Buy MMRCA now, Gen-5 fighter later: US report - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Friday 28 January 2011

Buy MMRCA now, Gen-5 fighter later: US report

A new report by Ashley Tellis on India's decision-making on the medium fighter praises the IAF's impartial evaluation but points out that it will now be a political decision

by Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th Jan 11

With two US fighters--- Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet --- apparently trailing in the six-way, US $10 billion race to sell India 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), a new report by a top US-based analyst suggests that India buys the MMRCA as an economical, stop-gap measure, before buying a cutting-edge, fifth generation, US-built stealth fighter for the Indian Air Force.

Recommending that the IAF buys “the least expensive, mature, combat-proven fourth-generation fighter… as a bridge toward procuring more advanced stealth aircraft in the future”, the report urges Washington to “assure India access to fifth-generation US combat aircraft, and provide strong support for India’s strategic ambitions”.

The US currently has just one 5th generation fighter, the F-22, which Washington has not shared with any country. Also nearing completion is the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, which Lockheed Martin is building in partnership with several other countries.

The report, “Dogfight! India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft Decision”, is authored by Ashley Tellis of the Carnegie Endowment, a globally respected analyst who has worked closely with the US government and the US Air Force. Admitting that the European fighters in the fray --- which include the Eurofighter Typhoon; the French Rafale; and the Swedish Gripen NG --- are “technically superb”, Tellis calls the two US fighters “ best buys”, suggesting that they are ideal choices as stop-gap fighters.

Tellis’ report comes just before Aero India 2011, India’s premier air show at Bangalore from 9th to 13th February, where the MMRCA contest will grab international headlines. Indian commentary, including in the Business Standard, has discussed the merits of buying the in-development, 5th generation F-35, rather than the 4th generation MMRCA contenders. Tellis’ report, however, goes a step further, suggesting the procurement of the MMRCA for now, as well as a 5th generation fighter in the future.

That idea was reinforced by Ashton Carter, US Undersecretary of State for Defence, while speaking at a function to release Tellis' report. "There is nothing on our side, no principle which bars that on our side, Indian participation in the Joint Strike Fighter. Right now, they're focused on these aircraft which are top-of-the-line fourth-gen fighters," Carter said.

Defense News reports that Pentagon spokesperson Cheryl Irwin reinforced this message, stating in an email message that, "If, at some point down the road, India were interested in purchasing JSF from us, then we would engage the Indians in an open, transparent manner at that time. But this would obviously be something that the Indian government would have to decide it wanted or needed."

Highlighting the need to quickly boost the IAF’s fighter numbers, Tellis points out that since 1971, “India’s defense (sic) strategy has relied on maintaining superior airpower relative to both China and Pakistan. In the event of a regional conflict, Indian air power would serve as the country’s critical war-fighting instrument of first resort.”

However, due to procurement delays, accidents and obsolescence, the IAF’s authorised force level of 39.5 fighter squadrons has diminished to an unprecedented 29 squadrons. Even without delays in the ongoing procurements, it is unlikely to be made up before 2017.

Indian planners have noted the first test flight of the Chinese 5th generation J-20 fighter last fortnight. IAF experts, however, say that the J-20 is unlikely to enter service before another 7-8 years of development. The US-built F-35, in contrast, is nearing completion: it is likely to be in operational service by 2014.

Interestingly, Tellis heaps kudos on the IAF for its “scrupulously transparent and extraordinarily neutral” handling of the complex MMRCA flight trials. The report depicts the trials as a rarity: a multi-billion dollar contest, involving six aircraft and eight countries, in which every vendor is satisfied that the IAF has fairly evaluated his fighter.

But with the IAF having submitted its report --- which Tellis praises as “impartial to the point of appearing disinterested” --- to the Ministry of Defence (MoD), political factors will now shape the decision.

Tellis points out that, “In choosing the winning platform, Indian policymakers will seek to: minimize the country’s vulnerability to supply cutoffs in wartime, improve its larger military capacity through a substantial technology infusion, and forge new transformative geopolitical partnerships that promise to accelerate the growth of Indian power globally.”

The report cautions that, with pressure mounting from the governments that have a horse in this race, Indian security interests could be undermined by a political compromise like splitting the deal between two countries. This would “needlessly saddle the IAF with multiple airframes in return for meagre political gains.”


  1. No need to have 3 5-Gen Airframes and 2 in the same ground attack category (AMCA & F35).

  2. Great advice and we are sucker enough to take it.

  3. Who is this Tellis to give advice when he left his country a long time ago if I am not mistaken.

  4. The suggestion is in line with your observation. However, are the defence officials listening or do they have better designs? How reliable are the Americans and more importantly how reliable are the Russians? Seems like an MEA decision instead of a MoD decision.

  5. No need of F-35; Lets build our own even if it is fraught with mistakes and dangers.

    Lets us help ourselves instead of depending on others to help us.

  6. From the Carnegie Middle East Center funders: The Endowment gratefully acknowledges the generous financial support from the following public and private sources from 2007 to the present:
    U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency
    U.S. Department of Defense
    U.S. Department of Energy
    U.S. Department of State
    General Motors

  7. Good One The Image of Carrot tied at the end of a very long stick how about selling ICBM's huh or B-2

  8. US economy must be facing some severe problems against the Chinese economical onslaught.

  9. "The US-built F-35, in contrast, is nearing completion: it is likely to be in operational service by 2014."

    Where did you get this date from? The current plan is for development testing to be finished in March 2015 and a decision on full-rate production isn't scheduled until April 2016. That's assuming there are no further delays which is a definite possibility.

    It's likely if India does decide to buy F-35's they won't enter service in the IAF until 2017-2018. About the same time the J-20 is expected to enter service.

  10. "With two US fighters--- Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet --- apparently trailing in the six-way, US $10 billion race to sell India 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA)..."
    Trailing? Is this just another figment of BROADSWORD's imagination or did someone from the Cabinet Committee on national Security SMS BROADSWORD with this scoop?

  11. It is indeed very difficult to understand the GOI's rationale to buy defense equipment from the US as we are fully aware of Uncle Sam's penchant for invoking sanctions if the GOI does not toe its like or reasoning where US foreign policy is concerned.

    Ordering transport planes or other similar stuff from the US (though at very inflated prices compared to the same being gifted to Pakistan the globally aknowleged exporter of nuclear technology and terrorists) may be considered as expedient to appease the US but isn't defence and intergrity of the nation paramount?

    There is so much hype about getting political gains if the MMRCA tender goes to US, what exactly are we getting? Has anything except the subjective offer of making India a super power been spelled out? Is the US offering a US nuclear umbrella if China/Pakistan unleashes a nuclear war? Has the US offered to help India with whatever it needs (without a hefty price of course)if China starts a border war? Has the US put it in writing that it would not oppose the use of American defence hardware against Pakistan even though it is the sleeping partner of the US? As it is whatever is bought from the US is more pricey compared to the same supplied to other countries.

    Whatever is purchased for the Armed Forces should be the best on technical evaluation by the AF and not because some American bureaucrat, arms lobbyist or baboo with vested interest claims to have political clout.

    Going by precedence the US cannot be trusted. Have they pulled in and chastised their pet terrorist, the ISI for all the terrorist attacks on India?

    The US is still arming Pakistan to the teeth knowing very well those arms will be used against India.

    Do the Americans care that China has become the major arms supplier to Pakistan? They couldn't care less. So what political gains are we being hammered with?

    If F35 is offered without any strings and conditions and if they are affordable, then only should India consider buying it.

    The offer of F35 looks more like the proverbial carrot to grab the MMRCA deal.

    Go for it at our own peril and be known the world over as the number one suckers.

  12. We embararked upon this MMRCA route... as we know our short comings that's going to come our way in this field... 29 in place of 39, LCA and all... about 5-7 years back... Well kudos for second guessing this...

  13. The topic of Indian looking for F-35 or any foreign weapon system has a detrimental effect on the jobs and mass migration of Indian students.
    I hope all are aware about, Indian students duped by US university, I have the queries, Why cannot we create an excellent ecosystem of educational institutions and industries, where any science, commerce or arts graduate is provided decent pay and living condition? Why should we not have excellent student in basic science/commerce/arts? why should we pursue BE/BTech/MBBS/MD/MS to achieve a Rs 18,000/23,000/etc pay.

    In India most support import of technology, which provide jobs to foreigners in their land, however we are forced to go abroad in search of similar jobs.

    The behavior of self-proclaimed intellectuals, Judiciary, babus, Armed forces, politicians has forced most Indian to migrate to US/EU/UK/AU by hook or crook as the migrant know we cannot work on the technology in India; all we hear is India provides cheep labor.

    I think, if there is survey on why Indians do not like to live in India, 99% would tell, they have no confidence in any of governing bodies; Judiciary, government office, or Industries as all create hurdles and not opportunities.

    The mass migration of student from India to US/UK/EU/AU displays the ineptness of governing bodies.

    A nation is made beautiful or progressive by its people and not the other way round.

  14. So US military-industrial-complex think tanks´ reports are news worthy? Or does Ajai just love to find any excuse to hype up American superiority and how India should get in bed with it?

    So according to the story, India should structure ALL it´s currently forseen programs under the assumption of sucking at the American teat forever and ever... And why not, these think tanks apparently can even invent program requirements (conveniently parallel to possible American offerings, once they get their problem-soaked F-35 program on track, eventually) which do not exist ANYWHERE in IAF forecasted programs. There is NO forecasted need for F-35 in IAF force structure, period. Tejas Mk.2, MMRCA, AMCA, MKI Mk.2, and PAK-FA with legacy frames continuing their productive service life. Where is room for F-35?
    PERHAPS Indian Navy might find a use for F-35, but IAF has absolutely no need. But hey, America is Great, so maybe we all just need to adjust our perception of reality so as to better play along with the Americans, right?

  15. First time i am commenting but all the US comments on the MMRCA deal look like they are doing us such a big favor and talking of pol. pressure..i think GoI should in turn put pressure and award the deal to those Govts who are willing to make max concessions to us on all fronts

  16. Thank you to Mr Tell-us to 'allow' us to hear his profound words of wisdom as of we did not know what to do.
    Col Shukla,
    He sounds more like salesman for Boeing rather than telling us any ground breaking truth. He continues to espouse the need for 'concessions' from India so that Americans can get out of Af-Pak.

  17. Ajai, there's an article: "Israel and the F-35: A look beyond costs and politics" by Gur Laish of the Institute for National Security Studies, that's worth looking at.

    Here's the link:

  18. with the orders in hand, even if we buy it now, it will enter the services in 2030? With the FAGFA, which will be newer than F-35, cheaper, our own, twin engine, more capacity, longer range and deliveries starting from 2020 makes sense.

  19. "Indian security interests could be undermined by a political compromise like splitting the deal between two countries."

    If such a thing happens that would be the breaking point and our tax payers will start a revolution against Congress Govt like in Egypt and replace this Inefficient, rotten & corrupt democratic system with a Military Dictator who can work on national interest, Ha ha ha...

  20. So where´s the update that Indian MoD has refused the American offer to buy F-35?

    Surprise, surprise, on grounds they will have FGFA and AMCA which will be cheaper than F-35 and have complete access to source codes, etc, which the Americans curiously stay quiet about.

  21. Mr. Tellis in his original report does raise some important issues and is totally correct in saying that for all the money in the world no aircraft manufacturer is going to give crown jewels away.

    Eurofighter Consortium has said 60% TOT. US position is no we dont share technology but we can negotiate, Grippen 100%

    US: E.g. current rules prohibit source codes of mission computers being shared. The UAE which funded the development of Block 60 F16's can access and update some threat libraries in the mission computer only)

    GOI needs to think very carefully about why it wants this deal. IF only force protection the decision is easier, if building industrial base then easy but, if both, difficult. The last choice may require us to go with a vendor who may potentially not bestow strategic benefits (say Grippen).

    I am not sure how factually correct is the oft belted statement that Grippen NG is a souped up Tejas. Swedish design, manufacturing is world class. IT will be eons if Tejas can even come close, let alone match the Grippen NG.

  22. Haha, another American PR event-the "whitepaper". The bit about Indian procurement/depleted fleet scenarios are interesting. Apparently the F-16 and the F-18 SH "only" cost $60 M apiece while the Gripen cost $82 M, the Rafale $85 M and the EF $125M. Not surprisingly, the paper "suggests" that India buy the least expensive plane and since the MiG-35 is totally crap (as per the paper), either of the F-16/18 is what India should buy. And the deal size should be increased to 200. To top it off-An indirect suggestion to kill the LCA and divert the money to MMRCA/increase the order to 200.

    Bill Sweetman's take on the "whitepaper" here

    And hey, the paper mentions a few Indian def journos. Obviously the ones who say we should say NO to Americans because of prior sanctions/tech transfer issues are labelled as critics, AND get this-Mr Shooklaw is referred to as a "thoughtful critic" because of his piece around "Scrap the MMRCA-Get the F-35"

    That you do not refute the findings of the "white paper" do not surprise me. American aviation majors are good paymasters.

  23. Economy first, defense through diplomacy. Purchase of expensive military equipment will only lead to precious resources being wasted. If the Chinese wanted to build stealth fighters, you should let them; they are more likely doing it to sell to someone else.

    Just ask yourself, how did the Chinese defend themselves when they were much more backward (in military terms) previously? Especially in an environment where there were two superpowers?

  24. America just want money from india so that it can use indian money for more research & development for it's 6th gen fighters...

  25. Prasun,

    Sometimes you make absolutely no sense. I remember at one time you saying that Pak had no bombs...all were transfered by china for the tests...ummm

    Have a read of this and tell me how many have china transfered:

  26. America is pulling indian money for their 6th gen fighters...

  27. Apart from reporting wrong fly-away costs for both Gripen and the Typhoon Mr. Tellis includes many other errors in this report in particular for the European fighters. I don't understand how he can be "respected" when he produces a report with so many errors in it. This report is useless! Visit a "respected" internet forum and learn more about the pros and cons than from this socalled "expert".


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