IAF hits the runway again for a new fighter

AK Sachdev | Updated on April 23, 2018

Flying high Ruling the skies   -  Jacephoto

The govt’s Request for Information has attracted global defence majors, the riders in it can still be a stumbling block

The Ministry of Defence (MoD), under pressure to formally push out a Request for Information (RFI) before the DefExpo 2018 kicked off, released a rather long-winded document just five days before the expo started. The RFI had much the same effect as a wild mating call; an ensemble of hopeful suitors set off apposite and loud responses. As is the wont of mating rituals, the noises were made for the intended partner as also for other contending suitors!

An RFI issued in 2004 was a single-page notification referring to 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) which ended in a sordid anti-climax in 2015. In October 2017, Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow and Stockholm were asked to write to fighter OEMs in these countries to confirm whether they would partner an Indian company in building a medium, single-engine fighter with significant transfer of technology to the Indian entity.

No RFI was issued and the short letter betrayed a slapdash approach with even the number mentioned being a vague 100 to 200. In contrast, the current RFI is 72 pages long and covers substantial ground not just about the aircraft performance and parameters but about life cycle costs, transfer of technology, offsets, etc.

However, its daunting tone has not discouraged prospective bidders. The fact that the RFI has widened the scope of the aircraft from a single-engine to include a twin-engine has changed the texture of the competition. The two single-engine contenders (Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen E) are expected to be joined in the contest by some twin-engine players. The prominent one, of course, is Dassault Rafale; 36 are on order and Dassault can be expected to underscore the advantages of scaling up from 36 to a larger number (savings in terms of training costs, spares inventories, maintenance facilities etc).

Boeing has been very vocal even before the RFI was issued about the F/A-18 E/F. The E and F denote single-seat and twin-seat versions respectively; both the versions are known as Super Hornet and thus there are two Super Hornets in the fray. The fact that the Indian Navy is also scouting for 57 carrier borne multi role combat aircraft has Boeing making encouraging noises about the aircraft being best for India (with scale of purchase by the two services being an obvious advantage).

The Typhoon, manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo called Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH is the European gladiator in the ring while the Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG company will field the MiG-35. Of these, the Rafale and the Typhoon have already crossed blades in the 2004 selection process and had both cleared the MMRCA flight trials.

Arguably, life cycle costs will be the prominent factor in the selection process once the operational flight tests narrow down the field to a short list. However, the contending OEMs (and their parent nations) have also realised the perceived political value of ‘Make In India’ in an election year and so have been phrasing their pitches accordingly.

While Boeing has announced that it would team up with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Mahindra Group to set up F/A-18 E/F assembly lines in India, Lockheed Martin has entered into an agreement with Tata Sons to offer shifting of its F-16 production line to India. Saab also has a tie-up with Adani Group to manufacture Gripen E fighter jets in India.

Needless to say, these arrangements are predicated on firm orders for the IAF and the Indian Navy. Wishful thinkers would see this as a ripe situation for deriving the maximum technology transfer by playing one contender against the others. However, there is a problem. HAL, which already has infrastructure and experience for aircraft assembly, has so far not proved to be a worthy recipient of technology, while private players will take some time to establish the infrastructure (but eventually contribute hugely to India’s stature as an aerospace power). The final choice of aircraft will decide whether the technology transfer will flow.

For now, there are murmurs among analysts about the high costs (on account of twin- engine aircraft being included in the RFI’s ambit) and the complex and demanding stipulations in the RFI on transfer of technology. The government has also made some noises about its intent to bring this RFI (unlike the previous one) to a logical conclusion through a final procurement/production deal but, given the previous MMRCA selection experience, the cynical view appears dominant currently.

The author is a retired IAF officer.

Published on April 23, 2018

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