New Delhi (Sputnik) – India might do away with the engine criteria for the planned purchase of over a 100 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to widen the scope of competition among foreign vendors supplying both single-engine as well as twin-engine fighter aircraft. Highly placed sources told Sputnik that the Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) wants an open fighter jet contest like the earlier deal for medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) wherein the main criteria would be the technical capabilities of the jet not the number of engines. The new development has come as a rude awakening to Lockheed Martin and Saab who have been keenly anticipating a tender specifically for single engine fighter jets making the F-16 and the Gripen the front-runners in the $10 billion deal.
The dichotomy of views on whether the IAF needs single or twin-engine combat aircraft is not a new phenomenon. It has been a subject of frequent debate. In the year 2002, the IAF had initiated a case for the procurement of a single-engine combat aircraft as the MiG-21s with its several variants which constituted bulk of the fleet, would be reaching the end of life and would have to be retired from service over the next two decades. With no certainty of the time frame in which the light combat aircraft Tejas would be available, the IAF proposed procurement of a light-weight, multi-role, single-engine platform from a foreign original equipment manufacturer (OEM), few in fly-away condition and the remaining to be manufactured in India. The proposal for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) to replace the single-engine MiG-21 fleet, was duly cleared by Air HQ and was forwarded to the MoD.
However, before the MoD could process the case, there was a change in the leadership in the IAF and the case was sent back to Air HQ for a review by the new incumbent. As expected, with the change in the top echelons at Air HQ, there was a change in the perception as well. Air HQ was now of the view that the IAF actually needed not a light-weight but a mediumweight, multi-role, preferably a twin-engine platform capable of operating over longer ranges as the envelope of national security interests had expanded considerably. The revised proposal designated the new platform as medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) and mandated the evaluation of both single and twin-engine platforms available in the global market and select the most capable platform, price not being the limiting factor.
Five years after the case was initiated by Air HQ, the tender for MMRCA was floated in August 2007. It would be interesting to note that of the six contenders in the race for the contract, there were four twin-engine and two single-engine aircraft. It took another five years before the IAF declared two amongst the twin-engine platforms, i.e. the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France, as the platforms of choice. What is also noteworthy is that the two single-engine aircraft in the race have reappeared on the scene when the Request for Information for a single engine platform was issued recently.
Unfortunately for the IAF, the MMRCA tender for which the Rafale had been declared as the preferred platform, encountered insurmountable road blocks and was cancelled in 2015. This resulted in a crisis situation for the IAF as its combat fleet has been dwindling, eroding the operational edge over its adversaries that are becoming increasingly belligerent. As an emergency measure, Prime Minister Narendra Modi interacted personally with the President of France during his visit to Paris in 2015 and initiated an Inter Government Agreement to purchase 36 Rafale jets bypassing the troublesome tendering process. Although this came as a partial relief for the IAF, the issue has been politicised in a rather inelegant manner, a rather unfortunate state of affairs especially from the point of view of national security.
In view of the rapidly depleting strength of the combat fleet, Manohar Parrikar, the then Minister of Defence initiated a project to invite a foreign OEM to set up a production line in India and manufacture a single-engine combat aircraft in large numbers to meet with the growing requirement of the IAF as also of the global market. After Manohar Parrikar relinquished the appointment of the Minister of Defence, the project lay dormant till the newly appointed Minister of Defence Nirmala Sitharaman got it moving again. However, the proposal is not likely to be restricted to a single-engine platform as the government is keen to widen the scope for competition among global players by removing the ‘single engine’ criteria to avert a controversy as only two manufacturers have so far expressed interest in the tender. With the inclusion of a twin-engine platform, it will only be a repeat of the MMRCA tender in which the preferred platform has already been identified by the IAF. Given the crisis the IAF faces today on account of which the time factor is of essence, there is no real need to go though the long tendering process all over again. All that the government needs to do is to order the number of Rafale jets the IAF requires and have it manufactured in India under the ‘Make in India’ scheme.
The price of the Rafale as compared to single-engine platforms will undoubtedly be high; but no price is too high when the security of the nation is at stake.