Tragedy and farce hang like spectres over the Indian Air Force’s efforts to procure fighter jets.
The first ended in tragedy, and a deadline of sorts for a second, or third, attempt ends Friday, with six foreign vendors’ responses to a 73-page Request for Information (RFI).
In the re-run of the scrapped MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) race, the same six companies with the same six aircraft would be intending to compete for the same order from the same customer. Only, this time the customer, Indian Air Force, has pared down the numbers from 126 to 110.
“…Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results used to be a definition of lunacy,” former navy chief and aviator, Admiral Arun Prakash (retired) tweeted recently in response to a discussion on the RFI. “It would be a great shame if logic, economics and jointness do not persuade IAF and IN (Indian Air Force and Indian Navy) to select the same aircraft. MoD (Ministry of Defence) should consider issuing a fiat.”
Admiral Prakash was highlighting the fact that the navy was also looking to procure 57 deck-based fighter jets. Though the requirement of carrier-borne jets is demanding of a maritime capability, he has argued in favour of looking at synergies among the platforms of the different services.
Competing jets ::
Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 70, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale F3R, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab’s Gripen E and Russian United Aircraft Corporation’s MiG-35 will be vying for a IAF contract conservatively estimated at $18 billion over 12 years. Four of these six companies are also in contention for the navy order.
In the time that the last tender was scrapped (2015) and now, the aircraft have been made more modern in a military aviation equivalent of software upgrades on smartphones. In that time, the Modi administration contracted 36 Rafales from France in a befuddling government-to-government order.
Befuddling because the IAF had projected a requirement for 126 (six squadrons) of the aircraft. Its projection was based on the government’s operational directive to be prepared for a two-front war. The directive has remained unchanged since 2009.
Between 2015 and now, the IAF was also asked to consider buying 114 single-engine fighters through a competitive process. That was scrapped, again, in April and the current RFI was issued. This one, like the MMRCA contest initiated in 2007, does not specify the number of engines that the winning aircraft should have.
Consequently, among the six competitors are two single-engine fighters (the F-16 and the Gripen) and four twin-engined ones.
There is one big difference, though, with the scrapped 2007 tender: the foreign vendors are now required to tie-up with an Indian ‘strategic partner’ that may be a private sector entity. The last MMRCA race had specified the defence public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd as the ‘lead integrator’.
After extensive flight evaluation trials, the IAF down-selected the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale. The Rafale was announced as the winner because it was relatively cheaper. But the two aircraft were the most expensive to begin with.
Next stage ::
Now, the IAF has said it wants to buy 82 single-seat fighters and 28 twin-seaters. Most (75 per cent) of the aircraft will have to be made in India. This would mean that the global majors will have to set up assembly lines in the country.
The RFI responses is only the first stage in a long-drawn procurement process. After examining the responses, the defence establishment will draft the Request for Proposals (RFP) — the actual global tender. The RFP will lay down in detail the technical parameters the IAF wants for its next fighter jet. It is unlikely that they will be very different from the parameters that led to them choosing the Rafale, 36 of which have been contracted.
After trials and evaluations, the government will select the aircraft with the cost factor likely to override many of the other considerations. A contract negotiation committee will finally determine the value of the order. It was at this stage that the last MMRCA contract came unstuck.