Article By – Vikas Uttamrao Thombare & Pratisht Chaudhry
We all know that Indian Air Force is world’s fourth largest and powerful Airforce but even after this, we lack in numbers because maybe Indian air force is qualitatively much better than our modern enemies but lacks a crucial thing which are numbers. The Indian air force (IAF) planned to have 42 fighter squadrons where a typical fighter squadron contains 18-20 aircrafts but currently, IAF only have some 32+ fighter squadrons and that too are composed of fighters like Mig-21, Jaguars, Mirage-2000’s etc, as you Might guess these aircrafts are decades old, although all of them have been upgraded extensively from Mig-21 to Mig-21 bison, from jaguars Darin ii to Jaguar Darin iii, from mirage-2000 to upgraded mirages [there are more details about these upgrades below] , these fighters are capable of facing current generation fighters best example of that is how a decades old Mig-21 of IAF shot a modern Pakistani F-16 but still upgrading is not an option because the upgrades require a high cost and further a thing can just be upgraded to a limit, a limit which is offered by an aircraft for example su-30 MKI have been extensively upgraded not because it is under-capable but because of its structure and Mighty AL-31FP engines which offers a thrust of 123 kN , the potential to upgrade that machine is humungous but when it comes to smaller aircrafts, the upgrading them beyond a limit is not possible because of their old structures to comparatively weaker engines.
India to overcome this problem launched a tender/deal to induct aircrafts in large numbers in 2007, named MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) tender. In this article we would be knowing tender in more details, all the fighters competing in MMRCA, overview of particular fighters and their advantages/disadvantages, geo-political advantage of the aircrafts and reason of failures.
The Indian air force desperately needs 114 fighter jets to replace its ageing fleet of vintage Mig-21 and many other fighters from 1970s.
The medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition was launched in 2007 in India, also known as the MMRCA tender or MRCA (multi-role combat aircraft) tender, was a competition to supply 114 multi-role combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force (IAF). It is India’s single largest defence deal. The MMRCA tender was floated with the idea of filling the gap between its future light combat aircraft and its in-service Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighter as told earlier IAF is the fourth largest air force in the world, with a strength of more than 1,500 aircraft, including more than 750 combat aircraft.
Due to budgetary constraints—specifically, the economic problems in the early 1990s—the refurbishment of old planes and purchase of new ones was halted. Added to this was the disintegration of the soviet union, which led to severe shortage of aircraft spares, which rendered many of them unserviceable. The attrition was stemmed to some extent by extensive upgrade programs on the Mig-21 (bis upgrade), Mig-27 (retired now), Jaguar (Darin I upgrade) and other aircraft in the mid-1990s. an aggressive program of upgrades was initiated. the Mig-21bis aircraft have been upgraded to Mig-21 bison levels (125 aircraft will be upgraded to that standard), Jaguars to Darin iii standards, and Mirage 2000s and Mig-27s were also upgraded, with decreased aircraft squadrons level, mainly Mig-21s are set to be replaced by MRCA winner because all the above aircrafts except Mig-21 can serve a bit more.
Requirement of Indian Air Force: –
The aircraft are intended as day and night capable, all weather multi-role combat aircraft which can be used for the following roles: –
(a) air superiority
(b) air defence
(c) air to surface operations
(f) EW missions
(g) buddy refuelling etc.
The short-listed contenders (foreign equipment manufacturer) are:
- Dassault Rafale
- Eurofighter Typhoon
- Boeing f/a-18 super hornet
- Lockheed Martin F-16/21
- Saab Gripen E/F
- Mikoyan Mig-35
- Sukhoi Su-35
- Boeing F-15 Ex
- Dassault Rafale: –
country of origin: – France
per unit cost: – US$84.48 million
- France does not come under ITAR sanctions
- India can strengthen its nuclear triad as France allowed ASMP integration
- close-coupled canards give Rafale extreme low speed manoeuvres
- Rafale incorporates 5th generation spectra EW system, one of the most sophisticated EW systems in the world
- India will operate 36 Rafale hence logistics and spares supply will not be an issue and also will require lesser time for pilots and ground crew to get trained
- France’s subsidiary is looking forward to revive indigenous Kaveri engine project through offset hence will decrease dependence on foreign OEMs for future projects
- It is also competing for MRCBF tender thereby enhancing interoperability
- Higher initial cost due to lower production run as only 201 are made till date
- Lower compatibility- Rafale’s are already very sophisticated and their engine’s further produce a quiet good thrust according to the aircraft, the thrust is not enough to do an extensive upgrade program, France also don’t allow integration of any new weapons easily specially Israeli weapons which are major component of Indian arms
- Same mistake of Su-30 – we all know India also ordered su-30’s in the bulk and by the time the delivery of su-30 was completed to India, Su-35 was already developed, here also its possible that if we today order f-4 variant of Rafale (the latest one, which are yet to come in a year or so), by the time 126 of them are delivered; France may operate f-5 variant of Rafale’s (if France plans it).
2.Boeing F/A-18 super hornet
country of origin: – USA
per unit cost: – US$55 million
- Boeing committed to help India build its own 5th generation aircraft AMCA
- Super hornet incorporates general electric GE f414 which is one of the most reliable engines in the world thus reducing overall maintenance cost. also, the same engine will be used for MWF, AMCA MK1 and TEDBEF
- it is also competing for MRCBF tender thereby enhancing interoperability
- Incorporates highly sophisticated avionics and sensor suite
- Includes a stealthy weapons pod in block 3 (offered to India) that gives it zero drag and low RCS
- can be configured to perform as a e/a-18g growler for EW missions
- Indo-us ties at all time high
- hornets support both type of refuelling and hence will enhance interoperability
- US sanction policy
- It’s an American platform which would bring an all together a new logistics and supply chain which would come as an additional burden to IAF that operates a mix of Indian, French British and Russian fighter jets
- sensor fusion and interoperability: – as we know that India operates Russian SAMS systems and recently signed for s-400 system therefore to integrate Russian air defence system with us radars onboard fighter jets will be a challenge for India and will also increase the capital acquisition costs and no proper utilisation of fighter jets can be done
- lower and limited extend of transfer of technology
- a disguised friend- here we don’t need to elaborate much as now days during Covid when India desperately required us help then us was reluctant to do so until they bow downed to Indian pressure, so a line became extremely popular-‘ allies of us have to be more careful than their enemies
3. Eurofighter Typhoons
country of origin: – Germany , Spain , Italy , UK
per unit cost: – us$108 million
- only omni-role fighter in the competition
- lost to Dassault Rafale majorly due to monetary basis
- has a bad reputation as after Rafale was selected, India was offered typhoons at a much lower quoted price?
- multi nation ownership which comes as a tough call as Germany has tough stance in MTCR
4. Boeing F-15EX
country of origin: – USA
per unit cost: – US$ 125 million (latest us f-15 ex deal)
- Indo-US ties at all time high
- exceptional weapon carrying capacity
- proven and reliable aircraft
- advanced avionics
- better endurance
- powerful engine
- it will increase interoperability
- us sanction policy
- a new logistics and supply chain need to be made from scratch if IAF procures it
- lower and limited extend of transfer of technology
- it is of the same category as that of su-30 MKI and India has sufficient heavy weight fighter jets fleet and does not require any more
- maintaining and flying a heavy weight fighter jet is a challenge in its own as even USAF wasn’t able to push availability of f-15s beyond 70%.
- sensor fusion and interoperability: – as we know that India operates Russian SAMs systems and recently signed for s-400 system therefore to integrate Russian air defence system with us radars onboard fighter jets will be a challenge for India and will also increase the capital acquisition costs no proper utilisation of fighter jets can be done
5. Sukhoi su-35
country of origin: – Russia
per unit cost: – USD 65 million
- one of most capable aircraft in the competition
- carries wide range of weapons including hypersonic weapons
- highly unstable design thus providing more manoeuvrability in addition to thrust vectoring controls that increases fuel efficiency and proper diversion of thrust
- it will reduce the overall cost of super Sukhoi upgrade if IAF procures su-35
- it can carry hypersonic weapons
- independence that Russia offers- see Russian weapons when operated by India are not restricted by any means, India is even free to use any of its inventory from su-30 MKI to Mig -29s against china and even after many requests of china to Russia to place a sort of restrictions on Indian weapons, Russia have indirectly choose independence of Indian weapons from them. Russia is also trustworthy in a way that the technology of crucial Indian projects from brahmos to astra mk-3 where Russia is a co-developer, these tech have not leaked to china or any other nation, this ensures the secrecy of weapons with India and any upgrade done on them.
- compatibility- we all know that sukhoi-30 MKI is like India, like India’s strength is its diversity, Sukhoi’s strength is its compatibility and this would also be promised in su-35’s if procured as no other jet whether American or from some other nation have capability of firing Russian, Indian, French, Israeli weapons at once and have a mix of French , south African , Indian avionics.
- India already operates heavy weight fighter and has enough fleet of heavy weight fighter jets
- after super Sukhoi upgrade, India will have its su-30MKI matching the capabilities of su-35
- su-35 is a heavy weight fighter hence not fit for this completion, also extreme dependency on one nation isn’t a correct thing to do.
- India’s experience with Russian fighter jet can be quoted one reason but then India is not stupid that it still brought Russian weapons like Mig-29s and more su-30’s under emergency procurement, there’s a reason why India didn’t choose any french or american firm over Russian inventory
- scarcity of spare parts and poor after sales services.
- Russia’s nature- although every nation demands business but because of restrictions on Russia placed by us, it only have left with two major partners china and India, and now china operates su-35 although in small numbers, Russia has also bowed down to china for its business and for its critical economy as India still being a reliable partner is becoming independent from foreign equipment’s so Russia is also not perfect.
6. Lockheed martin f 16/21: –
country of origin: – usa
per unit cost: – us$50 million
- these incorporate cft’s which has its own advantages
- it also incorporates sensors and avionics from f-22 and f-35
- it is also known as F-16 on steroids
- it’s a proven design
- has a powerful engine
- low operating cost
- lower acquisition cost
- f-21 would be India exclusive
- supports both air to air refuelling methods
- it’s a 1970s design and incorporates technology from that era in the airframe which is carried forward
- American sanctions policy due to which trusting Americans in fighter jets is doubtable
- Pakistan also operates F-16 and hence will not give edge over its adversaries
- recently India shot down PAF F-16 with the help of its Mig-21 which is a fighter jet from its preceding generation and hence IAF doubts F-16s capability
- f-21 is just a bolt on upgrade performed on F-16 viper hence will not provide India a potent deterrence against its adversaries
- us is offering F-16 at a time when it itself is making a transition from a mix fleet of fighter jet to f-35 jsf and hence IAF hesitates to go with it as it was first rolled out of production line in 1970s and is offering F-16 to just keep its job at us for another decade
- recently us officials themselves quoted that the ’16 ton F-16’s are difficult to upgrade’ hence killing f-21 practically
- sensor fusion and interoperability: – as we know that India operates Russian SAM systems and recently signed for S-400 system therefore to integrate Russian air defence system with us radars onboard fighter jets will be a challenge for India and will also increase the capital acquisition cost and no proper utilisation of fighter jets can be done
7. Saab Gripen NG: –
country of origin: – Sweden
per unit cost: – us$48 million
- Gripen incorporates general electric ge f414 which is one of the most reliable engines in the world thus reducing overall maintenance cost
- also, the same engine will be used for mwf, amca mk1 and tedbef
- known as sukhoi killer by saab hence can be effective against chinese adversaries
- lower operating cost
- Saab is pitching 100% tot to Indian vendors which will give required boost to MSMEs growth in coming years
- lower acquisition costs
- it will be a major setback to India if India procures Gripen as India has its own Hal Tejas which has same features as that of Gripen hence will put Tejas development in vein
- Gripen employs a variety of components from various vendors across the globe and hence 100% tot seems to be a daydreaming
- the fact that many people are unaware of is saab griphen is also a lca (light combat aircraft) ,this single engine aircraft is although quiet effective but then it falls in same category of lca tejas and Gripen a- and c-series are powered by the ge f404g engine (previously designated volvo rm12) and the e-series is powered by the ge f414g engine, and has a top speed of mach 2 which makes it almost similar to upcoming tejas mk-2 , infact the griphen a and c have similar engines of tejas mk-1a and griphen e is powered by american engines the f-414 similar to those ordered by India for tejas mk-2
8. Migoyan Mig-35
country of origin: – Russia
per unit cost: – us$38.5 million
- Mig-35 has one of the most advanced fbw (fly by wire system) and also incorporates tvc (thrust vectoring controls)
- it has an impressive performance and weapon carrying capacity
- greater manoeuvrability
- lowest initial cost i competition
- it can carry hypersonic weapons
- it lacks range
- can be just used for air defence
- poor maintainability
- Russian industry lacks in electronics
- India has a sour experience with soviet Migs
- one must not have very much dependence on one nation for its air force
- it’s a 1970s design and India upgraded its Mig-29s to Mig-29 upg standard which already made them very capable and similar to Mig-35 except Mig-35 have a mordern era flight control system with digital avionics.
- cause of concern: – Russia sold rd-93 engines to pakistan for jf-17 thunder and has also supplied su-35’s to china at one time.
Fate of the deal: –
MMRCA is the biggest military aviation tender (by value) that has been released in past two decades. since this deal is going to be a game changer for Indian aviation sector and MSMEs ecosystem as this is will new technologies into Indian ecosystem hence chances of scrapping of these deals are quite high given the current conditions
current CDS gen Bipin Rawat has said that India in future will not go for big ticket purchases from foreign OEMs and would rather go with staggered purchase method this is so because post its induction when they come to end of their life , all are phased out at the same time and this would create a deeper void in IAF inventory and this indicate that India will go ahead with follow on order of additional 36 Rafale and will again go with another 36 Rafale which will bring the Rafale fighter jet to 108 that would come with a lower price tag because of recent amendments in latest DPP policy where mod has removed offset clause in government to government deals which will decrease the acquisition cost and also India has already paid for ise (India specific enhancement)
Cons Of Staggered Purchases: –
Indian MSMEs will not get the required technology and know how to build advance fighter jet components and substructure in India.
although the deal seems to be quiet impressive, it’s a matter of fact that MMRCA deal have already been scrapped once and today also the future of this deal seems to be inconclusive when it is launched again with a name of MMRCA 2.0 .the deal in itself doesn’t make any sense as it could chain India to foreign nations , the mistake we wouldn’t like to do so as we did with USSR as the number of 126 jets is not small , the deal even if taken seriously would take some 3-5 years at its quickest pace, then the delivery of the aircraft would start after 2025-2027, that time in itself is very crucial for Indian aviation industry as India is entering a booming era where it would roll out its indigenous aircrafts and make super crucial weapons like AMCA mk-1, Tejas MK-2, super Sukhoi’s, TEDBF, ORCA so the deal could prove fatal to these programs and geo-political pressure can break India’s diplomacy because if we buy from Europe, America and Russia have problems, if we buy from us, Russia can move close to china and Europe can again gain its India reluctant behaviour again and this chain continues, India’s only way is Atmanirbhar Bharat and with programs like AMCA to Tejas Mk-2 ,India have the chance to go from importer of foreign equipment’s to their creditors/ exporter, let the country shine.