IAF: too high to vie?Apr 22,2018 SOURCE: Tribuneindia
Around 19 years ago, on June 24 during the Kargil war, the Indian Air Force launched an attack on Tiger Hill located north-west of Drass in Ladakh (J&K). Two Mirage-2000 fighter jets dropped ‘laser guided bombs’ to mark the first operational use of these bombs. The attack ‘softened up’ the target for the Army’s infantry units which climbed the peak and captured it after a bloody battle.The war ended in last week of July that year.
The IAF, impressed by Mirage’s capabilities, recommended purchase of more Mirage-2000/V aircraft from France. These were to fit into the category of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). These have the ability to multi-role between air-to-ground attack and an air-to-air attack.
There was, however, no agreement. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) in 2004 decided to have an open global tender to acquire 126 fighter jets – which was then called the MMRCA tender. The request for information (RFI) – the first step in the tender process – was floated in 2007 and it was scrapped in 2015 after years of trials, discussions and cost negotiations. In April 2015, the government decided to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets off-the-shelf from French major Dassault.After 19 years and several technological leaps elsewhere, the IAF still awaits the MMRCA and, if everything goes smoothly, it will still take at least six years from now for the first plane to arrive.
A re-run & ground situation On April 6, the IAF floated an RFI inviting foreign manufacturers to come and ‘make in India’. To foreign companies this may have looked like a re-run of scrapped MMRCA tender. On April 12 Prime Minister Narendra Modi speaking at the ‘Def-Expo-2018’, assured foreign companies that India would “not spend a decade on (deciding) it.”The scrapped MMRCA tender had Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN, US Boeing’s F/A-18IN, Eurofighter Typhoon, French Dassault’s Rafale, Swedish Saab’s Gripen and Russian MiG-35.
All these are expected to be in the race again.Military equipment take years to get delivered, and this time too, it won’t be different. The RFI says deliveries are expected to commence within three years of signing the contract and completed within 12 years from contract signing. Contract signing, if everything goes smoothly, could take about three-four years. This will include the process of issuing a request for proposal, selecting a plane and then negotiating its price and the transfer of technology. The first jet may come by 2024-2025 and last one by 2036-2037.
Will this technology be needed 20, 30 or 40 years from now? Air Vice Marshall Manmohan Bahadur (retd) says: “We will still require the numbers as our adversaries will not have a full strength of the fifth generations planes.”Air Vice Marshall SJ Nanodkar (retd), a former fighter pilot, says: “We will surely need this technology as human-flown fighter jets will continue. The reaction span needed in mountainous region is best tackled by a human.” The RFI says approximately 110 fighter aircraft are needed (about 75% single seat and rest twin seat aircraft). Of the 110 aircraft 15% (or 16-17 planes) will be in a fly-away condition and the rest will have to be made in India by a strategic partner (Indian company). The strategic partnership is itself being tried out for the first time and is set to be amended.
Costs for depleted IAF
The cost will be a huge Rs 1.25 lakh crore. The IAF is now down to 31 squadrons (each squadron has 16-18 planes) against the need of 42, as mandated by the Cabinet Committee on Security. It will lose nine squadrons in the next five years when the remaining seven MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 squadrons retire. Two squadrons of Rafale fighters, two of the LCA Tejas and two more Su-30MKI will be added making it 28 squadrons by 2022. If the MMRCA-style delay is repeated, the IAF is in for disaster as its six Jaguar, three MiG-29 and three Mirage-2000 squadrons will retire by 2030. Air Vice Marshall Bahadur says matters can be speeded up only to a limit. “It’s not simple. The contract signing is expected to take some time as our process is such.”Tech transfer is the keyThe RFI indicates that transfer of technology will be a key element in the decision-making matrix. IAF wants that original manufacturer should be willing to transfer design, development, manufacturing and repair expertise within India. Securing the force against any whimsical imposition of sanctions, the RFI says the foreign manufacturer will have to provide assurances from their home country about manufacture, repair, overhaul, upgrade and also for all subsequent authorizations needed to negotiate, sign and execute contracts with the Indian government. But it remains to be seen if countries will be willing to offer their cutting edge technology related to, say, engines. In Def-expo at Chennai, Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Sweden Saab expressed keenness to work in India and Transfer technology.
Desired abilities, budget
Defence secretary Sanjay Mitra was categorical at the Def-Expo in Chennai recently that “this RFI is different.” The 72-page RFI says the IAF intends to use the aircraft for day & night all weather operations in the following roles: air superiority, air defence, air-to-surface ops, reconnaissance, maritime, electronic warfare missions, and ability to refuel in air. Budgetary provision is vital because the government wants the bulk of the aircraft to be ‘Made in India’. Setting up an assembly line for dozens of fighters could actually work out to be costlier than imported aircraft. An example is how the Su-30MKI imported directly from Russia is cheaper than the one produced at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd.IAF for years has been saying that it wants a light fighter which is economical to operate. But over the years some confusion has prevailed. Post Kargil it wanted the Mirage-2000 — a single engine plane. The MMRCA tender had selected the Rafale — a twin engine plane. In 2016 the IAF issued another RFI for buying and building 100-200 single engine fighters. The new plan yet again removes the engine restriction and the RFI mixes single and twin-engine aircraft. In a competition, the heavier twin-engine fighter will have superior range, endurance and capability but will cost 30 per cent more.