuine transfer of technology and support by the selected OEM in the other projects in India to develop indigenous next generation combat platforms.

Although so far, a formal Request for Information to vendors that have the product to offer, has not been issued by the MoD, two global aerospace majors have already come up with offers in anticipation of bagging the contract which by all accounts would be lucrative given the somewhat subdued demand situation in the sagging global aerospace market. Lockheed Martin of the US has signed a landmark agreement with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) and has offered to relocate its production line of the F-16 to India to produce in collaboration with the Indian partner TASL, its latest version of the aircraft, the Block 70. TASL is located in Hyderabad and has been engaged in the manufacture of airframes for Sikorsky S-92 helicopters which the President of the US flies in. The proposal from Lockheed Martin however, would be subject to the precondition that the order from the MoD is for a minimum of 100 aircraft. This will not be an impediment as by 2025, the IAF will need up to 400 aircraft as the other older fleets are retired from service. Competing with US defence and aerospace company is the Swedish aerospace major Saab that has joined hands with the Indian business house, the Adani group, to manufacture in India the JAS 39E Gripen single-engine fighter jets for the IAF. The Gripen is a much younger aircraft but yet to be proven operationally and does not have a large global market. Both these options have the potential to provide the much needed boost to the Make in India programme of the NDA government.

The F-16 is a platform that was first developed in the late 1970s. However, it has been periodically upgraded and the Block 70 version offered to India is a near fifth-generation platform. Currently, the air forces of over 20 nations across the globe that are operating this aircraft and are likely to continue to use this platform for several decades as this has been found to be a cost-effective option apart from being extremely potent. Incidentally, the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is also operating a fleet of 76 F-16 fighters. However given the strained relationship between Pakistan and the US under the Trump administration, it is likely that Pakistan will not receive any more financial aid and Lockheed Martin may not be permitted to continue to support the F-16 fleet of the PAF. Pakistan has turned to China and is manufacturing in collaboration, the Chinese JF-17 Thunder, a third-generation combat aircraft. Pakistan will move on to manufacture fourth and even fifth generation combat aircraft in collaboration with China.

For India, unless the selected platform offers a ready global market for aircraft and spares, setting up a production facility to manufacture the aircraft exclusively for the IAF may not be a viable proposition.