The Indian Air Force reportedly is set to formally reboot its plans to purchase nearly 115 fighter jets within weeks, but it may tie any final contract to a demand that it also receive technical assistance for its domestic fifth generation fighter project. This decision would seem to confirm ongoing reports that India is not happy with the progress of its existing stealth fighter deal with Russia, might again give Lockheed Martin an upper hand since it is already building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and could just further complicate the already protracted attempts to get any new aircraft.
On March 11, 2018, The Hindustan Times reported that India would begin sending out official requests for information to companies looking to submit bids on the fighter jet tender by the first week of April. In February 2018, it emerged that the India Air Force would halt an existing plan to buy 114 single-engine fighter jets and rewrite the requirements to open the deal up to twin-engine designs, as well. The revised deal will now include the winning firm to transfer potentially sensitive technology to support the Indian military’s fifth generation fighter program, known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
“We have asked the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to prepare a list of technologies they need help with for the AMCA,” the unnamed individual told The Hindustan Times. “There will be clear clause on the transfer of those technologies in the contract.”
India’s efforts to procure new fighter jets have already been a saga spanning more than decade. This new tender will be the third formal attempt to purchase the aircraft since 2007. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has been officially working on the AMCA project since 2010, with a goal of having a flying prototype by 2025.
With immediate contract field now open to both single- and twin-engine designs, the competition will most likely including American manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin with their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-16IN Viper respectively, the French Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Saab Gripen-E, and at least one Russian aircraft, such as a variant of the MiG-35 Fulcrum-F or Su-35 Flanker-E. The F-16IN appeared to have the lead over the Gripen-E in the previous-single engine tender.
As we had noted in the past, there were a number of good reasons why a twin-engine design might turn out to be the new favorite. Most importantly, the Indian Air Force is already buying 36 Rafales. French authorities have been pushing India to begin negotiating a new deal for a second tranche of 36 more jets, but so far India has not made any official announcement about any additional purchases.
The French jet and the F/A-18E/F are also emerging as the front-runners in an Indian Navy competition to purchase new fighter jets for its presently planned fleet of short-takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft carriers, as well as the catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) types it wants to build in the future. If both services were to operate the same aircraft, or variants with a high commonality in basic components and mission systems, this could cut logistics and sustainment expenses and offset the typically higher costs of twin-engine aircraft compared to single-engine types.
As such, it looked initially that Boeing and Dassault had the most to gain from the changes to the Indian tender. But the inclusion of the stealth fighter technology transfer requirement could change the calculus yet again.
If nothing else, this could be a signal that India will be less inclined to consider any offering from Russia. The Indians and the Russians have been working together on fifth generation fighter jet development for some time, there have been repeated reports that the Indian Air Force is frustrated with the lack of results from the Su-57 stealth fighter project and more recently there has been the suggestion that authorities in New Delhi might finally scrap that work altogether. It was possible that the Kremlin’s otherwise curious decision to send a pair of its prototype jets to Syria in February 2018 was in part to try and demonstrate more significant progress with that program.
Of the remaining likely contenders, only some are actively working on low-observable aircraft. Not all of them are doing so at the same level or are developing a fifth generation fighter specifically.
Boeing has been working on some limited low-observable upgrade options for the Super Hornet, as well the latest models of its F-15 Eagle, such as fully-enclosed weapons pods or conformal add-on bays. This level of technological knowhow may not be enough to satisfy the DRDO’s desire for broader help with the ACMA.
While Dassault has been working on stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), European aviation consortium Airbus – which supports production of the Typhoon in various countries – has been the firm more actively working on France’s future fifth generation fighter project. Regardless, French stealth fighter and UCAV programs are also in partnership with Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively, which could add another hurdle in sharing any appropriate technical information with the Indians.
Saab has been quietly working on the Swedish Air Force’s Flygsystem 2020 stealth fighter project for at least a decade now, but the exact status of that development is unclear. In 2013, the company did sign a deal to support Turkey’s fifth generation TFX project.
Lockheed Martin is the only competitor actively producing a fifth generation fighter jet, the F-35, which could give it a leg up again in the competition. The Maryland-headquartered company had already made a particularly appealing pitch in the last iteration of the competition, stating that if its F-16IN won, it would establish a joint production line with Indian manufacturing conglomerate Tata to build jets for the Indian Air Force and use that same domestic assembly line to churn out additional aircraft for export elsewhere. On top of that, it said it would consider working with Tata to build Viper components even if the contract fell through.
It is conceivable that the firm might now propose a new deal wherein India buys conventional F-35As for the Indian Air Force and gets additional help with the ACMA. Lockheed Martin might then also offer the short and vertical takeoff capable F-35B or carrier-focused C models as options for the Indian Navy's tender.
The U.S. government will have to approve any deal involving an American company and this might be a more complicated procedure with regards to the sensitive technology in the F-35. American authorities will have to gauge whether or not they believe it is in the country's best interests to give India access to and details about low-observable design features and manufacturing processes, as well as advanced avionics, radars, sensor systems, data links, computer networks, and other mission systems.
However, President Donald Trump and his administration have shown much greater willingness to explore selling Joint Strike Fighters more broadly, including to the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia, already. The administration has also looked to bolster its ties with India in general, making the country a centerpiece of its new Afghanistan and South Asian policy goals. It's not hard to imagine Lockheed Martin getting approval for a deal to sell dozens of F-35A, B, and C models to the Indian government, which could potentially help in further driving down the plane's unit costs, which is a major goal for the U.S. military.
But India may not be as interested in buying any foreign stealth fighter as it is in getting assistance for the domestic ACMA. In February 2018, there were reports that Indian authorities had requested a classified briefing on the Joint Strike Fighter, but the next month Indian Air Force Chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa publicly denied those claims.
This episode followed a Press Trust of India report in January 2018 that suggested Lockheed Martin was considering establishing a production line for the F-35 in India. The company subsequently said that report has misstated remarks from one of its executives and added that there were no plans to build even a less expansive final assembly and checkout facility, or FACO, in the country. At present there are FACOs in Italy and Japan supporting the international Joint Strike Fighter program.
And even if India were to receive U.S. government approval to purchase the F-35 and pursue that option, it’s not clear what kind of technological information Lockheed Martin might truly be willing to transfer in the end and to what degree. Most importantly, as it stands now, with the exception of Israel, all the countries taking part in the Joint Strike Fighter project have found themselves linked in large part to a multi-national logistics and information chain thanks to the jet’s on board computer brain, called the Autonomic Logistics Information System (ALIS).
This has already prompted concerns in a number of countries about how much sensitive data the jets are collecting and potentially sending to Lockheed Martin or the U.S. government or if they might be shut off from software updates or other critical data in an emergency. At the same time, even when working with the U.S. military, Lockheed Martin has been especially keen to keep control over as much of its proprietary network architecture as possible.
The U.S. military has similarly shared concerns about whether or not this level of connectivity puts the United States’ own capabilities at risk. Foreign computer networks may be more vulnerable to cyber attacks and espionage or could be deliberately linked to systems that might feed information on to hostile nations. Turkey, for instance, wants to connect its future F-35s to the rest of its integrated air defense net, which will eventually include Russian-made S-400 surface-to-air missile systems.
Similar considerations could easily apply to requests for technology transfer from any other entrant into the revised Indian fighter competition. In turn, it seems very likely that linking both requirements together could easily slow down the overall process, even after India picks a winning design, due to the need for complex negotiations. The Indian purchase of just 36 Rafale jets for the country’s air force experienced significant delays due to disputes over technology transfer and local production and that deal remains clouded in controversy.
All of this comes as the Indian Air Force is increasingly in desperate need of new fighter jets, whether they be advanced fourth generation or stealthy fifth generation designs. Since 2001, the service has made it clear that it has a standing requirement for more than 100 aircraft to replace a host of aging types that are increasingly literally falling out of the sky.
India is also facing increasing challenges from China, which is expanding its influence in Asia and elsewhere around the world, as well as the need to provide a credible defense against long-time rival Pakistan. According to The Hindustan Times, China has approximately 60 squadrons of combat aircraft, while Pakistan has 25.
The Indian government has said that, in order to counter those potential threats and perform other necessary missions, the Indian Air Force needs at least 42 squadrons of combat aircraft itself. At present, it has 31, down from 33 in 2017, and that number is almost certain to continue to drop dramatically over the next decade unless something changes.
It’s seems increasingly clear that India cannot afford to wait much longer to acquire additional aircraft. And whether or not it will be able to rely on a domestic project, even with foreign assistance, to produce a stealth fighter design in a timely manner isn’t guaranteed, either.
Fifth generation fighter jet programs have historically shown themselves to be exceptionally costly and time consuming, even for manufacturers with histories of building stealthy aircraft. India’s own effort to develop a much less complex indigenous fourth generation type, the Tejas, has been beset by both technical and bureaucratic hurdles. That aircraft, as it exists now, has largely failed to meet expectations despite more than two decades of work, with the Indian Navy rejecting the idea of buying a carrier based version of it outright.
As it stands now, India is clearly pushing ahead with its desire to use this fighter jet tender to help expand its on domestic production military aviation capacity and capabilities. At a certain point, it may have to temper those goals with the increasingly pressing need for capable combat aircraft, but its not clear whether that would do anything to get past the country's otherwise historically dysfunctional or erratic procurement process.