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Buy and Make MRFA — A Win-Win Situation

IAF intends to undertake the procurement process under the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ scheme of DAP 2022. This scheme allows Indian companies to partner with global vendors.

Issue: 06-2022By Air Vice Marshal Sanjay Bhatnagar (Retd)Photo(s): By SP Guide Pubns, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab AB, MIG, Sukhoi
Contenders for the Indian MRFA programme: (Top) Dassault Rafale; (Middle) Boeing F-15EX; (Above) Lockheed Martin F-21

The strength of the fighter fleet of the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been constantly depleting over the years. Prior to the recent induction of 36 Rafale fighter jets, procured from Dassault Aviation of France, the IAF had 31 squadrons as against the 42 authorised by the Government of India. Of the present fighter aircraft fleet, MiG-21, MiG-29 and Jaguar Squadrons of the IAF are also slated to be phased out in the coming years.

The process for replacement had begun early in the last decade. However, replacements have not materialised as required. Deliveries of 73 LCA Mk-1A fighters and 10 trainers, which has been contracted to the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), in February 2021, will commence in 2024. Case is also being progressed for induction of 6-7 Squadrons of the indigenous fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), it still continues to be on the drawing board stage, getting an appropriately powerful engine is still an issue that needs to be overcome. Notwithstanding the above, replacements for deficient Su-30 MKI and MiG-29 has been processed. However, all these will only partially offset the deficiency.

One of the most daunting task with the present Chief of the Air Staff (CAS) is how to rebuild its highly depleted fighter force. On assuming command of the Indian Air Force (IAF), on the occasion of the 89th Anniversary of the IAF, the CAS, Air Chief Marshal V.R. Chaudhari spoke exclusively to Jayant Baranwal, Editor-in-Chief, SP’s Aviation and mentioned, “Our vision for the coming years is to comprehensively build up our combat capability through reprioritised force structuring along with emphasis on self-reliance and indigenisation. In the next few years, we aim to induct combat platforms, radars, weapons and sensors by being ‘Atmanirbhar’.”

The IAF stance has always been consistent that LCA Mk-1A and AMCA by themselves are not sufficient to overcome the deficiency of fighter aircraft and reach a figure of 42 fighter squadrons. Hence, MRFA would be required, and most importantly, MRFA procurement would be based on ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ scheme.

Accordingly, in order to meet the deficiency, the IAF has plans to procure 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA). The Request for Information (RFI) for MRFA was issued in 2018 and the IAF is in the process of studying the response. Thereafter, the IAF would be approaching the Ministry of Defence with its procurement proposal. Even after induction of 114 MRFA, the IAF will be able to reach only about 35 Sqns over the next 5-10 years.

Mid May 2022, the media was abuzz with the news that, estimated $20 billion MRFA procurement programme for 114 foreign jets is being shrunk to the acquisition of 57 jets, through transfer of technology to an Indian partner under the ‘Strategic Partnership’ model of Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2022. This would be a complete dampener on nation’s and IAF force structuring plans leading to a big void in nation’s war waging capability. It is of alarming concern, given the precarious situation that prevails for past two years at the Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China in the Eastern Ladakh region.

Now in the June 2022, agencies have reported that IAF intends to undertake the procurement process under the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ scheme of DAP 2022. This scheme allows Indian companies to partner with global vendors.

As per the reports, first and foremost, each manufacturer will decide on an Indian production partner. Of these 114 fighter jets, 18 would be procured in fly away condition. It is interesting to note that the next 36 aircraft will be manufactured within the country, with payments being made in both foreign and Indian currencies. Thereafter, the Indian partner would be responsible for the final 60 aircraft, for which the payments would be made in Indian currency. This new methodology of procurement will bring the ‘Make in India’ content to 60 per cent.

Contenders for the Indian MRFA programme: (Top) Saab Gripen E; (Middle) MiG-35; (Above) Sukhoi Su-35

This methodology appears to be a master stroke, a win-win plan for all the stake holders- the production partner absorbs the technology transferred, which can also be used in production for other country (make for world); 60 per cent value of payment in Indian Currency meets the DAP 2020 stipulations; overall it is a big saving to exchequer; nation and the IAF gets the required 114 fighter aircraft to overcome its long pending deficiency; and in the long run, the nation’s aerospace industry benefits.

It is learnt that in the earlier 126 multi role combat aircraft (MRCA) deal, the HAL was being considered as a production partner. One of the reason that the deal could not go through was because of insistence by Dassault Aviation that responsibility of meeting the quality and production timelines would rest with the production partner. It is learnt that in the present proposal, this clause has been resolved and the responsibility of the last 60 made in India MRFA would rest with the production partner, whereas the 36 MRFA that are planned to be co-produced in India prior to this would be the responsibility of the manufacturer. This will ensure a seamless transfer of technology to the Indian production partner and a sincere hand holding.

According to the report, Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab, MiG, Irkut Corporation, and Dassault Aviation are among the global aircraft manufacturers in the race to participate in the selection process. This process would involve extensive trials and assessment of performance under Indian conditions, may take close to two years. Further the complete production and delivery process will take atleast four years. Thus the whole process is likely to take a minimum of six to seven years.

All the foreign aircraft manufacturers are known to be keeping ahead of the competition. They are all well aware of the Government of India focus on Atmanirbhar Bharat scheme. Aircraft manufacturers are known to be in detailed discussions with their respective production partners since quite some time. They would have already worked out various permutation and combinations.

IAF is looking for a cost-effective solution in the long run. It also has to make its choice known whether it wants to go ahead with twin engine fighter or maybe single engine MRFA.

While most of the media is talking of the race for the MRFA aircraft per se, it is of utmost importance that fighter aircraft be considered as a ‘lean mean fighting machine’. The selection criteria for the MRFA cannot solely be on the aircraft performance, infact, it would to a great extent hinge on the potency of weapons package being offered with each aircraft. Further, in view of fast paced progress being made in progressing the indigenous weapons development programme, under the aegis of DRDO, both, for air-to-air and air-to-ground weapons, it would be of utmost importance to consider the ease of integration of indigenous weapons with these aircraft while selecting the best aircraft for MRFA.

One thing is for certain that the road to selection of MRFA is not going to be smooth, but it would be worth the wait.