The Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition for the Indian skies is beginning again, this time for a much larger number than the 2007 figure of 189 MMRCAs asked by the Indian Air Force (IAF).
This time, there is also an additional requirement of some 60 twin-engine shipboard fighters by the Indian Navy, which wants them delivered in about five years as of now.
IAF has been losing two squadrons of Soviet-vintage MiG series aircraft every year, and although the numbers are being made up to an extent by the HAL-produced Su-30 MKIs, the depletion process is continuing and an urgent decision is needed to acquire around 400 aircraft, mostly through indigenous manufacture but as fast as possible.
Notably, in 2007, the minimum requirement was put at 126 plus 63 options (189) but their acquisition process under the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition was scrapped in 2015 over price differences with the French Dassault whose Rafale was selected in 2012.
The Government then opted for a small number of 36 aircraft, or two squadrons, last year under a direct Government-to-Government deal with France for nearly Euro 8 billion inclusive of about Euro 2.5 billion for India-specific modifications and weapons as part of the package. The first batch of Rafale twin-engine fighters should arrive in India in 2019. It is nearly 10 years since the MMRCA tender was floated, and understandably, many more of the older 1970s generation of Soviet origin aircraft have meanwhile faded away. Keeping in mind mind that the acquisition process takes some five to seven years, the depletion in numbers has to factor IAF’s likely squadron strength till 2022 at least, by when new combat jets should hopefully arrive in some level of comforting strength.
400 NEW AIRCRAFT FOR IAF IS NEED OF THE HOUR
Air Marshal VK Jimmy Bhatia (Retd), former Commander-in-Chief of the Western Air Command (WAC) and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd), former Director General Inspection, say the Government should work towards numbers and timelines. Twenty IAF squadrons will need about 400 aircraft, and that is literally the need of the hour.
An IAF fighter squadron, or Unit Establishment, generally has 18 aircraft for combat missions, and at least three more are require for Maintenance Reserve and Strike off Wastage (MRSOW). It has to be kept in mind that except for the Su-30 MKIs, IAF has not acquired any combat aircraft after the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29 in the 1980s. IAF should have though nearly 300 Su-30 MKI air dominance fighters.
An IAF proposal to upgrade some 100 1970s-generation Jaguars with more powerful Honeywell engines and better avionics to extend their lives by 10 to 15 years is also pending for rather long in the Ministry of Defence.
IAF’s operational strength of combat jets is around 700 aircraft, including the older MiG-27, MiG-29 and Jaguar aircraft. About 50 Mirage 2000 fighters are also 25 to 30 year old but now under upgrade at HAL in Bangalore with technical assistance from the French Dassault, Safran and Thales. That helps to an extent.
Both the IAF and Navy are looking for 4.5generation capabilities, that is what was stipulated for MRCA, and plus in newer technologies, to keep up with the developments after 2007. The overall requirement is huge, and that is why, the Government is rightly looking for Make in India collaborations and Transfer of Technologies (ToT).
The Ministry of Defence has already sought single engine capabilities from the US Lockheed Martin and Swedish Saab, and both have offered to manufacture their respective aircraft, the updated F-16 Block 70 and Gripen NG, in India in collaboration with private or public sectors.
Boeing has already offered to build the advanced version of its twin-engine F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet in India for the IAF.
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had told India Strategic that all these three companies had made unsolicited offers under make in India programme. The French Dassault and even European consortium’s Eurofighter could make similar offers and the Government could possibly consider them. All the five manufacturers took part in the aborted MMRCA competition, although Dassault’s Rafale was selected in the final run against Eurofighter.
Air Chief Marshal Raha also said that IAF was retaining the technology options as in the MRCA programme, and any new acquisitions had to be MRCA-plus in terms of engine power, EW systems and multi-role capabilities
Authoritative French sources told this writer recently in Paris that Dassault, with French Government support, was going to send a proposal to India for Rafale’s production under Make in India. No details were given but a source said “we are aware” of both the IAF and Navy requirements, pointing out that Rafale was designed from the beginning as a naval fighter and accordingly should be acceptable to both the forces. It may be noted that it is difficult to transition from an air force version to a heavier, and strengthened, naval version for a fighter, but easier in technology in the reverse.
The same is also true for the Boeing F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet, which is also a contender for both the IAF and Navy requirements.
In a recent interaction, Chief of Naval Staff, Admiral Sunil Lanba, told India Strategic that the Navy was looking for shipboard fighters within a span of five to six years. He did not give the numbers but mentioned that at present only the Boeing F/A-18 and Rafale were available for this role. He expected a decision by the Government in this regard very soon.
The Indian Navy is expecting its 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier IAC-1 in the next couple of years. It would be capable of operating both the MiG-29Ks, of which the Navy has 45 aircraft, as well as western flying machines from its 14-degree ski jump.
The Navy apparently needs twin engine aircraft, and if they are to be made in India, then some commonality with IAF is required. On the other hand, single engine jets should be cheaper by 25 per cent and if the aircraft are needed in large numbers, then the overall price would matter a lot.
The Ministry of Defence has a tough choice, but one hopes for early decisions. Hopefully within December.
By Gulshan Rai Luthra