Sunday, June 23, 2024

The Multi Role Combat Aircraft – An Urgent Requirement for the IAF

by Gp. Cap. Anupam Banerjee (r.), Senior Consultant-SIDM

Group Captain Anupam Banerjee (r.)

With the Rafale delivery schedule happening on time and orders of the 83 Tejas Mk 1A placed, it is probably a good time for defence planners in India to look into the procurement of 114 fighters expeditiously, the RFI for which was floated in 2018. It is a well-known fact that the MMRCA programme – the process for which started during the Vajpayee era, could not fructify, even after long trials and negotiations done by successive governments, and finally had to be cancelled.

The current Govt. went in for the procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft, in fly away condition, to meet the immediate requirement of the IAF, and plug the alarming depletion of fighter aircraft strength to some extent, that was happening because of the planned phasing out of older fighters without any suitable replacements. The last of these aircraft will come in early next year.

The new process of procurement of fighters started with the RFI dated 8th April 2018, indicating that the MoD intends to procure Fighter Aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) which would be day-and-night capable, all weather, multi-role combat aircraft; that can be used for Air Superiority, Air Defence, Air to Surface Operations, Reconnaissance, Maritime, EW missions, Buddy Refuelling etc. The aircraft is to be ‘Made in India’ and should have a maximum of 15% aircraft in flyaway state and the remaining 85% aircraft will have to be manufactured in India through the strategic partnership route. About 75% of these fighters will be single seat and the rest would be twin seat aircraft.

As per information in the public domain, all the six aircraft that were part of the earlier MMRCA procurement process responded to the current RFI. These were Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Lockheed Martin’s F-21 (renamed F-16 Block 70), Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18E/F, Dassault Rafale, MiG-35, and Eurofighter Typhoon. Also, Russian Su-35 and F-15 EX of Boeing are the new contenders for the current process.

As can be seen, these aircraft comprise of both single and twin engine variants, and each of them offer distinct sets of advantages along with concern areas. While the single engine option significantly lowers the maintenance and life cycle cost of an aircraft, they remain vulnerable to bird hits and other in-flight emergencies with a chance of aircraft loss. In a twin engine aircraft, the chance of survivability of an aircraft is comparatively much higher. Also, due to differences in costs and carriage capabilities, a one-on-one comparison will be unfair. Let’s take a closer look at all the options for the IAF, along with basic specifications and weapon packages that are available, and carry out a short SWOT analysis based on open source information. First, we will take a look at the single engine varieties.

Gripen JAS-39 E/F

Pic credit: Saab AB

The Gripen aircraft is an advanced aircraft utilizing the latest technology in digital controls and weapons delivery. It features a single Volvo Aero RM-12 (General Electric F-404) after-burning turbofan engine producing 8,210 kgs thrust. Its dimensions of length, width and height are 46.3 feet, 27.6 feet, and 14.8 feet respectively. The aircraft has an empty weight of 6,800 kgs and a maximum takeoff weight of 14,000 kgs. The aircraft has a top speed of 2,205 km/h (1,191 knots), a range of 3,200 km (1,728 nautical miles), and a flight ceiling of 50,000 feet.

It has 1×27-mm Mauser BK-27 Revolving internal automatic cannon. The Gripen has 8 external hard-points – 3 under each wing, and 2 under the fuselage, with a maximum load of 5,307 kgs. Its mission specific ordnance consists of a medley of ammunition, such as – AIM-9 “Sidewinder” short range air-to-air missiles; RB-74 air-to-air missiles; RB-71 “Sky-flash” air-to-air missiles; “Meteor” radar-homing air-to-air missiles; “MICA” air-to-air missiles; AIM-120 “AMRAAM” air-to-air missiles; RB- 99 advanced medium-Range air-to-air missiles; AGM-65 “Maverick” air-to-surface missiles; RBS-15F anti-ship missiles; BK-90 Cluster Bomb; Munition-Dispensing Canisters; Unguided Rocket Pods; Mk-82 Conventional Drop Bombs and GBU-12 Paveway II Laser-Guided Bombs / Precision-Guided Bombs (LGB’s).

The platform has significantly low maintenance requirements. It is capable of carrying Meteor missiles that the IAF inventory already possesses with Rafale, and holds a significant edge over any other missile in service in this region. Also, its power plant – the GE F404 engine, is the same as that of LCA Tejas. This can translate into sharing of infrastructure for engine maintenance, thus saving on maintenance costs. Also, being a single engine aircraft – its life cycle cost will be lesser. However, the geopolitical factors are going to be a significant disadvantage for the Gripen along with the technological edge held by the other fighters on offer, in terms of vintage.


The Lockheed F-21 is the ultimate version for the legendary F-16 Fighting Falcon aircraft series. The aircraft is equipped with the AN/APG-83 Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar in the nose as well as a state of the art digital mission computer integrated into a new and modern cockpit. Ground collision avoidance is achieved through an automated system and the aircraft carries a new Electronic Warfare (EW) suite as part of its advanced design. It is equipped with a single General Electric GE F-110 after-burning turbofan engine producing 14,741 kgs of thrust and has an empty weight of 10,000 kgs and a maximum takeoff weight of 21,775 kgs. It has dimensions of a length of 49.2 feet, width of 31.0 feet, and a height of 16.7 feet. The aircraft has a top speed of 1,475 km/h (796 knots), range of 4,215 km (2,276 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 49,213 feet and a rate-of-climb of 50,000 feet/minute.

The aircraft comprises of 1 x 20mm M61A1 Vulcan Gatling-style internal cannon. It has 11 total external hard-points – 2 on the wingtips, 3 on the fuselage and 6 under-the-wing; for the carrying of various ordnance types up to a limit of 7,711 kgs, and 2 wing-tip mounts reserved for the AIM-9L/M “Sidewinder” missiles or the AIM-120 “AMRAAM” missiles. It can also carry short-range and medium-range air-to-air missiles, laser-guided / precision-guided drop bombs, conventional drop bombs, and rocket pods.

The F-21 is a renamed F-16, which is already four decades old. Further, it is still the frontline fighter of the PAF, which might not be a positive factor in the prospects of a sale to India. The F-21 does however have state of the art avionics, electronic warfare systems, sensors, and a very good weapons package. Also, India can easily turn into the manufacturing and maintenance/overhaul hub of this aircraft in Asia, as the aircraft is in active service with many Air Forces in this region.

Having taken a look at the single engine options, let us now take a closer look at the twin engine varieties that are on offer.


It is mainly a carrier based Strike fighter Aircraft, commissioned in the year 1999 in the United States. It comprises a crew of 1 or 2 pilots. The Super Hornet replaced the A-4 Skyhawks, A-7 Corsairs, A-6 Intruders, F-4 Phantom II’s, S-3 Viking, EA-6B Prowler, and of course, the F-14 Tomcat, and fulfilled their multiple combat roles that includes all weather day/night strikes, fleet defense, air defence suppression, and reconnaissance, interception, Close Air Support (CAS) and precision strike to name a few.

The Super Hornet has two General Electric F-414-GE-400 turbofan engines producing 9,979 kgs of thrust with afterburner. It has dimensions of a length of 60.1 feet, width of 44.7 feet, and a height of 16.0 feet. The aircraft’s empty weight is of 13,864 kgs and a maximum takeoff weight of 21,320 kgs. The Super Hornet has a maximum speed of 1,911 km/h (1,032 knots), a range of 1,095 kms (591 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 49,213 feet, and a rate of climb of 44,890 feet/minute.

The Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet have one 20mm M61A1 “Vulcan” Gatling Style internal automatic cannon, and two AIM-9 “Sidewinder” short-ranged air-to-air missiles on wingtip launchers.It has 11 hard-point mountings, 2 on the wing-tips, while packing a punch with its optional mission specific ordnance of (up to 8,051 kgs): AIM-9 “Sidewinder” air-to-air missiles; AIM-120 “AMRAAM” air-to-air missiles; AGM-84 “Harpoon” anti-ship missiles; AGM-84E “SLAM”; AGM-88 “HARM” anti-radiation missiles; SLAM-ER missiles; AGM-65 “Maverick” air-to-surface missiles; LAU Multiple Rocket Pods; AGM-154 Joint Standoff Weapon (JSW) bombs; Joint Direct Attack Munition (JDAM) bombs; Paveway Laser-Guided Bombs (LGB); Mk 80 General Purpose Bombs; Mk-20 “Rockeye II” Cluster Bombs; Mk 20 CBU Cluster Bombs.

The biggest advantage of this aircraft is that it can be offered to the Indian Navy as well, thus bringing down the overall cost of acquisition because of economies of scale. The aircraft engine is an advanced derivative of the GE F404 engines that are being used by LCA Tejas, and have some of the most powerful American sensors and electronic warfare technologies on board. The aircraft comes with some of the most advanced American munitions developed, including the AIM-120D with 180km range, and will be capable of carrying the upcoming AIM-260 – the capabilities of which are not officially confirmed yet. However, these assets are prohibitively costly. In terms of flying performance however, the other aircraft in the race fare a notch better. 


The McDonnell Douglas F-15EX Strike Eagle is an improved form of the F-15 Eagle. It fulfills both roles of air superiority and ground attack with the capability to operate in all weather, low altitude and day/night sorties and is equipped with much improved systems and avionics. The Strike Eagle is also fitted with the powerful APG-70 series radar system and the LANTIRN (Low-Altitude Navigation and Targeting Infrared for Night) system allowing the aircraft the ability to fly in low altitudes through adverse weather and at night.

The Strike Eagle is equipped with two Pratt & Whitney F-100-PW-229 after-burning turbofan engines each, producing 6,622 kgs thrust dry, and 10,781 kgs thrust with reheat. It has a length, width and height of 63.6 feet, 42.8 feet, and 18.5 feet respectively. The overall empty weight of the aircraft is 14,300 kgs and the maximum takeoff weight is of 36,700 kgs. The Strike Eagle has a max speed of 2,660 km/h (1,436 knots), a range of 3,900 km (2,105 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 59,711 feet, and a rate-of-climb of 50,000 feet/minute.

The F-15EX has a single 20mm M61A1 Vulcan Gatling-style internal cannon.It can also hold mission specific ordnance of up-to 10,432 kgs that includes 4 x AIM-7F/M “Sparrow” medium-range air-to-air missiles; 4 x AIM-9L/M “Sidewinder” short-range air-to-air missiles; 8 x AIM-120 “AMRAAM” medium-range air-to-air missiles; other conventional air-to-ground weapons; AGM-65 “Maverick” air-to-surface missiles and Laser-Guided Bombs (LGB).

The aircraft is combat proven and offers great avionics and a superb weapons package. However, the weapons are going to come at a very high price, and if procured are going to add to the logistical challenges of an already diverse IAF fleet.


The MiG-35 is the successor of the fabled MiG-29 aircraft. It differs from MiG-29 with an increased payload capacity, increased fuel stores for extended operating ranges, built-in air-to-air refueling capability and reduced radar cross-section.

It sports Phazotron Zhuk-AE Active, Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar and is powered by two RD-33MK afterburning turbofan engines producing 5,397 kgs dry thrust each and 8,999 kgs of thrust with reheat, displaying a top speed of 2,400 km/h (1,296 knots), a max range of 2,000 km (1,079 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 62,336 feet, and a rate-of-climb of 65,000 feet/minute. Its dimensions weigh in at a length of 56.8 feet, a width of 39.4 feet, and a height of 15.4 feet. It marks an empty weight of 11,000 kgs, and a maximum takeoff weight of 29,700 kgs.

The aircraft has a single 30mm GSh-30-1 internal automatic cannon, with 9 hard-points and an array of optional mission specific ordnance such as four AA-10 “Alamo” air-to-air missiles (R-27R, R-27T, R-27ER, R-27ET); four AA-8 “Aphid” air-to-air missiles; eight AA-11 “Archer” air-to-air missiles (R-73E, R-73M, R-74M); Eight AA-12 “Adder” air-to-air missiles; Four AS-17 “Krypton” anti-radiation missiles (Kh-31A, Kh-31P); four AS-14 Kedge (Kh-29T, Kh-29L) air-to-surface missiles; four AS-20 anti-ship missiles; (S-24, S-25L, S-250, S-13, S-8) unguided/laser-guided rockets; KAB-500L laser-guided bombs; KAB-500T TV-guided bombs; FAB-250 drop bombs; FAB-500 drop bombs and ZAB-500 fuel-air explosive bombs.

The MiG-35 is an improved version of MiG-29 and thus offers advantages of common logistics and maintenance infrastructure to some extent. Also, many weapons which are already in the IAF’s inventory can be used by this aircraft. Being the only medium weight fighter in the world to integrate three dimensional thrust vectoring technologies, coupled with the fact that it is the first aircraft in the Russian inventory to deploy an AESA radar – it has an advantage. However, in the past, MiGs were assembled in India without any significant Transfer of Technology. Also, serviceability and maintenance issues have plagued Russian aircraft fleets of the IAF in the past. These factors will weigh heavily in the decision matrix.


The Su-35 is the latest variant of the incredible “Flanker” Family. The aircraft features an in-flight refueling probe, provisions for Electronic-Counter-Measure (ECM) pods, Phazotron radar systems, and digital fly-by-wire (FBW) capability, alongside Irbis-E passive phased array radar systems.

The aircraft is powered by dual Saturn AL-41F1S afterburning turbofan engines producing 8,799 kgs of dry thrust each and 14,514 kgs of thrust each with reheat, which gives it a top speed of 2,400 km/h (1,296 knots), a range of 4,500 km (1,566 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 59,055 feet, and a rate-of-climb of 55,000 feet/minute. Its dimensions are a length of 71.9 feet, a width of 50.2 feet, and a height of 19.4 feet. The empty weight is 17,200 kgs, while the maximum takeoff weight is 34,500 kgs.

The aircraft is armed with one 30mm GSh-30 internal automatic cannon. The aircraft has twelve (Under-Wing and Under-Fuselage) external hard-points carrying a maximum load of 8,000 kgs; with its wingtip launchers reserved for “R-73” air-to-air missiles or Electronic-Counter-Measure Pods. Its optional mission specific ordnance consists of “R-27”, “R-40”, “R-60”, “R-73”, and “R-77” air-to-air missiles; “KH-25ML”, “KH-25MP”, “KH-29”, “KH-31”, and “KH-59” air-to-surface missiles; “GBU-500” and “GBU-1000” Laser-Guided Bombs (LGBs); “GBU-500T” and “GBU-1000T” TV-guided bombs; Anti-Radiation Missiles; “S-25” Infra-Red-guided rockets / pods; Unguided Rocket Pods; targeting pods and Special-Mission Pods as needed.

The Su-35 is the most heavyweight platform to enter the MRCA competition. However, it offers great manoeuvrability. The Su-35’s primary drawbacks are its high maintenance requirements and need for longer runways, relative to lighter fighters. It offers similar advantages as those offered by the MiG-35, like – common logistics, maintenance infrastructure and ammunitions. However, the issues of serviceability and maintenance of earlier Russian platforms will again not be to the advantage of this platform in the matrix.

Eurofighter Typhoon (EF2000)

The Typhoon is a joint development effort by three corporations – Alenia Aeronautica of Italy, BAE Systems of the United Kingdom and EADS of the Netherlands. The aircraft’s cockpit has three multi-function displays, and the aircraft, itself, is equipped with the ECR 90 third generation series radar system with the ability to jam electronic counter measures. The defenses consist of the “Praetorian” Laser-Warning-Receiver, and the Radar-Warning-Receiver Systems.

The Typhoon is powered by two Eurojet EJ200 afterburning turbofans producing 9,185 kgs of thrust each, which enables the aircraft to reach a top speed of 2,495 km/h (1,347 knots), a range of 2,900 km (1,566 nautical miles), a flight ceiling of 64,993 feet, and a rate-of-climb of 62,000 feet/minute. The dimensions cover a length, width and height of 52.4 feet, 35.9 feet, and 17.3 feet respectively. It also carries an empty weight of 11,000 kgs and a maximum takeoff weight of 23,500 kgs.

The EF2000 has one 27mm Mauser BK-27 internal automatic cannon, and mission specific ordnance of AIM-9 “Sidewinder” short-range air-to-air missiles; AIM-132 “ASRAAM” short-range air-to-air missiles; “S225X” missiles; “IRIS-T” short-range air-to-air missiles; AIM-120 “AMRAAM” medium-range air-to-air missiles; “Meteor” Beyond Visual Range (BVR) medium-range air-to-air missiles; “Storm Shadow” stand-off missiles; Taurus “KEPD-350” Stand-off missiles; GBU-10 laser-guided bombs; GBU-12 laser-guided bombs; “Brimstone” anti-armor weapon; AGM-88 “HARM” anti-radiation missiles; AGM “Armiger” anti-radiation missiles; “ALARM” anti-radiation missiles; AGM-84 “Harpoon” anti-ship missiles; “Penguin” anti-ship missiles; “Paveway” II laser-guided bombs; “Paveway” III laser-guided bombs; Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM); Conventional Drop Ordnance / Drop Bombs across 13 external hard-points with a maximum payload of 7,484 kgs.

Having been selected as one of the choices of the IAF in the earlier MMRCA competition, the positives of the Eurofighter Typhoon are many. However, these are very close in comparison with those of the Rafale. Thus, with Rafale already in the IAF’s inventory – common logistics and associated R&D, maintenance and ammunition costs may be weighing against this (otherwise) very capable fighter.


The Rafale is a French multirole Fighter aircraft. It is an advanced fighter built with lightweight-yet-strong composite materials, Fly-By-Wire (FBW) controlling, and voice input capabilities. It also features an Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radar system in its nose. It also features a Thales RB-E2 radar suite, a Thales SPECTRA Electronic Warfare system, and the Thales/SAGEM-OSF Optronique Secteur Frontal Infra-Red (IR) Search and Track system.

The Rafale is powered by two SNECMA-M88-2 augmented afterburning turbofan engines producing 5,102 kgs of dry thrust each and 8,869 kgs of thrust with reheat. Its dimensions measure up at a length, width, and height of 50.2 feet, 35.8 feet, and 17.5 feet respectively. It holds an empty weight of 10,300 kgs and a maximum takeoff weight of 24,500 kgs. The aircraft has top speed of 2225 km/h (1201 knots), range of 3700 Kms (1997 nautical miles), flight ceiling of 15952 feet and a rate of climb of 60,000 ft/min.

The Rafale has 14 external hard-points including 2 wingtip mounts with a maximum load capacity of 9,480 kgs. The aircraft houses a single 30mm GIAT-30/M-791 internal automatic cannon and its mission specific ordnance constitutes of MICA medium-range air-to-air missiles; “Meteor” long-range air-to-air missiles; AM-39 “Exocet” anti-ship missiles; AS-30L laser-guided air-to-surface Missiles; “APACHE” stand-off munitions dispensers; Laser-Guided Bombs “Paveway” / “Enhanced Paveway”; Anti-Armor munitions; Anti-Runway munitions; Runway-Denial munitions; Air-to-Surface Rocket Pods and Air-Launched Cruise Missiles.

The IAF is still in the process of receiving aircraft under the 36 aircraft deal. The cost of R&D of India specific enhancements have already been paid in this deal, and hence if selected it will offer a significant cost advantage. The advantage of existing maintenance infrastructure, common logistics and weapons package will also be a huge positive. However, the earlier MMRCA deal did not fructify because of unresolved issues regarding the aircraft that were to be manufactured in India. With the Govt. of India looking at this project as the one that will transform the country’s aerospace industry, those issues will have to be sorted out by both parties to avoid any negative impact on its probability of selection.

The final decision of the aircraft will probably be based on factors like geopolitical considerations, quantum of Transfer of Technology offered, contours of ‘Make in India’ as part of the offer, and ease of common logistics; in addition to the pure technical evaluation of the aircraft. Whichever aircraft gets chosen at the end will remain the mainstay of the Indian Air Force for (at least) the next four decades, and bring an end to a process that took a very long time to fructify.

Group Captain Anupam Banerjee (r.), is a senior consultant – Society of Indian Defence Manufacturers and former spokesperson of Indian Air Force.


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