The air dominance of the future will rely on long range airborne radars and sensors complemented by long range jam-proof missiles that will allow well Beyond the Visual Range (BVR) combat. Stealth and super-cruise will be added features of the fifth generation fighters. Most current 4th-plus generation fighters produced since early 1970s have more or less stabilized attributes in terms of max speed, ‘g’, rate of turn. As such platforms with more recent airframes do not pose any significant advantage over older ones. Indian Air Force (IAF) has initiated the process for acquiring 114 new fighters and the responses to its Request for Information (RFI) were received in July 2018. There are seven contenders for the MMRCA class, 4.5 generation, aircraft, American Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 (now named F 21) and Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F 18E/F, French Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian SU-35 and MiG 35 and European consortium’s Eurofighter. It will be interesting to make a prognosis of the unfolding competition.
Important Aircraft Attributes
IAF was always keen on a single-engine aircraft. Such aircraft are cheaper, easier to maintain, have faster between mission turn-around, and can do 5 missions in a 24-hour cycle vis-a-vis 3 missions by larger twin-engine aircraft. Light fighters generally feature high thrust-to-weight ratio, high maneuverability, and higher reliability. The selected aircraft should see IAF through for next 40 years. It must have the state-of-art avionics, weapons and high degree of survivability and adequate potential to upgrade the avionics and weapons. India should be able to get world class technological support for India’s indigenous aircraft engine, AESA, stealth, and electronic warfare equipment for AMCA. It should be low in cost so that IAF could get much more from its meager Capital budget. It should have unrestricted Make-in-India potential with significant options for export. India should be able to leverage the buy for geo-political support to get to the high table of international organizations which are hitherto restricted. In view of the urgency, the acquisition process must get hastened.
Comparing the Competition
Barring SU-35, all have been extensively tested in the first MMRCA competition that resulted in truncated purchase. IAF has indicated that the next round will be incremental testing involving only the new systems.
Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39 E/F is single-engine and more recent aircraft with fairly modern technologies. Being a relatively smaller geo-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 270 Gripen are flying world over (200+ in Sweden itself) giving little business leverage for any exports. Also the original Saab plant will not be shut down. Nearly 30 percent aircraft systems are sourced from USA, which can have complications later.
Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F-18E/F
F-18 is a twin engine aircraft which had lost to the of F-16 in the USAF fighter competition in 1970s. Like the F-16, the aircraft has seen airframe redesign and systems upgrade. Boeing has significant presence in the country. Around 600 F-18 have been built till date. US Navy is the main operator. Royal Australian Air Force had chosen small numbers as an interim replacement of the F-111. Canada is the only other contender to replace its old F-18 hornets. Some other F-18 operators plan to move on to other aircraft. If IAF and Indian Navy requirement (twin engine) are clubbed then this becomes a serious contender.
Mikoyan MiG 35 and Sukhoi Su-35 – Russian Basket
MiG-35 is essentially a further development of MiG-29M/M2 variant. Since IAF has already imbibed many of its technologies in the MiG-29 upgrades, it may not remain a serious contender. India is buying 21 additional MiG 29s and they too will be upgraded. Similarly the SU-35 is an improved variant of the Su-27. IAF’s SU-30 MKI has imbibed some of the technologies already and more will come in the SU-30 MKI upgrade. India will eventually be having 14 squadrons of SU-30 MKI, 3, later 4 squadrons of MiG 29 upgrade and already have 5 squadrons of MiG 21 Bison, albeit they will phase out be the time these 114 aircraft come. IAF currently has 70 per cent Russian fighters. Even when Bisons phase out, the numbers would be 50 per cent plus. Also the Russian aircraft serviceability figures in the last 30 years have been around 10 per cent lower than their western counterparts. With the US governments Countering America’s Adversaries Through Sanctions Act, CAATSA already in place, and India having already ordered the Russian S-400 air defence systems, four naval frigates, and working together on nuclear submarines, Russian aircraft are less likely to be contenders. China has already bought a squadron plus of Su-35s. Chances are they may reverse engineer them later.
Little over 600 Eurofighter aircraft are flying, mostly in small numbers in some European and West Asian countries. Aircraft is managed by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo through joint holding company. Four European countries are partners in production which brings in its own dynamics. Earlier the Eurofighter had lost out to Rafale on the commercial bid, therefore, Rafale will have an advantage over it. Rafale is already a known entity to IAF whose personnel are already under training and the aircraft are set to arrive in July 2020. Unfortunately the aircraft had gone through a serious political slugfest which hopefully has got resolved now with two judgments at Supreme Court level. The aircraft is likely to lose to the single-engine aircraft in terms of cost which will be an important factor going ahead. If IAF has to choose a twin-engine aircraft for increased numbers and commonality with Indian Navy, then Rafale will be the better bet between other twin-engine contenders. The cost differential between the single engine aircraft and Rafale will decide the way ahead. Also since the already bought just 36 Rafale is a very small number, there is a possibility that 36 more be bought outside or be part of the ‘Make-in-India” 114 fighters. IAF requires nearly 400 fighters to make good the authorised 42 squadrons from current 30, and also to cater to further retirements. LCA can only cover part of the distance.
Other than the Gripen JAS-39, Lockheed Martin F-21 is the only other single-engine contender. Lockheed Martin is world’s biggest defence contractor which continues to produce the top end fighters of the world. More recent being the F-117 and F-22, and being inducted in all major western Air Forces the F-35 Lightening II. There are nearly 3,500 confirmed orders for the F-35, including ober 2600 within USA. These numbers will go up further later. Over 4,500 F-16s have been produced over the years and flown in 27 countries. Nearly 2,250 are still flying and service life extension program will keep the jets flying beyond 2050. If selected, India can get huge business worldwide for manufacture, upgrade, maintenance and overhauls. As the natural extension of a common supply chain would be for India to request and procure fifth generation F 35 at a later stage.
Since IAF genuinely requires a single-engine aircraft, the F-16 will have an advantage. The latest variant Block 70/72 was first revealed on 15 February 2012 at the Singapore air-show. The Block 70 will exploit the aircraft’s long combat experience, and introduce new front-end technologies and enhanced battle-space awareness avionics. The enhanced features include the AN/APG-83 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR) active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar, an upgraded mission computer and architecture, an advanced data-link, targeting pod and weapons; precision GPS navigation and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS), and improvements to the cockpit – many fifth generation capabilities identified by the USAF and several international customers. On offer are also many weapons including latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The aircraft is powered by GE F110-132A engine. Taiwan, South Korea, Bahrain, Greece, Slovakia have opted for the upgraded variants. 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 airlifter and the S-92 helicopter. In 2017, Lockheed Martin signed a letter of intent with the Indian defence firm Tata Advanced Systems Limited to manufacture the jets in India if the Indian government accepts their tender. The new production line would supply jets to India as well as for exporting them overseas. Early September 2018, Lockheed announced that they would build F-16 aircraft wings in India and that would not be contingent upon the company winning the order for the planes. The wing production is already on and “India made” wings will start exporting later in 2020. Lockheed is bidding for a contract, estimated at more than $15 billion, to supply the Indian Air Force with 114 combat planes and has offered to shift its F-16 production line from the United States to India. Those apprehensive about the Pakistan Air Force also having around 100 F-16s, should know that the Block 70 is a clear generation ahead of the older Block 52s with PAF.
Beyond pure merit, after recent special India specific CAATSA waivers, America would expect India for the first time to buy a US fighter. The two countries signed the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) in 2002, Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA) in 2016, Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA) in 2018. India is now also moving towards finalising the Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement (BECA) for Geo-Spatial Cooperation, the fourth and final foundational pact with the US. This may also give a tilt towards American aircraft. In return US is likely to continue to support India for membership to international nuclear and security bodies including NSG and UN Security Council.
Decision Making Matrix – India
The final decision will stem for the technical evaluation. Though the RFP is still to be issued, many aircraft are likely to meet the basic technical parameters. The critical issues will be the base cost, weapons offered, and transfer of technology (ToT) package. Many contracts in the past have had ToT clauses but physical transfer could not take place for various reasons. These holes will have to be plugged. For ‘Make-in-India’ if export market exists then the production scale will go up and will be cost effective. International support at political and diplomatic level is very important. As long as technical parameters and costs are good, this factor will also weigh in. It is hoped that the Request for Proposal (RFP) will be issued early enough to kick-start the competition formally.
This article was first written by me for SP’s Aviation, but has since been significantly updated.
Picture Credit: defenceaviationpost.com