Not withstanding the great show put up by Indian Air Force (IAF) in its largest ever exercise ‘Gagan Shakti 2018,’ its depleting combat squadrons, are not only making headlines in the media, but the options with the IAF are of speculative discussions among public and in the think-tanks. IAF’s requirement of 126 MMRCA class aircraft had been spelt out in 2001. Despite a gruelling selection process only 36 Rafale could be bought because the contract negotiations reached a dead end. Slow production of the indigenous Light Combat aircraft (LCA) ‘Tejas’ and delays in design and development (D&D) of newer variants has made the situation worse. The writing has been on the wall and the crisis has been 20 years in the making. At a recent seminar by Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS), the Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa highlighted that IAF was down to 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorised 42. It is already facing the horrifying scenario where it may go down below 30 if urgent action is not taken. He said geo-politically, India is a most threatened nation with two nuclear neighbours with both of whom India has serious disputes and has had wars.
IAF’s current somewhat messy situation is an outcome of many factors such as the complex long-drawn decision making process before contracting (sometimes decades), lack of commitments on Transfer of Technology ( ToT), slow LCA production, woefully low budget for capital acquisitions and the unfortunate political allegations that cast an ugly shadow over all acquisitions. The Air Chief has made it clear that any aircraft that India purchases should be able to match those with our adversaries. With Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) inducting world class fighters, and soon to stabilise at 80 squadrons of mostly 4th generation plus aircraft, IAF now-on should procure mostly medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) class aircraft. The expected LCA variants, are meant to replace the vintage MiG 21s, but cannot match the MMRCA class fighters. There is thus a need to take stock of what are the viable options.
IAF, the fourth largest Air Force in the world has around 650 combat aircraft. This comprises of 12 squadrons of air superiority fighters Sukhoi Su-30 MKI;three squadrons each of upgraded Mikoyan MiG-29, and Dassault Mirage 2000-5 Mk 2 standards; Five squadrons of SEPECAT Jaguar and three of MiG-27 dedicated strike aircraft, with significant numbers in both these types having been modernised. The five remaining squadrons of MiG-21 Bison will have to stretch till 2024. The first IAF squadron with Tejas Mk I aircraft formed with just two aircraft on 01 July 2016, now has nine aircraft. Full squadron strength will be available only by mid 2019.
The nine LCA Mk1 aircraft supplied are out of the 20 ordered in Initial Operational Clearance (IOC). 20 more have been ordered in Final Operational Clearance (FOC) configuration. FOC may be achieved only by 2020. 83 LCA Mk 1A ordered by IAF will have modern AESA radar, aerial refuelling, EW suite, and easier maintainability. D&D of this variant is still work in progress. First flight may take place around 2021.
LCA’s excessive cost quoted by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is still under discussion in MoD. LCA Mk II which will actually be able to meet all the Air Staff requirements of the IAF will have the larger and more powerful GE F414 engine. The aircraft dimensions will change. It will require extensive testing. First flight is likely around 2025 and aircraft induction by 2030. IAF is keen to induct nearly 200 aircraft. The DRDO-HAL Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is the indigenous fifth generation aircraft program. It will be a twin-engine stealth all weather fighter. Feasibility study on AMCA and the preliminary design stage have been completed. The project awaits approval to begin D&D stage. The first flight is scheduled around 2028, and squadron induction by 2035. Program has full backing of the IAF. For Indian military-aviation industrial capability to come of age, it is imperative that these two programs succeed.
Make-in-India Fighter Competition
The Request for Information (RFI) for 110 new fighters was issued in April 2018 and responses have been received in July 2018. There are seven contenders, American Lockheed Martin’sF-16 Block 70 and Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F 18E/F, French Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian SU-35 and MiG 35 and European consortium’s Eurofighter. Barring SU-35, all have been extensively tested in the aborted MMRCA competition. It will be interesting to make a prognosis of the unfolding competition.
After a gruelling MMRCA selection, the omni-role Rafale came out a winner. It has been operationally tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. Rafale is universally acknowledged as a good aircraft. 36 aircraft have been contracted and will start arriving in 2019. Infrastructure for two airbases is already contracted. In view of the depleting numbers, albeit expensive, one school of thought has been to order additional Rafale. Depending on additional numbers, they could be either Make-in-India option or G2G direct purchase. Rafale also has a naval variant. Indian Navy is looking for 57 carrier based aircraft. One is unsure how the political slugfest on Rafale will unfold and if it will affect further selection/orders.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin- engine, canard-delta wing multirole fighter manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo formed in 1986. Aircraft entered operational service in 2003 and around 600 have been built till date and are flown by 10 air forces. It has seen operations in Libya. Eurofighter was one of the two aircraft short-listed after technical evaluation during MMRCA competition along with Rafale but lost out on commercial bid.
The original variant of JAS 39 E/F Gripen NG first flew in 1988. The 250 Gripen aircraft built are flying in Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand. The aircraft has been sourced roughly 67% from Swedish or European suppliers and 33% from the USA, which gives control to the Americans. One plus is that all operators have access to the Gripen’s source code and technical documentation, allowing for upgrades and new equipment to be independently integrated. NG (Next Generation) version on offer to India can be with more powerful power-plant (more expensive EJ-200), have new avionics and AESA radar. The Swedish Armed Forces plan to maintain 100 C/D-model aircraft until 2042. The first Gripen E was rolled out on 18 May 2016. SAAB proposed significant transfer of technology and to make India ‘an independent manufacturer’ of the fighter jets, but they will retain production in Sweden. SAAB has tied with the Adani group as their production partner in India.
LOCKHEED MARTIN F-16 BLOCK 70/ 72 SINGLE- ENGINE AIR-SUPERIORITY, MULTI-ROLE FIGHTER AIRCRAFT IS THE LATEST VARIANT. F-16 VARIANTS HAVE BEEN OPERATED BY 26 COUNTRIES. IT HAS BEEN REPEATEDLY UPGRADED AND EVERYTHING INSIDE TODAY IS OF LATEST TECHNOLOGY AND EASILY FURTHER UPGRADABLE THROUGH PERIODIC REPLACEMENT OF MODULES TO MEET FUTURE THREATS AND REQUIREMENTS.
Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72 single-engine air-superiority, multi-role fighter aircraft is the latest variant. F-16 variants have been operated by 26 countries. It has been repeatedly upgraded and everything inside today is of latest technology and easily further upgradable through periodic replacement of modules to meet future threats and requirements. The entire F- 16 manufacture line is proposed to be shifted to India, and make India the global supply chain hub. With 2242 F-16 still flying, it will be a very significant move. The aircraft introduces new front-end technologies including Northrop Grumman’s advanced APG-83 AESA radar and enhanced battle-space awareness avionics. On offer are also many weapons including latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The structural life of the aircraft has been extended to see it flying till 2040. Lockheed Martin has a joint venture company with Tata Advanced Systems Limited ( TASL) which has proven expertise through manufacture of airframe components for the C-130J airlifter and the S-92 helicopter. Interestingly, the Pakistan Air Force has around 100 older Block 52s, first inducted in 1982. The Block 70 would be a class apart.
The Boeing F/A18E/F Super Hornet is a twin-engine multirole fighter. The aircraft evolved from YF-17 which had lost the US Air Force competition to F- 16 in mid 1970s. The Super Hornet have successfully taken part in the Gulf and Middle East wars. It has seen airframe and extensive avionics upgrades. The variant being offered to India, with Make-in-India provision, will be Advanced Super Hornet with a newer AESA radar. Boeing and Tata Industries have a joint-venture company at Hyderabad for Apache fuselage and other aero-structures. The new entity would supply components for Boeing military aircraft world-wide, including for the Super Hornet. This is the first time the Super Hornet is being offered for production in a foreign country. The aircraft is also competing for Indian Navy tender.
Purchase of American aircraft could bring international political leverages and support as a package for India’s desire to find a place on the international high table including NSG and UN Security Council. After signing the Indo-US nuclear deal, the two countries signed the Logistic Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), and more recently Communications Compatibility and Security Agreement (COMCASA). It may give a tilt towards American aircraft.
The Mikoyan MiG-35is a Russian multi- role fighter which is essentially a further development of the MiG-29M2. MiG-35 was first presented internationally during the Aero India 2007. The fighter has improved avionics and weapon systems, including a new AESA radar, precision-guided targeting capability. With IAF having already upgraded the MiG-29s, it has already partially imbibed the technologies. The Sukhoi Su-35is an improved derivative of the Su-27 air-defence fighter. It is a single- seat, twin-engine, super-manoeuvrable aircraft. The first variant known as theSu-27M made its maiden flight in 1988. Sukhoi re-designated the aircraft as Su-35 to attract export orders. The Russian Air Force in 2009 became the launch customer of the aircraft. The Chinese PLAAF and Indonesian Air Force have ordered the aircraft in small numbers.
Way Ahead: India
As a first step, to arrest further depletions, India must accelerate the indigenous LCA program for both D&D and for production. Current assembly line is for 8 aircraft per year. Another assembly line is expected to be sanctioned soon, and will increase production to 16 a year. Ideally, the private sector should be supported to start a third line, thus promoting the industry to invest in defence production. In the meantime, another two squadrons worth of SU-30 MKI may be ordered along with additional weapons. Any contract for the new fighter should have in-built maximum technology transfer and support for India’s LCA, AMCA, AESA radar and aircraft engine programs.
India could have better leverage with Sweden for Saab Gripen JAS-39 being an overall smaller international player, but only 250 Gripen are flying world over, giving little business leverage for any exports. Also, the original Saab plant will not be shut down. Nearly 30 percent systems in Gripen are sourced from USA, which can have complications later. Earlier the Eurofighter had lost out to Rafale on the commercial bid, therefore, Rafale will have an advantage over it. Rafale also has the advantage of a naval variant thus advantage of numbers.
F-18 is a twin-engine aircraft, and therefore costlier. Its airframe has recently been redesigned. Boeing has significant presence in the country. F- 16 is a single-engine aircraft and has the largest fleet in the world, many of which will be flying well past 2035. India can get huge business worldwide for maintenance and overhauls. Lockheed has made a follow on offer of F-35 at a later stage. Since IAF genuinely requires a single-engine aircraft, the F-16 could have an advantage. MiG-35 and SU-35 though contenders, with the MiG-29 and SU-30 MKI upgrades, the Russian technologies have already been imbibed. So MiG-35 and SU-35 are unlikely to be real contenders.
Barring SU-35, all aircraft have been extensively evaluated during MMRCA selection, as such only newer sub- systems require a look. The process must be shortened to save time. Despite much refined Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP), the only contracts that seem to have gone through have all been G2G deals with Soviets and Russians in the past, and with Americans (P-8I, C-17, Apache, Chinook and others) and French (Rafale) recently. A G2G approach would be the best for the selected fighter, for both cost and time savings. Among the twin engine, it is best to buy more Rafale because significant expenditure has already been made on two-airbase infrastructure and weapons. In addition, a cheaper single- engine fighter between Gripen and F-16 be chosen. A very early decision is operationally most critical. Ground reality is that money availability is a constraint and if many aircraft meet the technical specifications, which is highly likely, it will be the lower cost that will matter, and a single engine may still win. To make good the backlog of modernisation, fresh funds outside the defence budget will be required. Also country has to look at increasing defence budget from current 1.57 to 2.0 percent of the GDP.
Air Marshal Anil Chopra is a test pilot who commanded a Mirage 2000 Squadron and two operational airbases. He retired as Air Officer Personnel and has been a member of the Armed Forces Tribunal and Executive Council of JNU.