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Fighters for the IAF – A Dilemma

IAF will need to induct more than 300 combat aircraft by 2025 to restore and maintain its operational status. Further, another 100 aircraft would be required by 2032 to replace those retiring from service.

Issue: 07-2018By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath
By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)
Former Air Officer Commanding-in-Chief of Training Command, IAF


The Indian Ministry of Defence (MoD) is soon to embark on selection of foreign original equipment manufacturers (OEM) to whom a Request for Proposal (RFP) which is a formal tender document, is to be issued inviting quotations for the supply of single or twin-engine combat aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF). With the retirement from service of a large number of combat platforms acquired in the 1960s and the 1970s from the then Soviet Union, the combat fleet of the IAF has shrunk to around 31 Squadrons as against the authorised strength of 42. And if no further inductions are made, with the phasing out of the older fleets, both Russian and Western, the size of the combat fleet is expected to reduce further to around 26 Squadrons by 2025. The IAF will be left with just 60 per cent of the sanctioned strength. In terms of numbers, the deficiency would be around 320 aircraft. The 36 Rafale jets and the few light combat aircraft Tejas Mk I expected to join the fleet by then, would provide only partial relief. The situation ought to be a matter of grave concern not only for the IAF that is expected to be prepared to take on the enemies simultaneously on both the Northern and Western fronts, but for the nation as well.

In the beginning of the last decade, the IAF had initiated a case for induction of 126 fourth-generation fighter aircraft weighing around 15 tonnes. The platform dubbed Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) was required to replace the ageing fleet of the single engine MiG-21 FL and was intended primarily for air defence role. However, the weight limit of the platform was revised by Air Headquarters to 25 tonnes making it possible for the heavier twin-engine platforms to enter the race. The platform required by the IAF was then dubbed Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for which the RFP was finally sent in August 2007 to six leading global aerospace majors who responded with either their latest products or updated versions of existing ones, some even of 1970s vintage. After a thorough evaluation of the six aircraft in the race, the Rafale from Dassault Aviation of France was identified as the preferred platform with the Eurofighter Typhoon as the second option. Unfortunately, eight years after its issue of the RFP, the tender was finally cancelled owing to some insurmountable hurdles thus aggravating the level of distress for the IAF. Apart from the financial loss suffered by all agencies involved in the tender, its cancellation finally impinged on the operational status of the IAF. In turn, the security of the nation has been compromised as well. Also, the decision of the Indian government in the recent past to withdraw from the programme to develop jointly with Russia, a fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) also known as the Su-57, has come as another debilitating blow to the nation’s aspirations to add muscle to the combat fleet of the IAF as also to foray into the fifth-generation in the domain of combat aircraft.

“Airbus and the Eurofighter Typhoon industrial consortium will respond to the Indian Air Force’s RFI. We stand ready to provide the Government of India and Indian Air Force with an update on the continued success of the Typhoon programme, including the continued investment in the Typhoon capability, operational performance and growing user community.” —An Airbus Spokesperson

Strangely enough, in the most recent effort to rebuild the combat fleet of the IAF soonest possible, the initial proposal mooted by Manohar Parrikar, the then Minister of Defence, was for a single-engine fighter aircraft to be built in India in large numbers through collaboration with a foreign OEM not only for the IAF, but also to meet with global demand if any. This was indeed a quick-fix solution for the crisis situation the IAF was confronted with. However, this time, not the Air Headquarters, but the MoD revised the plan and expanded the scope in the Request for Information (RFI) floated in April this year for 110 aircraft to include twin-engine platforms as well. Ostensibly, this was done to obviate the possibility of a single vendor situation developing as there were only two likely contenders, Lockheed Martin and Saab. As a single vendor situation is not acceptable under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), it could well have led to the cancellation of the tender. The latest or the second tender is virtually a repeat of the MMRCA tender and is now being referred to as MMRCA 2.0. What is a matter of concern is the strong possibility that the nation might witness a repeat of the first MMRCA tender. The Secretary of Defence has however given assurance that MMRCA 2.0 will not go the way of the previous tender. The IAF certainly hopes so too.

The situation in the global aerospace scenario has not undergone much change since the first MMRCA tender in respect of availability of combat platforms. For MMRCA 2.0 tender, the six global aerospace majors who responded to the previous tender with their products, in all likelihood, will enter the fray again. These were Boeing with their offer of the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin Corporation of the United States (US) with the F-16IN Fighting Falcon, consortium of European aerospace manufacturers Eurofighter GmbH with the Eurofighter Typhoon, Dassault Aviation of France with the Rafale, Saab of Sweden with the JAS 39 Gripen E and Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG offering the Mig-35, an upgraded version of the MiG-29. Products on offer by most of the OEMs will largely be the same with some upgrades. Only Saab is expected to offer a new version of the Gripen.

Up to the end of the last decade, the MoD had been procuring combat aircraft for the IAF through direct Government-to-Government transaction largely from the then Soviet Union. However, after the end of the cold war era and the emergence of a uni-polar world, the government introduced the DPP ostensibly to provide the IAF the opportunity to explore markets in the West as well to provide a wider range of options to the IAF. Unfortunately, the DPP, the first edition of which was issued in 2003 and revised periodically thereafter, has turned out to be an infinitely complex exercise and unfortunately, is not structured to address the imperatives of national security. Experience in the past several decades has shown that the issue of procurement of combat platforms from the global market can be better addressed through direct transaction with the foreign government involved.

In the case of MMRCA 2.0, the MOD does not appear to have learnt any lessons from the MMRCA tender that failed and was cancelled more than three years ago. There was really no need to go in for a repeat of the complex MMRCA tender. What was required to be done was that a suitable platform from amongst those evaluated earlier could have been picked and ordered through a direct deal with the concerned government. However, since the process of tendering has already been initiated, it may not be possible or advisable to backtrack at this stage. Since this is going to be a repeat exercise, there may not be the need to carry out extensive evaluation once again of all the platforms that participated in the previous tender except for those entrant platforms that are new or have significant upgrades such as the F-16 Block 70. As the Rafale jet has already been identified earlier on as the preferred platform, it is likely that this aircraft would remain the first choice.

Perhaps the most critical factor that is likely to influence the outcome of this exercise will be the cost of the platform. Although the number indicated in the RFI was 110, the IAF will need to induct more than 300 combat aircraft by 2025 to restore and maintain its operational status. Further, another 100 aircraft would be required by 2032 to replace those retiring from service. With the cost of twin-engine combat aircraft substantially higher than those powered by one engine, given the number of aircraft the IAF requires to induct till 2032, the total financial outlay for the induction of a twin-engine platform in the numbers required, is likely to be prohibitive and may not be affordable. The decision to include twin-engine platform in the RFI, in hindsight, appears somewhat flawed. By opting for MMRCA 2.0, the government has taken upon itself a burden that it cannot bear. Despite the assurances to the contrary, if the MMRCA 2.0 tender too does not succeed, the IAF will be faced with a serious dilemma with no easy or ready solution in sight.