Defence Industry

F-16 for India Air Force…Really?
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 08 Jan , 2017


In 2007, MoD (Ministry of Defence) issued a tender to purchase 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA procurement programme). Objective of this procurement was to bridge the gap between a light fighter (MiG-21, MiG-23, MiG-27 etc and LCA Tejas) and heavy duty fighter Su-30. Six fighter aircraft (F-16 from Lockheed Martin (USA), F/A-18E/F Super Hornet from Boeing (USA), MiG 35 Mikhoyan (Russia), Rafale from Dassault (France), Eurofighter Typhoon and SAAB JAS 39 Gripen (Sweden)) came to participate in the MMRCA race. Out of these 6, JAS 39 Gripen and F-16 were unofficially out of the race before it even begun for them. Because one of the condition of MMRCA was that aircraft should have two engines and these two aircraft are single engine.

In Jan 2012, Dassault Rafale was declared as the winner of the competition. Negotiations went on with Dassault for years and the total `expected cost of the procurement` went up from $10 billion to $16-20 billion. Govt could not strike a deal with Dassault for 126 Rafale and on 30th July 2015, MoD withdrew the MMRCA tender because Govt decided to purchase 36 Rafale in fly away condition from France with weapons, training, and support package. In Sep 2016 a deal was signed for 36 Rafale for roughly $7.87 billion. As per the deal, deliveries must start within 36 months (i.e. from Sep 2019) and must be completed within 67 months (i.e. by March 2022).

Now it would be interesting to see how, in the long run, these 36 Rafale will help IAF. IAF will have a separate maintenance line for just 36 Rafale. Though IAF has been operating Mirage for long time and Rafale’s maintenance chain would be benefitted from Mirages’. Still, it will increase IAF’s maintenance pain.

While the Rafale deal was being finalized, Defence Minister Parrikar had announced that the Govt will soon take a decision on a new line of fighter aircraft. In June 2016, IAF Chief Arup Raha went to Sweden on a 5 days’ tour and flew in Gripen. After ACM Raha’s trip, Defence Minister Parrikar went to Sweden on a scheduled trip in Sep 2016. This showed that Gripen was being considered seriously by India.

Within weeks after signing Rafale deal, MoD issued another RFI for a single engine fighter aircraft under `Made in India` initiative. Both Lockheed Martin and SAAB got another chance and they made lucrative offers. Both have promised to setup production lines in India with complete `Transfer of Technology`. How much ToT happens actually, is to be seen carefully.

But why going for this new aircraft?

When MMRCA tender was launched, Govt made it clear that LCA will be replacing ageing Mig-21s (this was the original purpose when LCA programme was launched decades ago). MMRCA was to fill the gap between light aircraft and heavier Su-30 MKI. So if we are going to replace light Mig-21s with F16 or Gripen, then where would LCA go?

Main problem with Tejas is the timelines promised by ADA and HAL. Tejas first flew on Jan 4th, 2001 and it achieved Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) on Dec 20th, 2013 and it is still to achieve Final Operational Configuration (FOC). HAL has missed promised FOC date repeatedly and the current promised FOC date is March 2017. Even if Tejas achieves FOC by March 2017, is it not too long a time for an aircraft from its first flight to achieving FOC – 16 years!

On 01-July-2016, IAF inducted LCA Tejas with just two aircraft in `Flying Daggers` squadron. Currently, HAL can produce eight Tejas in a year and has submitted a proposal to Defence Ministry to ramp up the production to 16 aircraft per year. But keeping its track record in mind, IAF can’t be expected to count on HAL’s promised production rate. IAF has ordered total of 123 LCAs, out of which HAL was expected to deliver 40 Tejas (in IOC configuration which will be upgraded to FOC configuration once FOC is achieved) by 2020 but so far just 2 have been delivered.

At present, the only new joinee in IAF is Su-30 (IAF will induct a total of 272 Su-30 fighters). 36 Rafales will start coming from second half of 2019 and realistically, first 40 Tejas will not join IAF before 2021-2022. During this time, most of the MiG-21s will get decommissioned. Very soon, IAF’s squadron strength is going to touch its lowest point – roughly around 30. Recently retired Air Chief Arun Raha said on 28th Dec 2016 that IAF needs 200-250 fighters during next 10 years and country needs another production line alongside Tejas’.

Hence It appears to be a wise decision to go for a single engine fighter procurement, provided the Tejas programme is not much affected.

Should IAF pick F-16: -

Well, we don’t need the best aircraft available in the market. What we actually need is a good aircraft that serve our purpose of replacing vintage MiG series aircraft, capable of achieving our military objective and should be able to meet our requirement for at-least 40 years without losing competitive edge because of fast paced technological advances. Both F-16 and Gripen are highly advanced aircraft packed with AESA radars, Electronic warfare suites, advanced avionics and weaponry. Here our objective is not to compare their weaponry and gadgets but to see beyond that.

F-16 development started in 1972 and it first flew on 2nd Feb 1974. Since then there have been countless upgrades to the initial F-16 developed and approximately 4500 F-16 have been delivered to US Air Force and 27 foreign customers. Undoubtedly, it is a lethal machine that has secured its place among the best ever fighter aircraft’ list. Most advanced version i.e. F-16 Block 70 is on offer to India. But it will not be a good choice for IAF for following reasons: -

  • If MoD select F-16 or Gripen right now, it will take a long time to finalize the technical and financial terms and conditions of the actual contract. MoD and the manufacturer will not be able to sign the contract before late 2017 or early 2018. Another 2/3 years will be spent on transferring the production line to India and finalizing contract with local vendors. First aircraft will not come out of the assemble line before 2021. IAF will have its first complete squadron latest by late 2022 or early 2023. Going by this timeline, if Govt selects F-16, IAF will induct a 50+ years old aircraft and will have to fly it for another 40 years. This does not sound logical. Not to mention that all these wishful timelines are being assumed considering there is no hiccup. Any small issue can become a show stopper and delay this timeline considerably.

On the other hand, SAAB Gripen is comparatively new. It was developed in 80s, it first flew in Dec 1988 and entered service with Swedish Air Force in 1993. There is no doubt that radar, sensors, avionics, electronic warfare suites etc can be upgraded in any aircraft to make it more lethal but airframe plays its own role. JAS-39’s delta wing design provides it more lift and its canards give it more manoeuvrability.

  • Lockheed Martin is willing to shift the production line from Texas to India provided India agrees to induct F-16 in sufficient number. If MoD gives it node, Lockheed will be more than happy to do it because they don’t have any new order for their existing production line. After the current order, Lockheed will shift their man power to F-35 production line and most likely close the F-16 production line soon. In this scenario, moving the F-16 production line to India will give additional business to Lockheed. But will they do complete ToT is to be seen – especially when it will come to the AESA radar?

On the other hand, SAAB has taken the offer to a new level. Chairman of Saab India- Jan Widerstrom said “Saab is not only looking at setting up a base here but also helping in the development of aerospace capability for many more years to come. We will design, develop, produce and maintain in India,” including technology transfers to improve Tejas or future projects. This is where we can take advantage for Tejas project. SAAB has a history of developing excellent fighter aircraft. SAAB will be more willing (as compared to Lockheed Martin) to share knowledge and co-develop with ADA because if Gripen is selected for this order, it will be one of the biggest orders in the history of the company. And it will also give them access to the market of the second largest arms importer in the world.

  • IAF’s prime adversary PAF (Pakistan Air Force) has been flying and maintaining F-16 for 30 years. On the other hand, it will take minimum 1-2 years’ rigorous training for IAF pilots and ground staff to become familiar enough with the aircraft to take on the enemy. Though IAF will be using most advanced F-16, some advantage will still be with the PAF as they know the aircraft better than us.
  • Maintenance: - This is where it is going to hurt IAF the most. Every professional airforce in the world tries to minimise the number of models of aircraft of one type. French Air Force is standardizing with Mirage and Rafale, USAF with F-15, F-16 and F-22 (eventually F-15 and F-16 will be replaced by F-35), USN with F-18 etc. Similarly, IAF is trying to minimise the fighter aircraft models it operates. By the time, this single engine aircraft comes out of the production line somewhere in 2022/2023 onwards, IAF would be operating – 

Russian Su-30
Russian MiG-29
Russia FGFA (should be inducted by 2025)
French Mirage -2000V
French Rafale
Anglo-French Jaguar
Indian Tejas MkI
and hopefully Tejas Mk II by late 2020s

Now adding F-16 or Gripen in this line will definitely increase logistics burden of IAF. Especially if we select F-16 block 70, because along with its own set of avionics, Data Link, Precision GPS navigation, Targeting Pod, AN/APG 83 AESA radar etc, it will also come with GE-F110 engine 1 or Pratt and Whitney engine. With F-16, IAF will become the only air force in the world that would be bearing logistics pain of maintaining fighter aircraft from entire world – Russian, European and American. A museum of a sort. 

On the other hand, Gripen uses GE 414 engine, same engine that HAL will use in Tejas Mk II. Gripen uses Selex Raven ES-05 AESA radar and its avionics are designed using MIL-STD-1553B. It can be integrated with French and Israeli weaponry, targeting pods, electronic warfare suites etc. IAF is already using French/Israeli systems and/or weaponry in Mirage, Jaguar, Su-30 and Tejas. All this will reduce maintenance load of IAF considerably.

F-16 Block 70 uses MIL-STD-1773 and can also be integrated with French/Israeli systems but it is unclear how willing Lockheed Martin will be to integrate systems from different countries in its plane.

  • Geopolitics: - All big ticket weapon deals become a tool to gain geopolitical favour. Perhaps that was why 36 Rafale were purchased. Because it would not make any operational sense for IAF if we just buy 36 Rafale (for $7.8 Billion whereas, as Parrikar said in an interview, deal for 126 Rafales was to be concluded for appr. $16 Billion). Lockheed will not leave any stone unturned to bag the deal – including using Washington’s influence on New Delhi. And if we go with F-16, we will repeat our mistake when we put all our eggs in Russian basket in 60s and 70s. At that time, India was cash strapped and did not have any choice. Now is the different situation and if we put most of our eggs in American basket now, then tomorrow we should be ready to get arm-twisted in geopolitics, UN issues, business deals and what not.

Thus considering above mentioned reasons, it appears that SAAB Gripen will be a much better choice that will not only meet IAF’s long term requirement but also joint development and boost to the local aviation industry. But South Block will have more to consider before making the choice.

Make-in-India V/S IAF’s requirement: - Single Engine Fighter procurement started under `Make-in-India` category. It is clear that this procurement is not only to fulfil IAF’s requirement but to bring home (i) technology for domestic aviation industry and (ii) manufacturing (hence job opportunities). If Gripen is selected, then it will meet IAF’s requirement and bring home manufacturing. But Gripen uses foreign weaponry, American GE 414 engine and Selex AESA radar, it will not be able to contribute much in these core areas as far as joint development is concerned. On the other hand, F-16 will not be a good choice as far as IAF’s long term requirement are concerned.

Best option for the government will be:

  • getting more Rafales to maintain qualitative and quantitative edge of the IAF. It will help specially when MiG-29, Jaguar and Mirage will retire by late 2020s/early 2030s.
  • pushing HAL to concentrate more efforts on Tejas to get FOC & to increase production rate by setting up another production line with private sector partnership. This will also give a sense of competition to HAL.
  • getting Dassault’s technological assistance to sort out existing issues in core technologies and further development of Tejas Mk II. 

Readers would remember that during MMRCA negotiations, to fulfil offset clause, Dassault had agreed to invest $ 1 Billion on Kaveri engine and make the engine at par with GE 414.

As discussed, it will easily take at least 5 years to first F-16 or Gripen inducted in IAF. So if we are going to invest 5 years and billions of dollars then why not spending same energy and money on long term interest of the IAF and the domestic aviation industry. Instead of importing a production line, we can get them to help sort out issues of Kaveri and Tejas. Govt must ensure accountability of all parties involved (ADA, HAL & IAF) in the programme. Tejas Mk I must be delivered to IAF in sufficient number in set time lines and Mark II version should get developed in time, with deliveries starting by late 2020s when Mirage and Jaguars will be approaching end of their life.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Sumit Walia

is an IT Specialist. He is also a military history buff who continues to explore & research various facets of the Indian Military history in his spare time.

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11 thoughts on “F-16 for India Air Force…Really?

  1. This is a excellent idea. Not spending much on Imports, begging other/s-Countries for Technology Transfer, they fix the rules saying only certain parts can be on TOT and remaining they will have control. Like the software part , AESA Radars where we are not yet strong.
    As said above by Implementing this, we may slowly build and learn the required technologies and thereby become independent and in future develop other Advanced technologies and rely only on our Manufacturing units whcih will increase Jobs, Technicians, and decrease the dependibility. By implementing this,We, not save money but also increase a lot of Opportunities/Avenues for Exports and therby create “Reserves of Foreign Exchange”. In turn become a Richer Country. Right from the day i was Born or even much before that, India is said only a “Growing Country” even after 70 Big Years close to a Century and still. This can be changed if the Government takes the right step as said above by Inviting SAAB Gripen to start a line. But before entering into agreement, we need to make sure that all the requirements-Price, Full & Complete TOT, Assistance & involvement in developing Tejas MKII & AMCA without any further hike in price per
    plane. Unlike Russians who fooled us on the Ship-Air Craft Carrier, formerly Gorbachev & now Vikramaditya.

  2. Nice article again…kudos yaar

    I have strong belief on this current central govt when it comes to defence and its infrastructure, this is my personal opinion.

    Hope best comes out of this govt which will boost our defence sector along with our economy.

  3. If you ask any IAF officers where did they get the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons? Nobody will give a satisfactory answer. It is only an imaginary figure to fool the general public and the previous defence ministers. India never had 42 squadrons of fighter planes. India fought 1971 war with 34 squadrons and each squadron was having 12 serviceable planes Out of 34 squadrons, IAF used 20 squadrons in the West and 14 in the East. To conduct one sortie they used two fighter planes.on those days. Now only one fighter plane is required to conduct sorties using GPS or AWAEC. IAF is still showing the fighter plane in squadrons. This is an outdated concept which was followed in world War II. It is very convenient to fool the civilian Govt. and the general public. They should indicate the number of planes required and not the number of squadrons. The most important are the number of sorties to be conducted to neutralise enemy fire power. In the West, In 14 days war, they conducted 4000 sorties with 20x 12 =240. fighter planes. Now IAF has got 520 fighter planes excluding Mig 21. At that time missiles and the helicopter were rarely used. Now UAV is also used. So the IAF demands are unrealistic and without any base.

  4. Why are the IAF officers much fascinated with Rafael plane? The UPA Govt has spoiled the defence officers particularly IAF officers. UPA Govt was not interested in the welfare or progress of the nation. They were interested in making money and their assets. Similarly, IAF officers never cared to purchase equipment really required for the country. They always create inflated demands without any realistic study. IAF never had 42 squadrons of fighter planes at any point in time. They fought the 1971 war with 34 squadrons fighter planes with inferior planes. Please read the article given below:-
    Part Five: Air War in the West
    IAF officers rejected the offer of F-16 plane saying Pakistan has a similar plane and it is difficult to distinguish during the period. of war. Now Qatar has purchased Rafael plane and being operated by Pakistani pilots. Pakistan will be able to use Qatar plane in case of a war against India. and it will be very difficult for India to distinguish whether it is an enemy plane or not. Qatar has enough money they can upgrade the weapon and avionic whenever they want. So India can maintain air superiority with less than 34 squadrons with modern weapons.Tejas and Gripen are enough.

  5. The proposal to have production base of different fighter aircrafts in India is in line with the MAKE IN INDIA concept and I think it is a great opportunity offered to us. I think we should grab the opportunity without any hesitation.

    I have doubt on the result of pushing HAL to produce more aircraft in future. Instead of that we shall have another alternative production line with F-16 or Gripen. HAL will concentrate on Tejas. These will relieve pressure from HAL at the same time we will be able to meet the requirements of IAF. By participating with foreign aircraft manufacturer for production of F-16 or Gripen, our private sector industries will be more mature and it will be a step forward towards our self reliance in military aviation technology.

    I think in long run this will benefit IAF. Also a portion of the money spent will remain with us. Financially we will alsobe benefited.

    However while negotiating with the parties I think the following points may be taken care :

    - Our scope of work in the production process. Who offer the best to fulfill our goal towards our self-reliance in military technology?
    - Opportunity for future technical enhancement of the offered system in-terms of use of next generation weapons and radar systems ?
    - Availability of spare parts as required for maintenance. We should be able to manufacture and supply all spares as needed from India in future.
    - Validity of the offered system.
    - Sale of the product to others including our rivals and how the technical secrecy of the product will be maintained?

  6. It really provide me more insight of the IAF deal and how they rise up their inventory.
    Sumit has done great study and bringing this article in a best way to understand by all.
    Good going Buddy. Always good to read your written editorial.

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