By Gulshan Luthra*
The dogfight over the choice of fighter jets – known as the Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) – that are to provide security for the Indian skies is beginning again, this time for a much larger number than the 2007 figure of 189 asked by the Indian Air Force (IAF), an estimated 400 for for the Indian Air Force (IAF) and 60 for and Navy.
While IAF has already issued a global request for single engine combat jets under the government’s Make in India programme, the Indian Navy is looking for about 60 twin-engine shipboard fighters for delivery to begin within five years. The navy’s first Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC 1) is due for delivery within the next couple of years, and the preferred choice this time is either the Boeing F/A 18 Super Hornet or French Rafale, which IAF has already decided to buy.
The two single engine aircraft being considered by IAF are US Lockheed Martin F 16 Fighting Falcon and Swedish Saab Gripen,
Boeing, which developed the F 18 as a shipboard fighter, has also offered to make it in India while sources in Dassault, which makes Rafale, told India Strategic recently that they are aware of the Indian requirements and should be submitting a proposal soon. Rafale was also developed as a shipboard fighter.
IAF is buying 36 Rafale Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) under a government-to-government basis and the first contractual payment of 15 percent was made in November to seal the deal. The first batch of six or so aircraft is to be delivered to IAF in 2019 as per the contract although India has requested the timelines to be advanced.
Notably, shipboard jets are strong as they virtually have to crash-land on carrier decks on full power and it is easier to adapt them for lighter air force requirements. Conversely, it is difficult.
Navy Chief Admiral Sunil Lanba had recently stated that the navy had jettisoned the indigenous naval variant of Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) because of low power. He did not specify the number or choice for the naval requirement but did say that only a couple of them are available in the market and that he wants them as fast as possible, say in about five years. He expressed confidence for speedy government approval.
As for IAF, it 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 licence-production of 272 Russian Su 30MKIs, the depletion process of IAF squadrons is continuing.
Notably, in 2007, the requirement for IAF was put at 126 plus 63 options (189) but their acquisition process under the MMRCA competition was scrapped in 2015 over price differences with the French Dassault whose Rafale was selected in 2012 against Eurofighter in the finals.
The government then opted for a small number of 36 aircraft, or two squadrons, in 2015 for nearly Euro 8 billion inclusive of about Euro two billion for India-specific modifications and missiles as part of the package.
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 both numbers and timelines. IAF needs to modernise 20 squadrons, or roughly 400 aircraft, as the need of the hour. An IAF fighter squadron, or Unit Establishment, has 18 aircraft for combat missions, and another two for training. At least three more are kept for Maintenance Reserve and Strike off Wastage (MRSOW).
Notably, the acquisition process in India takes five to seven years, and that has to be factored in while planning for new jets. 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 21, Mig 27 and Jaguars. Its 25 to 30 year old Mig 29 and Mirage 2000 are however under upgrade, the latter by HAL in collaboration with the French Dassault, Safran and Thales which together make the Rafale.
Both the IAF and Navy are looking for 4.5gen capabilities, that is what was stipulated for MMRCA, and plus in newer technologies, to keep up with the developments after 2007.
Chief of the Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had told India Strategic that Boeing, Saab and Lockheed Martin had had made “unsolicited” offers under Make in India programme. Dassault and even Eurofighter could do the same and it would be up to the Government to consider them.
All the five manufacturers took part in the aborted MMRCA competition along with Russian Mig 35.
The navy apparently needs twin engine aircraft, and if they are to be made in India, then some commonality with IAF is required.
IAF needs a combination of both.
On the other hand, single engine jets are much cheaper to buy and operate, and if the aircraft are needed in large numbers, then the overall price will matter a lot. India’s Ministry of Defence has a tough choice, but one hopes for early decisions.
*Gulshan Luthra is the Editor of India Strategic defence magazine and website, www.indiastrategic.in. He can be contacted at [email protected]