Buying India's new light fighter. Not another MMRCA fiasco, please - Broadsword by Ajai Shukla - Strategy. Economics. Defence.

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Monday 10 October 2016

Buying India's new light fighter. Not another MMRCA fiasco, please

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Oct 16

After the sorry compromise that was the Rafale fighter acquisition, the Indian Air Force (IAF) last week went back to the start line, initiating the purchase of a light fighter to replace the MiG-21s, MiG-23s and MiG-27s that once formed the bulk of its fleet, and still constitute one-third of it. Since Indian defence planners (assuming the breed actually exists) seldom learn from others’ mistakes, they must at least learn from their failed project to acquire 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Ironically, that too had started out 15 years ago as a programme to buy lots of light-to-medium fighters to replace the MiGs. The effort --- which would-be vendors obsequiously lauded as “the world’s most professionally run fighter acquisition programme” --- crashed in flames last year, with the decision to buy 36 Rafales. Inexplicably, the IAF has ended up with a small number of exorbitantly expensive fighters that would be criminally wasted on the combat roles the MiG fleet has played.

Even so, fleet shortages in the IAF are so dire --- 33-34 operational fighter squadrons, against the 45 needed to handle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan --- that we must welcome the Rafale buy, even though it has cost Euro 7.87 billion. True, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Nashik delivers 12-13 Sukhoi-30MKIs each year; and its Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) production line in Bengaluru is slowly ramping up production. Yet, with the remaining 11 MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons retiring soon, the shortfall will remain. And since the Rafales will only start being delivered after three years, there is no room for delay or misjudgement.

It would be remembered that the air force began the MMRCA process on the right note, before the defence ministry put it into a downward dive from which it never recovered. In 2000-01, the IAF --- pleased with the Mirage 2000 after its accurate bombing of Pakistani mountain-top positions during the 1999 Kargil conflict --- proposed buying the Mirage 2000 production line from Dassault, which was closing it down to build the new Rafale. The plan was to transfer the line to HAL, which would build the well-regarded Mirage 2000-9, an export version of the French Air Force’s Mirage 2000-5 Mark 2. That was clearly the sensible thing to do. The IAF was familiar with the Mirage 2000; and had the training, maintenance and repair infrastructure, and had already developed Indian vendors for several sub-systems. Had the Mirage 2000 been chosen, the IAF would have had a highly capable, light, cheap fighter without complicating fleet logistics.

But that was not to be. Defence Minister George Fernandes, rattled by the Tehelka sting, decided (backed by the National Democratic Alliance cabinet) that single-vendor procurement from Dassault might invite further charges of corruption. So Fernandes played it safe by sending out a global tender to multiple vendors. The IAF, its pragmatism replaced by the starry-eyed prospect of flying the world’s best (and most expensive!) fighters, framed expansive requirements that brought six fighters into contention. The rest is depressing history.

The lessons from the MMRCA are clear. First, forswear bureaucratic and political caution in the national interest and quietly identify the best choice for India based on a matrix of performance, life-cycle cost, technology transfer and the strategic relationship with the vendor country --- rather than trying to identify, like in the past, the cheapest fighter that meets the IAF’s performance requirements. Politically motivated charges of corruption are inevitable, regardless of the integrity of the process; but larger political rewards lie in pushing through, in full public view, a badly needed acquisition that fills a gaping capability void. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has the confidence of a personally honest man, has already signalled that he can think boldly. Speaking on Doordarshan on April 13, 2015, soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Paris that India would buy 36 Rafales, Mr Parrikar stated: “It is wrong to do an MMRCA type deal using an RfP (competitive tender) model. You cannot compare different types of aircraft like the F/A-18, Eurofighter and Rafale. All three have different strengths and capabilities. All three are probably good enough planes… These important decisions need to be taken at government-to-government levels.”

Sadly, Mr Parrikar has disregarded his own advice while launching the light fighter acquisition. Like with the MMRCA, the letter of inquiry has been sent to numerous aerospace manufacturers, even those who do not have a single-engine, medium fighter to offer. When asked why, officials explained off-the-record that it was so that no vendor could later complain it was left out. This play-it-safe attitude is hardly suggestive of a purposive, focused, unapologetic procurement process to come.

In fact, only two firms need be approached: American behemoth, Lockheed Martin, and Swedish defence firm, Saab; both of whom have quality single-engine fighters to “Make in India”. The former has already pitched with the defence ministry to build a new Block 70 variant of its F-16 Super Viper. Saab, too, has offered to build the new Gripen E, which is scheduled to make its first flight this year. 

While not much separates the two offers, Lockheed Martin clearly scores on one count, while Saab wins on other counts. Building the F-16 in India would strengthen the burgeoning US-India defence partnership, which is already creating skilled jobs in India. Choosing the Gripen, on the other hand, would bring in Swedish technologies in areas like the “airborne electronically scanned array” radar, which US export control regulations safeguard jealously. The Swedish dependency on any Indian partnership would allow New Delhi far greater leverage in bargaining for high technology than India could ever wield in Washington. Further, the Gripen E can be modified into an aircraft carrier borne fighter --- an option the F-16 does not have.

The final determinant must be: which relationship would impart greater impetus to indigenous fighter programmes like the Tejas and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft; and co-development programmes like the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft. In making his choice, Mr Parrikar should bear in mind that a quick, decisive verdict would save three years of ministry file-pushing and fill in operational gaps that are unacceptable, given the tensions in South Asia.


  1. You forget the intrusive inspections the americans would be conducting on F 16s to ensure their ally pakistan doesnt lose out.....besides the GRIPEN E is a futuristic fighter with lot of possibilities of upgrades and TOT which americans would surely deny us

  2. Am I also a defence analyst? ;) kidding. How is it possible that I also had exactly the same preferences for MMRCA: Gripen and F16. Both showed interest to set up the production line to India (primary reason). Gripen, although not a true multirole, it is the first choice for cheaper and indirect control from the US. Easy to deal with Sweden than the US directly. Second, it will easily compliment LCA. F16, on the other hand, is a true deep striker compared to Gripen but will need strong contractual terms and condition if the US wishes to see it to India.

    We can also try and work with both the players as the number of squadrons can be shared between LCA, Gripen, and F16.

  3. The sanctioned strength of IAF squadrons is 42 not 45.Even the Air Chief has said so.However I think to tackle a" two front " threat no less than 60 fighter squadrons are required.

  4. Not to mention the fact that there has been and will be fore the foreseeable future intense lobbying for LM on this blog.

  5. A direct deal for gripen e will save lot of time.

  6. Needles say if it was the F-35 regardless of the exorbitant cost you would harp on its benefits. The cost of Rafale with all its support and supplies in addition to its TTSL is really cheaper than a Russian aircraft. Rafale purchase is NOT over. Single engine plane offer is extende4d to Tejas Mk II otherwise the Tejas will be gone for good. Why would Gripen help build its competitor? Even if they do- what would be achieved having two similar aircrafts? Where would the Tejas fit in if a single engine plane is purchased from overseas? NO country will ever share 100% of its intellectual engineered property. How would the Swedish give this to India when even the US never gives such to Australia, Japan or any other ally?

  7. All 4Gen fighters are very vulnerable to modern SAMs. Either you conduct Suppression of Enemy Air Defence from stand off ranges far away ( such as air launched Brahmins or SCALP) or you use them for air defence over your airspace. F35s were undetectable to US SAMs in exercises

  8. There he goes again---- our self acclaimed defence analyst---
    Please read the interview of our current air chief(given a few days back), who has amply clarified the reason for mmrca tender failure- Primary reason has been because the selection had become process driven rather than goal driven.
    So guess what that means--- Our previous govt who shied away from every type of accountability and decision making drove the tender round and round in circles until it became irrelevant. Yet you criticize the current govt of the the ills of the previous one.
    Besides mmrca was not a complete failure- it did help iaf narrow down to Rafale and typhoon as the only aircrafts who would match IAF's medium reqt, and not Rafale have been ordered.

    I guess since your bosses in Lockheed martin/boeing were not pleased hence the irate diatribe from your end.

    The current requirement is for a light fighter, since using rafale for certain roles would be an overkill.

    TEJAS production is not under threat with orders already underway, Grippen is would be an ideal partner aircraft to the tejas.

    With Age of UAV's / micro UAV's on rise light fighters would be more in demand.

    Please sir, as mentioned earlier u have the power of pen, try not to unnecessarily skew your articles basis your political convictions.

  9. All of you including the owner of this blog is missing the big picture and running wild with your stories. The new outreach on the part of the Indian missions abraod to foreign OEMS is to seek out potential suitors for collaborating on developing the Tejas Mk-2 and the AMCA as alogical next step. If these projects fail to pan out as desired, acquiring more Rafales to fill the gap will be always an option. the IAF is not looking to add another variant of single engined fighter jets to its growing inventory of disparate platforms - rest assured !

  10. sir , dont you think depending too much on US defence industry can be harmful for india ?? all of india's decisions politically will have to be made according to the US needs. otherwise US will put india under sanctions and we'll be doomed. i dont think US is a reliable ally of india.

  11. sir , dont you think depending too much on US defence industry can be harmful for india ?? all of india's decisions politically will have to be made according to the US needs. otherwise US will put india under sanctions and we'll be doomed. i dont think US is a reliable ally of india.

  12. Another issue is that the Russians simply do not have a single-engine light fighter. This leaves the choice down to the following F-16(F-35?), Gripen, Tejas Mark-1 and that's it. I cannot recall any other multi-role single engine fighter. The F-16 is a 40-year old design...just saying...

    One must question as though why dual engine fighter's cannot do the job a single engine fighter can? Mig-35 anyone? Su-35? Both of these will lead to the logistics problem going away....

    1. Yeah i think mig 35 can do the job as it is not very costly and maybe it can be tailored to a lighter version if india is having big demands

  13. NSR says ---

    The only way that India to get very urgently and badly needed reliable engine technology is to select an American fighter - F/A-18E/F or F-16V for the urgently needed replacement of Mig series...

    If India wishes, then it should collaborate and co-design and co-produce Tejas I and II with the technologies from Gripen E...

    Or if needed, they can select Gripen E in place of Tejas II and then leapfrog to AMCA fighter by itself...

    India already messed up its fighter numbers royally so select one quickly so it will get engine technology and so fighters can be maintained at high rate of availability...

    Once India has engine technology, then it can co-design and co-develop future variants to fit its needs...

    So get on with the task when US Defense Secretary is willing to give written guarantees...

  14. If it has to be a single engine aircraft, then the choice is left between F-16 and Gripen (from the MMRCA competitors). Those saying that Gripen will give lot of independence to India from inspections do not know that Gripen's engine is F414 - GE engine and possibly a lot of technologies are American. So from a sanctions or inspections perspective, Gripen and F-16 are not so different.

    About the AESA radar, Gripen uses Selex radar which is banned in India as it is owned by Finmeccanica.

    The Swiss evaluated Gripen and said that it is okay for CAP kind of missions but neither air-dominance nor intercept.

    F-16 on the other hand is a proven aircraft, built in numbers. In the event of war, there is always an option to buy second hand from countries such as Israel and US(if our defense cooperation goes to that level). In addition, knowledge sharing by Israel and US can help build up tactics very quickly.

    In terms of munitions, F-16 can fire more munitions. If F-16 can be configured to fire Israeli and French weapons along with Astra, it will be a potent warrior in IAF colors.

    Pakistanis having F-16 is same as Chinese having Su-30.

  15. Great article! I agree with you completely but I'm going on a tangent here.......

    as a country we're still stuck with a mind set that we can't do it. If as a country we decide that we want to make a single engine/ twin engine fighter with all its critical technologies.... Why can't we get the best brains from IITs, scientists....metallurgists... Designers, pay them like crazy
    Give them the best incentives. Make indegenous defence production a national goal!
    We can make it faster than any procurement process. And save billions in the long run!

    Rafale will take 15+3 yrs.

    I'm confident that, we can build it faster.
    Hack information, if required. Its possible!
    Not just fighters but howitzers, tanks, GT engines, aeroengines!

    If China had the same thought process as us.. Then they wouldn't have made the J 15, J 20 and new aircraft carriers!

    But, we're in this state becauseof only one reason... how will our politicians/ decision makers and corporations make money?

    We Indians don't have the faith in ourselves.
    We ought to....its already too late.

    HAL se naa ho payega!! Sarkari mentality has been our biggest enemy.
    Reliance, mahindra, tatas, L&T maybe better choices!

    But that mind set has to come....

    Fire fighting all the time and lagging behind everything has to stop.

    Just believe!

  16. Anything less than F-35 is a waste of money and capability. Even thinking about 4th gen fighters at this time is a sin!


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