It will be a grave error to let MRFA programme drag endlessly like MMRCA
Had the Covid-19 pandemic not thrown its morbid shadow over the 2021 edition of Aero India Show at Bangalore, it could have been the venue for demonstrative contests between frontline contenders vying for attention of the Indian Air Force (IAF) which is on a quest for combat aircraft to bolster its dwindling fighter strength. With top executives from most of the interested Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) expected to stay away, and with at least one of the hot challengers, Saab, deciding to stay away from the Show, aggressive lobbying and one upmanship aerial displays appear to be ruled out. However, the underpinnings of a competition will no doubt be palpable as the context of a selection process for 114 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for the IAF provides a backdrop to the Show. This article looks at the MRFA quest, its background, the main contenders, and its prognosis.
In the hazy and distant past, the IAF was authorized a build up to 64 combat aircraft squadrons — a figure brought down to 45 and later to 42; however, that figure was attained only in the 1980s and thereafter started declining. The present strength (according to open sources) is around 30 squadrons, a figure that is inexorably reducing due to attrition and with old aircraft being phased out. Over the next five years, this figure is expected to be diminished by two squadrons per year, unless new inductions accrue. The figure of 42 squadrons is written about as if, once achieved, it would empower India to meet all airpower needs in case of a two front war with China and Pakistan, a possibility ever closer with Chinese misadventures in Ladakh and elsewhere. However, that figure is dated and, if a fresh appraisal was done, may have to be amended upwards. Possibly that discussion never takes place because the figure of 42 itself looks to be a distant dream, at least two decades away. Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria, the present CAS, has publicly admitted that there is no possibility of reaching the 42 figure even by end 2030, and that the best that can be hoped for by then is 36 to 38 squadrons. He is also on record as having stated that, if the 42 squadron figure is to be achieved even by end-2040, another 450 combat aircraft need to be inducted by then, given the current reduction rate. The majority of this replenishment would be Tejas variants, of which around 200 are expected to join the IAF’s ranks (40 Mark 1 already ordered, 83 Mark 1/1A approved by Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) in January 2021, and another hundred odd Mark 2s in the hazy future). Of these, alarmingly, the Mark 1 is not an operational aircraft, the Mark 1A is yet to carry out its first flight (the first flight is planned at end of 2022), and the Mark 2 is a distant dream. Another hundred are expected to be fifth generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) to be produced indigenously although projections of its datelines and capabilities are pessimistic, given the history of the Tejas, its predecessor, which has taken more than thirty years but is still not a convincing combat aircraft. The Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) has recently approved the procurement of 33 aircraft (21 MiG-29s and 12 Su-30MKIs), projects that had been in the pipeline for a long time. As can be seen, all these additions will still not add up to 450 and that is why the 114 MRFA proposal is critical for the IAF. The quality and delivery schedules of Tejas and AMCA are variables while the MRFA selection is an area of certainty with the capabilities and costs of all contenders known. Let us address the build up to the MRFA.
The Build Up To MRFA
The drastic shortage of combat aircraft did not come on suddenly and had been foreseen in the 1990s when the IAF decided to go in for more Mirage 2000 aircraft to be license produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). After all the staff work and due diligence, the project was inexplicably discarded by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) in 2003 in favour of a global tendering process (initiated in 2004) for the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). The objective was to induct 4.5 generation fighters into the IAF by 2010. The selection process by the IAF evaluated six candidates and shortlisted the Rafale in 2012 and an agreement for licensed production of the Rafale in India was signed in March 2014 between HAL and Dassault. The BJP’s ascent to power at the centre killed the MMRCA and, in April 2015, a decision was taken by Modi during a visit to France to acquire 36 Rafales from France in a fly away condition. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in 2016 and delivery began in 2020 with the last of the 36 Rafales expected to be inducted by 2023.
MMRCA was smothered but the IAF’s need for modern fighters remained; indeed, it has acquired critical dimensions. The gap between the need and the actual strength has been widening and the government sent out letters to aerospace OEMs in October 2017 through Indian embassies abroad seeking interest in producing a medium, single-engine fighter in partnership with Indian entities and with significant Transfer of Technology (ToT) to the them. There was no formal RFI floated but the letter mentioned an imprecise figure of between 100 and 200 aircraft. There does not appear to have been much interest amongst the invitees nor a clear-cut response to the letter, possibly due to the rather vague contents of the letter. Subsequently, in April 2018, a detailed 72-page RFI was floated by the government for acquisition of 110 aircraft (the figure was later revised to 114). Its scope indicated eligibility of single and twin engine aircraft and listed six roles for the multi role aircraft.
In response to the RFI, seven aircraft were projected by their parent OEMs as being interested in the MRFA contract; these are: Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 70, Dassault’s Rafale F3R, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab’s Gripen E, the Russian United Aircraft Corporation’s MiG-35 and Sukhoi Corporation’s Su-35 were the contenders.
The Rafale, a twin engine multi role aircraft, would appear to have an advantage over the others inasmuch as India already has 36 on order and from the point of view of commonality of crew, equipment, hangarage and shelters, it would make sense to have more of the same type rather than a diverse assortment. Moreover, since a one time payment has already been made for India-specific modifications to the Rafale, future purchases would reflect an economy of scale by scattering that payment over larger numbers. There is of course another factor — that of the Rafale already having been shortlisted in the MMRCA selection process. The IAF is keen on the Rafale and indeed, a process is on to procure 36 more under identical terms as the first tranche of 36. Dassault Aviation, the Rafale manufacturer, is all set to exploit the situation with a clever offer to set up Rafale manufacturing in India provided the number on order is more than 100 (it is not hard to connect the context of the 114 MRFA search in progress).
Another European contender is the Eurofighter Typhoon which is a twin engine, multi role fighter originally designed as an air superiority fighter; it is manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems and Leonardo that conducts the majority of the project through a joint holding company, Eurofighter Jagdflugzeug GmbH. The NATO Eurofighter and Tornado Management Agency, representing the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain manages the project and is the prime customer. The aircraft is comparable to the Rafale but its joint ownership by six partners is a factor that may be an impedance if all other factors weigh equally between the two types. The Saab AB’s Gripen is another European aircraft in the fray; it is a single engine fighter and so would be less expensive than the twin engine contenders listed above but its single engine configuration may work against it inasmuch as HAL, which has a very strong lobby, would work overtime to keep other single engine types out of the competition in the interest of its own Tejas.
Two US origin aircraft are in the running; Boeing’s F/A-18 and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 which, with a few inconsequential enhancements, is being offered as the F-21 (the new name being an effort to present it as a new type). IAF is not keen on an aircraft that Pakistan has been using since the 80s; possibly the fact that a Pakistan Air Force F-16 was shot down by a MiG-21 on 27 February 2019 in the aftermath of the Balakot raid may also be a factor working against the F-16/F-21. On the other hand, Boeing’s case may have additional weight as it also has on offer a naval version and the Indian Navy is hunting for a combat aircraft too.
India has had some good innings with Soviet/Russian origin aircraft and two are running for the MRFA contract; the MiG-35 and the Su-35. However, the large number of Su-30 MKIs already in service with IAF may work against the Russian bid, firstly because it would make sense to diversify the sources to cater for future embargoes by any one nation of origin, and secondly, because the serviceability of the Su-30 MKI has been a problem. Hovering at between 50% and 60%, it overwhelms the aircraft’s outstanding capability set. Lower life cycle costs for the Russian aircraft are certain to be strongly in their favour in comparison to the other contenders and so is the fact that HAL already has a manufacturing line for Su-30 MKIs but these two factors may still not be adequate to overcome the negatives discussed above.
More than two and a half years have passed since the MRFA RFI was floated but there appears to be no urgency attached to subsequent actions. The MMRCA died under suspicious circumstances; the chief suspect is the fiscal restraint that affected decision making; killing MMRCA deferred the dreadful obligation of finding the money to fund the purchase of 126 aircraft. Unfortunately, that problem was only postponed and not eliminated; thus it afflicts the MRFA too. As if our defence budget was not already under a painful asphyxiation, Covid-19 has provided further cause for gloom for defence allocations in the 2021 budget; despite the impolite nudge by China in Ladakh, there is not much optimism at the time of writing about enhancement of defence budget in real terms. Already, a pliable Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) is proposing inventive ways of cutting down the defence budget some of which border on the absurd (cutting down on ceremonies, reducing number of Officers’ Messes, increasing retirement age of personnel and slashing of defence pensions). The scorn with which these proposals were greeted on social media by serving and retired servicemen begs the question of whether the defence forces are supposed to be some kind of self-financing business entities which are expected to produce money from somewhere to fund their urgent purchases. If the nation wants a military equipped and geared up to defending its borders and interests, it should be prepared to find the money to fund that military. There is not much hope that Budget 2021 will produce any such rabbit out of the finance Minister’s hat; despite some optimistic voices, any hike will be only a juggling of numbers as there is nothing in the government’s coffers to proffer for capital outlay in defence. The logical conclusion is that the MRFA contract will also drag on interminably like the MMRCA. One possible scenario is that pre-election compulsions (in 2024) get the government to announce that it is going in for the MRFA. This clever subterfuge would hedge its bets; if BJP returns to power it will have time on its side to dither endlessly, and if it does not, the new government will be left holding the baby. The Chinese surprise action in Ladakh has not been adequate to endow the MRFA deal with the urgency it deserves; one hopes that the government gives it critical attention without having to be persuaded to do so by more Chinese belligerence (possibly in collaboration with Pakistan) or worse, as a result of an ignominious drubbing in the near future.