By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (r)
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has a sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons. However, the service is down to 31 squadrons currently. The IAF had anticipated the phase-out of the MiG 21, 23, and 27 squadrons well in time and had moved the case for 126 fighter aircraft as early as 2001. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) purchase tender for 126 aircraft was floated in 2008 to fill the gap between the still-to-be-inducted Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) and the in-service Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighter.
The contest was between six fighter aircraft, Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, Mikoyan MiG-35, and Saab JAS 39 Gripen. After an intensive technical evaluation, by April 2011, the bidders were reduced to two fighters—Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. On 31 January 2012, it was announced that Dassault Rafale had won the competition due to its lower life-cycle cost (LCC). However, the deal stalled due to disagreements over production in India, with Dassault refusing to take responsibility for the 108 HAL-manufactured Rafale, as it had reservations about the ability of HAL to accommodate the complex manufacturing and technology transfers of the aircraft. Another point of contention was a provision where Dassault was to reinvest 50 percent of the deal’s earnings into India’s defence sectors, either through purchases or technological expertise.
As negotiations stalled, a government-to-government (G2G) contract was signed on 23 September 2016 for 36 Rafale aircraft to be bought in fly-away condition. The €7.8 billion deal included certain India-specific modifications and ground infrastructure and technical support requirements. All 36 aircraft arrived in India as per plan in 2022.
The delays in indigenous LCA resulted in IAF squadrons continuing to reduce. Despite IAF committing to 40 LCA Mk 1 and 83 LCA Mk1A and having given tacit approval for as many as 2000 LCA Mk II, the inductions remained slow. IAF also fully backs the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Meanwhile, the LCA Mk II will be using the GE-F414 engine. The same may also go in the initial AMCA. India and the United States are in conversation about manufacturing the F414 in India.
Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft RFI
The IAF needed to acquire 114 MRFA (Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft) and the Request for Information (RFI) was issued in April 2018. The Indian Navy’s deck-based fighter requirement was to be viewed in conjunction. Eight aircraft are in the competition. These are the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Boeing F-15EX Eagle II, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-21 (A F-16V variant with India-specific customisation), Mikoyan MiG-35, Saab JAS-39 Gripen E/F, and Sukhoi Su-35. At least six of these were in the MMRCA competition, but most aircraft have seen significant upgrades since they were evaluated last around 2010-11. The Request for Proposal (RFP) has still to be issued. There are complexities related to the level of Transfer of Technology (ToT) and Make-in-India quantum and phases and the proposal to link aero-engine transfer of technology to this deal.
IAF Chiefs have been insisting that any aircraft that India purchases should be able to match those of adversaries. The People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) is pulling ahead in both numbers and quality. They have inducted nearly 150 fifth-generation J-20 aircraft.
This twin-engine multirole fighter has evolved from YF-17 which had lost the United States Air Force (USAF) competition to F-16 in the mid-1970s. The F-18 first flew in 1978 as Hornet and is operated by US Marines and US Navy, Royal Australian and Spanish Air Forces among others. The Hornet and Super Hornet have successfully taken part in the Gulf and Middle East wars. The Super Hornet has a new larger airframe and has seen extensive avionics upgrades. The aircraft is powered by 2 × General Electric F414-400 turbofans. The variant likely to be offered will be customised for India and called F/A-18IN, and have a modern AESA radar. Boeing and Tata’s joint venture, the Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited (TBAL) facility at Hyderabad, supports India as a global exporter of aerospace. The 14,000 square metre facility makes aero-structures of Boeing’s AH-64 Apache helicopter for customers worldwide. Over 150 Apache fuselage have been delivered. Boeing also announced a new production line for vertical fin structures for the Boeing-737 family. This is the first time the Super Hornet is being offered for production in a foreign country. It may be noted that the Indian Navy has also been looking for 57 twin-engine deck-based fighter jets for which F-18 and Rafale-M are the likely contenders.
Boeing F-15EX Eagle II
The Boeing F-15EX Eagle II is an advanced two-seat variant of the F-15E Strike Eagle and made its maiden flight in February 2021. Improvements included the Advanced Missile and Bomb Ejector Rack (AMBER) system to carry up to 16 air-to-air missiles, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, infrared search and track, advanced avionics, electronic warfare (EW) equipment, conformal tanks, and revised structure with a service life of 20,000 hours. The USAF went ahead with these to maintain fleet size as F-22 production ended. The USAF has ordered around 80 aircraft. The Israeli Air Force ordered 25 F-15IA fighters and plans to upgrade 25 F-15Is to the F-15IA standard. The aircraft has a max-take-off weight of 36.7 tons, similar in class to Sukhoi Su-30 MKI at 38.8 tons. With over 260 Su-30 MKI with IAF, India would have to take a call if it requires such a large aircraft in numbers more than USAF.
After a gruelling selection process, the omni-role Rafale came out a winner. It has been operationally tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, and Mali. The fleet is fully operational in IAF. India has infrastructure for two airbases. Also, India has paid for one-time India-specific enhancements. The F4 is the latest variant with radar and sensor upgrades that facilitate the detection of airborne stealth targets at long range and improved communications equipment for more effective network-centric warfare. It is not clear what variant will be on offer. In view of IAF’s depleting numbers, albeit expensive, one school of thought has been to order additional Rafale. The Indian Navy could then order the Rafale-M. These additional numbers would support Make-in-India.
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. The aircraft entered operational service in 2003 and around 600 have been built to date and flown by 10 Air Forces. The fighter is powered by two Eurojet EJ200 engines. It is an agile fighter that has seen operations in Libya. Eurofighter was one of the two aircraft shortlisted after a technical evaluation during the MMRCA competition along with Rafale but lost out on commercial bid. Though a consortium, India would have to have a lead partner to enter into a contract. The upgrades of the aircraft include MBDA Meteor, Storm Shadow and Brimstone integration. There are upgrades to the AESA radar and Electronic suite.
Lockheed Martin F-21
This single-engine air-superiority, multi-role fighter aircraft first flew in 1974 and has since been operated by 26 countries. It has been repeatedly upgraded, including changes to the airframe. The aircraft today has latest technologies and modularity makes it easily further upgradable. The F-21 would be an India-specific Block 70 variant. The aircraft will feature Northrop Grumman’s advanced APG-83 AESA radar and enhanced battle-space awareness avionics. On offer are also many weapons including the latest versions of the AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM).
The aircraft is powered by the GE F110-132A engine. The structural life of the aircraft has been extended to see it flying till 2040. Operational capabilities are enhanced through an advanced data-link, targeting pod and weapons; precision Global Positioning System (GPS) navigation and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS). At one stage, the offer was to shift the entire F-16 manufacturing line to India and make India the global supply chain hub. With 2250 F-16s still flying in 26 countries, it would mean a very significant move. Lockheed Martin has a joint venture company with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) which has proven expertise through the manufacture of airframe components for the C-130J airlifter and the S-92 helicopter. Lockheed Martin and Tata would produce the F-21 in India, for India.
Mikoyan MiG 35
The Mikoyan MiG-35 is a Russian multi-role fighter which is essentially a further development of the MiG-29M2 and was first presented internationally during Aero India 2007. The single-seat version is designated MiG-35, while the two-seat version is called MiG-35D. The fighter has improved avionics and weapon systems, including a new AESA radar, and precision-guided targeting capability. With IAF having already upgraded the MiG-29s, India has already partially imbibed the technologies.
Saab Gripen JAS 39 E/F NG
JAS 39 Gripen first flew in December 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 percent from Swedish or European suppliers and 33 percent from the US. Some operators have adopted the less expensive GE F414G power-plant vis-à-vis the Eurojet EJ200. One plus point is that all operators have access to Gripen’s source code and technical documentation, allowing for upgrades and new equipment to be independently integrated. The next Generation (NG) version on offer to India can be with a more powerful power plant (more expensive EJ-200), new avionics and AESA radar. An EW version of the Gripen F two-seater is under development. 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 a significant transfer of technology to make India ‘an independent manufacturer’ of fighter jets. SAAB has tied with the Adani group as their production partner in India. A proposal has the backing of the Swedish government. It would be a clear advantage if manufacturing the GE F414 in India is on the table.
The Sukhoi Su-35 is yet another upgrade of the Su-27 air-defence fighter family. It is a single-seat, twin-engine, super maneuverable, multi-role aircraft. The two-seater version resembles the Su-30MK family. The Su-35 has a redesigned cockpit and weapons-control system and features thrust-vectoring engines and no canards. The type made its first flight in February 2008. It is currently operated by the Russian Air Force and People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF). With India having very large numbers of Su-30MKI, and also a proposal to upgrade them, Su-35 may not be that attractive.
LCA ‘Tejas’ & AMCA Status
IAF currently has around 35 LCA Mk1. Eighty-three LCA Mk 1A deliveries would begin in 2024 and be completed in 2029. The LCA Mk2’s first flight is planned for around 2024. The aircraft will require significant testing. The operational deliveries may begin around 2029. IAF’s fifth-generation aircraft the AMCA may make its first flight around 2026-27. At the earliest, it can be inducted only around 2032. AMCA would require some foreign technological support, some of which can be factored into the new fighter selection package. Most major powers are reluctant to share the latest technologies, more so with one of the major arms importers.
Multiple Fleets – Multiple Countries
While the trend worldwide is to have limited fleet types, IAF continues to be mired by a multiplicity of fighter fleets with Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Su-30, MiG-21/29, LCA, and Rafale. Adding more types would mean a continued logistics nightmare. Larger fleets can amortise costs and can maintain decent spare backups. Ideally, IAF should settle for SU-30 MKI, Rafale and LCA fleets in the long run with one new fighter and AMCA later. Nearly 65 percent of the IAF continues to be of Russian origin. This dependency on a single country has to reduce. This has become clearer after the Ukraine conflict. Ideally in 20 years, India must target a percentage mix of 40 Indian, 30 Western and 30 Russian.
The necessity of 114 additional fighters is definitive. The starting point is issuing the RFP. Once the RFP responses are received, the chances are that many if not most will meet the technical specifications. The extent of evaluation would have to be decided to save time. The commercial consideration and level of technology transfer on offer would decide the ultimate winner. Chances are that the single-engine aircraft may be cheaper.
There is a continued decision conflict about light versus heavy fighters. Light aircraft are relatively simple with only essential features and lower cost. Intentional simplicity also allows buying larger numbers to outnumber the enemy in the air under combat conditions. Larger fighters provide the opportunity for more technology, longer-range radars, and heavier weapons. However, they are relatively expensive. IAF has to maintain a balance. The LCA would bring in lighter fighter numbers.
Any deal for the new fighter would have to have in-built in the contract maximum technology transfer and support for India’s LCA, AMCA, AESA radar and aircraft engine programs. Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39 is the more recent aircraft with fairly modern technologies. Being an overall smaller political player for India it will be easier to get a good deal from Saab. They are willing to share the source code. However, only 250 Gripen are flying the world over, giving little business leverage for any exports. Also, the original Saab plant will not be shut down. Nearly 30 percent aircraft systems are sourced from the United States of America (USA), which can have complications later.
F-18 is a twin-engine aircraft, and its airframe has recently been redesigned. Boeing has significant presence in the country. Twin-engine aircraft is required by Indian Navy also. Commonality will support Make-in-India. 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 businesses worldwide for maintenance and overhauls. With the MiG-29 upgrade, some of the technologies have already been imbibed. So MiG-35 is unlikely to be a contender. Earlier the Eurofighter had lost out to Rafale on the commercial bid. New commercial bids would have to be seen. Rafale also has the advantage of a naval variant–
thus the advantage of numbers.
All these aircraft have been extensively evaluated during MMRCA selection; as such only the newer sub-systems require a look. Despite much refined DPP-2020, amended in 2022, the only contracts that seem to have gone through have all been G2G deals. All deals with the Soviet Union and Russia in the past were G2G. Also, Americans (P-8I, C-17, C-130, Apache, Chinook and others) and French (Rafale) deals were G2G, too. G2G deals save time, and price discovery is inbuilt. A G2G approach would be the best for the selected fighter for both cost and time savings. Considering the urgency involved, an early decision is operationally most critical.
Air Mshl. Anil Chopra (r) is the Director General, Centre for Airpower Studies