Indian Air Force Fighters - Will a Mix and Match Approach Work?

Indian Air force (IAF) flies fighters which are four and a half decades old said Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa said. “We are still flying MiG-21 which is 44 years old but nobody driving cars of that vintage,” Air Chief Dhanoa said at the seminar on “Modernisation and Indigenisation and plans of the Indian Air Force”, in New Delhi reported the Hindustan Times “Hopefully, I will fly the last sortie [of one of the batches] in September, subject to visibility,” he said. A MiG-27 fighter squadron will also be phased out.

IAF fielded 42 fighter jet squadrons in 1985 authorised for a single-front against Pakistan. For a Two Front scenario it is believed that there is a requirement of 45 squadrons. But this number is constantly declining. The number of aircraft began dwindling after 2001-02 because induction was not commensurate with the rate at which ageing aircraft were retiring. As of 2019, India has 30 squadrons of fighter jets in comparison to Pakistan which has 25 squadrons.

India's indigenous Light Combat Aircraft was in the offing in 1985. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the IAF are continuing to negotiate the price of 83 Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas aircraft order. “MoD and IAF (customers) are firm that this price is not competitive and are negotiating for a price that is less than Rs 300 crore per aircraft.

Negotiations are nearly complete and final price is likely to be in the range of Rs 250 crore and Rs 275 crore,” a source was quoted by the Times of India. However the record of safety of the LCA is good “It goes to the credit of ADA [Aeronautical Development Agency] and NFTC [National Flight Test Centre] that we have not lost a single LCA in flight testing since its maiden flight on 04 January 2001,” the Air Chief said at a seminar recently as per the Hindustan Times.

The government has been looking forward to bridge IAF shortages through the Tejas MK 1A, the Tejas MK 2 and the Tejas AMCA with the MiGs set to retire in the next four years. At the same time the induction of Rafale over the next two years with the possibility of two squadrons of MiG 29 after being de-mothballed and additional orders of two squadrons of Su 30 MKI should partially make up the numbers as a short-term measure.

The Rafale fighter delivery is to commence in September this year and after six months of flying training and optimisation will reach Indian in end April 2020. The 36 fighters will be delivered by 2023. The aircraft number RB008 will be delivered 67 months after signing the Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) in April 2022 as per the Hindu.

In the mean-time the IAF is looking at an additional two squadrons of the Rafale for a follow-on order of 36 aircraft and also procure 114 fighter jets with competitive bidding by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Eurofighter, Russian United Aircraft Corporation and Saab. In the long-term India will also have to consider a fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) possibly review the agreement with the Russians who have now successfully fielded the Su 57 unless the AMCA programme fructifies. For the medium category the IAF should hope for early finalization of contract for the 114 fighter programme and setting up of a manufacturing facility in India.

Finally on the networked battlefield of the future – will a mix and match approach work and how synergy can be achieved remains to be seen?

A year since issue of RFI and responses, with additional entrants as Boeing F 15 EX vying to enter the fray, delays can be anticipated in the IAF 114 MMRCA competition MMRCA 2.0.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) issued an RFI (request for information) or initial tender to acquire 114 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the second time in April 2019. Having received the responses process of evaluation and finalisation of SQR (Services Qualitative Requirements) is ongoing, which will lead to preparation of the Request for Proposal (RFP) or the formal tender.

The responses to the RFI include US companies Lockheed Martin's F-21 and Boeing F/A-18, European contenders Dassault Aviation's Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Saab's Gripen and finally the , Russian MiG 35.

Interestingly Jane's reported that global aerospace giant, Boeing is considering an offer of F-15EX Advanced Eagle combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF) for the MMRCA 2.00 competition.

Boeing has applied to the US government to participate in the competition as per the US government's International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITAR). "While awaiting further definition on the Indian Air Force's requirements, we have requested a licence for the F-15EX so that we're ready to share the full spectrum of potential solutions across our fighter portfolio when appropriate," a Boeing Spokesperson was quoted by the Jane's.

Importantly Boeing F 15 EX will be fielded for the competition in addition to the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet by the same company.

How the F 15 can enter the competition having missed the RFI in the first place is not clear unless the Indian Ministry of Defence will make an exception.

This is not impossible, in a recent case the South Korean company Daewoo Ship Building and Marine Engineering was extended an invitation to enter submarine competition for the P 75 (I) of the Indian Navy. This came about after a visit to that country by Indian Defence Minister Shri Rajnath Singh.

The competitors for MMRCA 2.0 are making a strong pitch, with the United States in the lead.

Lockheed Martin is fielding what it claims a unique fighter build specifically for Indian conditions the F-21 hoping to develop a long term relationship with the Indian Air Force (IAF).

"Once you get a platform like the F21, that is just start of a very long-term relationship for future configurations that India desires, future platforms that India wants to develop," Vivek Lall, vice president of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin at the DefExpo 2020 related events in February 2020.

Lockheed Martin will set up a manufacturing facility in India for the F 21 which will not be supplied to any other country meaning Pakistan, as India is wary of the jet replicating the F 16, one of which was shot down by the IAF MiG 21 in an aerial skirmish on 27 February 2019.

Lockheed Martin is also willing to assist in further development of the Tejas LCA and the Indian Air Force AMCA – a supposedly near fifth-generation fighter.

Meanwhile, Economic Times reported that French aircraft manufacturer Dassault and state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) are possibly looking at co-producing Rafale fighter jets in India.

This may lead to a conclusion that Dassault will have an incremental addition to the existing 36 Rafale jets on order from India and may virtually knock out others in the race.

A recent statement by newly appointed Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat that defence acquisitions could be staggered has led to speculation that another tranche of 36 Rafale jets could be on order. This may come with a clause for co-production with a work-share agreement rather than a defence offsets mode with the HAL.

"I think we should go for staggered approach of placing orders for big-ticket purchases. If we are buying 100 aircraft, then it should be in four packages of 25 aircraft each," he said. "That is why we ordered only 36 Rafale aircraft," Gen Rawat said without clarifying whether the government will go for procuring more Rafale jets from France.

The present acquisition of 36 more fighter jets envisages 50% of the €7.8 billion contract price to be invested in Indian aerospace and defence sectors as part of the offsets clause. Reliance Defence is setting up a factory at Nagpur to produce the Falcon executive jets.

The competitive acquisition process in India goes through eleven steps virtually in serial order, with seven fighters in the competition this may drag on for years resulting in a delay in making up the numbers for the IAF.

In such a scenario the government may well opt for extended orders for the Rafale in packets as General Rawat has hinted.

How the situation develops remains to be seen, suffice to say the acquisition of MMRCA 2.0 may not see early induction of fighters in the IAF to make up the deficiencies in real-time.

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