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 fourthgenerationplus 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.
FIGHTER ASSETS OF THE IAF
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.
ACQUISITIONS IN THE PIPELINE
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.
LOCKHEED MARTIN F-16 BLOCK 70/72
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.
SAAB GRIPEN JAS 39 E/F NG
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.
HAL and DRDO have started designing a fifth-generation, stealth, multi-role Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) for the IAF
BOEING F/A-18E/F SUPER HORNET
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-in-India 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 contenders, 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 targeting capability. With IAF having already upgraded the MiG-29s, 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.
The Indian Navy is looking for 57 twin-engine shipboard fighter jets for which F/A-18 and Rafale are the contenders
OPTIONS FOR INDIA
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.
NEED TO HASTEN
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.