The Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to be at a near all time low of 33 fighter aircraft squadrons. In fact, it will require around 500 new aircraft by 2030, to compensate for the additional phasing out and to make good the existing shortfalls. The IAF had planned to replace the ageing fleet of Russian MiG-21 and MiG-23/27 with the LCA Tejas and the Rafale. Delays in the LCA Tejas programme and the Rafale deal having been truncated from 126 to 36 aircraft, has upset all acquisition plans and put the IAF back in a difficult situation.
India is the biggest defence equipment buyer and its requirements are only growing…
The Indian Air Force (IAF) continues to be at a near all time low of 33 fighter aircraft squadrons. In fact, it will require around 500 new aircraft by 2030 to compensate for the additional phasing out and to make good the existing shortfalls. The IAF had planned to replace the ageing fleet of Russian MiG-21 and MiG-23/27 with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and the Rafale. Delays in LCA Tejas programme and the Rafale deal having been truncated from 126 to 36 aircraft, has upset all acquisition plans and put the IAF back in a difficult situation. It finally convinced the government to acquire a modern single-engine fighter through global tender.
On January 03, 2017, the then Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar announced plans for a competition to select a Strategic Partner to deliver 200 new single-engine fighters to be Made-in-India. Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen JAS-39 E emerged as the possible contenders. A global tender is likely to be issued in early 2018, with an Indian private company nominated as the production agency. The final government-to-government deal could be signed in 2021. This would mean eight squadrons plus reserves. India was to use this deal to push through the ‘Make-in-India’ initiative with major Transfer of Technology, however, both the companies recently publically denied possibility of full Transfer of Technology. SAAB in any case, uses some foreign systems including the engine from USA. The MoD was in an advanced stage of preparing to issue a global tender, but such statements came as a rude shock. Only a handful of aviation players have the major technologies in terms of radar, engines, stealth and EW systems.
India is the largest market and it is also an emerging power. No one wants India to become independent on this count. Yet India is the biggest defence equipment buyer and its requirements are only growing. With European economies shrinking and China becoming somewhat independent, both Western and Russian arms manufacturers are wooing India. How the single-engine fighter will pan out, is still an open-ended question.
Defence acquisitions are not standard open market commercial procurements and have unique features…
The ‘Make-in-India’ Initiative
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been personally spearheading the Make-in-India campaign and had indicated plans to spend $150 billion to create jobs in defence production. China began a similar exercise nearly two decades earlier. Defence production is a key element in ‘Make-in-India’ strategy if India was to aspire to become a global power. Such an arrangement could include making India a production hub of that aircraft for global sales. DPP-2016 was formulated to achieve enhanced self-reliance in defence manufacturing, to facilitate ‘Make in India’ and also simplify or rationalise various aspects of procurement.
Defence acquisitions are not standard open market commercial procurements and have unique features such as supplier constraints, technological complexity, foreign government regulations, denial of technology, high cost and geo-political ramifications. Concept of strategic-partnerships is meant to resolve some of these. Also, a balance is meant to be maintained between expeditious procurement, high quality and cost-effectiveness. The proposal is to leverage the indigenous manpower and engineering capability, and consolidate design and manufacturing infrastructure within the country.
The ‘Make’ procedure encourages increased participation of the Indian industry, especially MSMEs. The DPP also encourages quicker decision making and ensure level-playing field while keeping self-reliance as a key aim. Foreign Direct Investment in defence has been opened up to 100 per cent in specific cases where specified technologies will get transferred.
36 French Dassault Rafale aircraft have already been contracted for and will begin inducting in 2019…
Committed Plans of the IAF
36 French Dassault Rafale aircraft (two squadrons) have already been contracted for and will begin inducting in 2019, with all aircraft delivered by 2022. The twin-engine, Dassault Rafale multi-role fighter is already flying with the French Air Force and Navy. Rafale missions include air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, anti-shipping strikes and nuclear deterrence. The aircraft has seen operational action in Iraq, Syria, Mali, Libya and Afghanistan. Major upgrades on the basic aircraft will mature by 2018, which will include integration of the Meteor BVR missile. The Rafale is slated to be the primary combat aircraft of the French Air Force until 2040 or later. The IAF has committed for 40 LCA Tejas Mk I and 83 Mk 1A. The Mk 1A variant should start inducting in 2020. Later, the IAF may have the Service Qualification Requirements (SQR) compliant LCA Mk II. Four squadrons of LCA Mk II are planned. The Mk II with the more powerful 98 kN thrust F414 engine, will be ready not earlier than 2022.
The Indo-Russian FGFA is the Fifth Generation Aircraft. The IAF had plans of 200 twin-seated and 50 single-seat FGFAs to replace the MiG-29 and MiG-27. At the estimated unit cost of $100 million, it is not going to be cheap. The FGFA is a project currently in confusion. Officially announced in 2007, it was to have 50:50 work and cost sharing. The ground reality is that, today, HAL has only 15 per cent work share. In 2010, Russia flew its own single-seat prototype even though the IAF was keen on a two-seat variant. By now, the IAF had assessed the project and given over 40 observations on technology, engine, stealth, maintainability and armaments among others.
The D&D budget has gone well beyond the $6 billion earlier meant for each side. Initially, both sides were to acquire 250 aircraft each; the numbers have since been scaled down. The last known figure known to the IAF was down to 144. As India was still trying to make up its mind, Russia has started inducting its variant as SU-57 and is demanding $7 billion more for D&D of the IAF’s two-seat variant. Although India had told the Russians that it was ‘ON’ in the project, physical contracting has still to take place. The grapevine is that the IAF may scale down numbers to 60 to 80.
Design work has begun for DRDO-HAL’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) twin-engine fifth generation fighter. It is meant to replace the aging SEPECAT Jaguar and Dassault Mirage 2000 fighters. The AMCA’s first flight is scheduled to occur in 2023 – 2024. This multi-role aircraft is planned to have stealth, super-cruise, super-maneuverability, advanced AESA radar and advanced avionics. With little know-how in the country, and even the LCA still having miles to cover, all these technologies will require foreign support or collaboration. France made an unsolicited offer to help in development of AMCA’s engine with full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technology, while the US has offered full collaboration in the engine development with full access to the F-414 and F-135. The AMCA’s basic wing-form looks similar to that of the F-22.
The Single Engine Contenders
The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, where the Rafale finally won the competition, originally had six contenders. The contest was between Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting falcon, Mikoyan MiG-35 and Saab JAS 39 Gripen. All these aircraft had gone through extensive ground and flight evaluation by a crack team of IAF test pilots and engineers. After the Rafale was shortlisted in 2012, and negotiations seemed to be running rough, a few among the original six contenders for the MMRCA contract continued to push for a possible fighter aircraft contract with India.
When the MMRCA tender was finally cancelled in 2015, and it was decided to purchase only 36 Rafale jets in a Government-to-Government deal, it was clear that the IAF still needed more numbers. Lockheed Martin (F-16), Boeing (F/A-18) and Saab (JAS-39 Gripen) moved aggressively with more sweetened deals that included offering setting up exclusive production lines in India, near full Transfer of Technology and making India an export hub for that aircraft. They also offered to help resolve LCA technology hold ups including salvage the Kaveri engine programme.
The Lockheed F-16 Block 70 is the latest variant with great improvements. Saab JAS 39 Gripen E/F is being offered with flexibility of combinations in engine and avionics. The decision to have a single-engine aircraft was primarily to cater for LCA delays and also there were cost and operational considerations because with the IAF already having SU-30MKI, MiG-29, Jaguar, Rafale, all being twin-engine, a single-engine aircraft would be cheaper and bring desired numbers. It will be interesting to study each aircraft and the offer to put things in the correct perspective.
The F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ is a single-engine air-superiority, multi-role fighter aircraft which first flew in 1974, and has since been operated by 26 countries…
Lockheed Martin F-16
The F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ is a single-engine air-superiority, multi-role fighter aircraft which first flew in 1974, and has since been operated by 26 countries. Nearly 4,600 of its variants have been built till date and 2,242 are still flying. Its current cost is around $50 million. The F-16 can be called a ‘modern day MiG-21’ in terms of success and huge world-wide sales. The F-16IN Super Viper was initially on offer to India which was similar to the F-16E/F Block 60 (4.5 Generation) supplied to the UAE. The features included conformal fuel tanks, AN/APG-80 AESA radar, GE F110-132A engine, and advanced avionics. Pakistan Air Force (PAF) has the older Block 52 variant. On offer as a package was the F-35 Lightening II aircraft in the future, as replacements, if the F-16 was chosen. The existing orders would keep F-16 production-line live till 2018. The Block 60 is powered by the General Electric F110-GE-132 turbofan with a maximum thrust of 144.6 kN, the highest thrust engine developed for the F-16.
The USAF has already upgraded F-16 using technologies imbibed from the F-35 programme. One key upgrade has been an auto Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS) to reduce instances of Controlled Flight Into Terrain (CFIT). Onboard power and cooling capacities limits are being upgraded, to take on additions of more power-hungry avionics. Upgrade also includes Raytheon’s Centre Display Unit, which replaces several analog flight instruments with a single digital display. It will also get the new AESA radar, the Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR). Raytheon is developing a Next Generation Radar (RANGR) based on its earlier AN/APG-79 AESA radar as a competitor to AN/APG-80 for the F-16.
Also on offer are many weapons including latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. South Korea, Oman, Turkey and the US Air National Guard have already requested F-16 upgrades. The F-16 has been scheduled to remain in service with the US Air Force until 2025, till replaced by F-35A variants. All USAF F-16s will receive service life extension upgrades. The F-16s have had extensive combat participation in conflicts in different terrains since Bekaa Valley in 1981, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Older F-16s are being converted into QF-16 drone targets.