February 18, 2011

IAF set to soar again

                                                                        Photo : F-18 E
(The Pioneer ) India should buy the best planes. But Prime Minister Manmohan Singh may force US aircraft upon the Air Force.
Intense dogfights were witnessed last week at Aero India 2011 in Bangalore between eight countries representing six fighter aircraft for clinching India’s biggest defence contract: The 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft worth $10 billion. The aircraft are Boeings F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martins’ F-16 IN Super Viper, MiG Corporation’s MiG-35, Saab’s Gripen NG, Dassault’s Raphael and a four-nation European consortium’s Eurofighter, Typhoon.

For the United States, which in the last five years has sold more defence equipment to India than it has in the last 50, bagging the deal has become both a prestige issue as well as a return for its critical investment in the India-US strategic partnership epitomised by the 123 civil nuclear agreement.

Lobbying for the contract is picking up as the sealed envelope containing the short list will be opened in the Ministry of Defence in April or May this year and the contract signed either in September 2011 or March 2012. The commercial bids by the six contestants are also sealed and kept with the Ministry of Defence.

From US President Barack Obama to Carnegie Endowment’s Ashley Tellis, all are canvassing for the US fighter aircraft and hinting it is payback time for India: 126 after 123. In April, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton will be in New Delhi for the India-US strategic dialogue just when the envelope will be unsealed.

Last week US Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for South and Central Asia Geoffrey Pyatt, at a policy forum in Singapore, spoke about Washington’s preparedness to share with India now, the most advanced technology in the defence and economic domain. He said the US was talking to New Delhi a lot about the two strong American competitors for the 126 MMRCA deal.

Such a deal if it happened, he added, would revolutionise our military relationship. Also last week, Mr Andrew Shapiro, US Assistant Secretary of State, Political and Military Bureau at the State Department, was in New Delhi, pitching for military sales among other items of defence cooperation.

Indian defence analysts have told their American counterparts that despite certain glitches the Indo-Russian strategic partnership has endured. While Russia has leased a nuclear submarine to India for a second time, unpleasant memories of the US cutting critical supplies still linger. The political content of the India-US strategic partnership has to touch greater heights of mutual trust.

In 2005, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh noted that politics plays a big part in defence deals. Indians are only too familiar with the political inducements of the Swedish Government on late Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi in 1987 over the Bofors contract and the Russian cajolery of Prime Minister PV Narasimha Rao in 1991 over the Sukhoi deal consummated without any evaluation.

Another dicey contract was the one on Mirage 2000 brokered in 1982 jointly by Mr Sanjay Gandhi and Defence Secretary KPA Menon, once again without any technical evaluation as the aircraft did not exist. They tried to scuttle the perfectly legitimate Jaguar contract of 1978 negotiated by the Morarji Desai-led Janata Party Government but the British authorities blocked the attempt. While mega cost defence acquisitions were driven by political considerations (and kickbacks) quality of equipment was not compromised.

Industrialist Ratan Tata flew the F-18 and actor Shahid Kapoor piloted the F-16. The single-engine F-16 was also flown by the Indian Air Force’s most versatile and highly decorated fighter pilot Retd Air Marshal Jimmy Bhatia at Bangalore. None of their efforts will enhance the rating of these fighters in the IAF’s technical, flight and staff evaluation chart. The F-16 is a non-flyer because the Pakistan Air Force has had it in its inventory for 30 years. The twin-engine F-18 seems to have also missed the mark. The Russian MiG 35, a souped up MiG 29 did not show up in Bangalore. The Gripen is a great aircraft but single-engine and a lightweight equivalent of an improved Tejas LCA.

That leaves the two high-priced European contenders, Rafael and Typhoon, neck-and-neck in the race. Rather late in the day, Lockheed Martin and US Under Secretary of State for Defence Ashton Carter have indicated willingness to include India in the F-35 Advanced Stealth Fighter Programme.

India and Russia are already engaged in jointly developing the fifth generation fighter aircraft. That practically closes the door for an American fighter joining the IAF inventory. Two years ago senior IAF officers were even recommending splitting the 126 MMRCA between US and Russia.

The sealed envelope with its performance rating of the six aircraft was handed over by the IAF to the Ministry of Defence in July 2010 but a parallel dogfight is on over the offset policy between those for and against it. The MMRCA procurement procedure has been complicated by an unviable offset policy and unrealistic FDI cap of 26 per cent.

The six companies competing for the MMRCA were asked to explain their offset strategy by end this month. Authoritative sources in the IAF are drawing a possible option: On the short list are the two twin-engine European fighters, Rafael and Typhoon, both excellent but very expensive aircraft at a flyaway cost upwards of $100 million apiece. This is distinct from the lifecycle cost which could increase by 25 per cent. A third contender, the American F-18, could sneak into the short list.

Next month, when the commercial bids are opened, L1 (lowest bidder) will be invited to negotiate the final cost with the Price Negotiating Committee.

Ashley Tellis’s report, titled ‘Dogfight — India’s MMRCA Decision’, highlights how the IAF has declined 29 fighter squadrons and only by 2017 will they be restored to the authorised 39.5 squadrons. He believes that cost, technology transfers and the facility to fit into the evolving IAF force structure will determine the choice. He says that while European aircraft are ‘technically superb’, US entrants with older designs are ‘best buys’. The US offer should be compensated, he adds, by generous technology transfer and assured access to fifth generation aircraft.

Union Minister for Defence AK Antony has repeatedly and emotionally, said that merit not politics will decide the winning aircraft. Yet only the US has the will and capacity to help raise India’s global power profile. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh’s political instinct may let the F-18 plus fly into the ultimate deal.

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