Military & Aerospace

‘Make In India’ Fighter Aircraft: Strategic Options
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Issue Vol. 32.1 Jan-Mar 2017 | Date : 15 Feb , 2017

LCA Tejas

Presently, 26 countries operate the F-16. Many will continue to do so for next 15 years or more. The F-16 is truly a global system with a globalised market and supply chain. Most importantly, the F-16 is the backbone of the fighter force structure of these countries. If the entire production were to shift to India, the price of the platform would decrease due low skilled labour cost. Countries that would like to purchase a fourth-generation aircraft but, which currently cannot afford to do so, may enter the market if prices decline. This deal will provide India enormous opportunities to become the sole supplier of a truly international platform with a proven and viable market.

The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, the replacement for the MiG-21, is still facing production delays…

In view of the depleting strength of the fleet of combat aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) was eagerly waiting for the signing of the Rafale deal. Finally 36 have been contracted for. These numbers are too few vis-a-vis the 126 sought originally. The Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, the replacement for the MiG-21, is still facing production delays. The IAF desperately needs more fighter aircraft. Meanwhile the NDA government has been pushing for ‘Make in India’ in the regime of defence production. Two scenarios are thus evolving, the first being manufacture of the remaining 90 Rafale jets in India by Joint Venture between Dassault Aviation of France and an Indian partner of choice. In such a case, the number of Rafale jets produced could go up further. The second is to produce a proven single-engine, low-cost, state-of-the-art fighter aircraft in larger numbers. Such an arrangement could include making India a production hub of that aircraft for the global market. There are many who feel that both these options need to be pursued.

After the Rafale was shortlisted in 2012, a few among the original six contenders for the MMRCA contract continued to push for a possible fighter aircraft contract with India. When the original MMRCA tender was finally withdrawn in 2015 and it was decided to purchase the Rafale in a Government-to-Government deal, Lockheed Martin (F-16), Boeing (F-18) and Saab (JAS-39 Gripen) moved more aggressively with more sweetened deals that included offering setting up exclusive production lines in India with near full Transfer of Technology and making India an export hub. They also offered to help resolve issues with the LCA including salvaging the Kaveri engine programme. Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is a twin-engine aircraft. The Lockheed F-16 Block 70 is the latest variant with significant improvements. Saab JAS 39 Gripen NG is being offered with flexibility of combinations in engine and avionics. It is interesting to study each of the offers to put things in the correct perspective.

Saab JAS-39 Gripen

India’s Current Plans

The twin-engine Dassault Rafale multi-role combat aircraft is already flying with the French Air Force and Navy. Its flyaway cost is around $85 million. Rafale missions include air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, anti-shipping strikes and nuclear deterrence. Major upgrades on the basic aircraft will mature by 2018 which will include integration of the Meteor BVR missile. The Rafale is planned to be the French Air Force’s primary combat aircraft until 2040 or later. 36 aircraft for the IAF means less than two squadrons. Such low numbers are not viable. It would be cost effective if the remaining 90 aircraft are made in India by the Indian aerospace industry in the public or private sector.

Saab JAS 39 Gripen NG is being offered with flexibility of combinations in engine and avionics…

The Indo-Russian FGFA is the Fifth Generation Aircraft. The IAF had plans to induct 200 twin-seat and 50 single-seat FGFAs to replace the MiG-29 and MiG-27 aircraft. At the estimated unit cost of $100 million it is not going to be cheap either. India contributes 15 per cent of the research and development work, but provides half the cost. Russia has cut-down its numbers in favour of the Su-35. By 2016, Indian interest in the project was also fading after this decision by Russia. However, in September 2016, both sides signed a detailed work-share agreement for joint production. Effectively the project is on albeit with higher risks. The IAF may revise the numbers downwards at some stage.

Design work has begun for DRDO-HAL 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 first flight of the AMCA is scheduled in 2023–2024. This multi-role aircraft will have stealth, super-cruise, super-manoeuverability, advanced AESA radar and advanced avionics. With little know-how in the country and even 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 the AMCA’s engine with full access to the Snecma M88 engine and other key technologies, while the United States has offered full collaboration in engine development with full access to the F-414 and F-135 power plants. The basic wing-form of the AMCA looks similar to the F-22. India plans to have 220 LCA in ten squadrons plus reserves. The first LCA Mk I squadron will be fully equipped by 2018.


Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper

The F-16 ‘Fighting Falcon’ is a single-engine, air superiority, multi-role combat 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. ‘Viper’ is the name normally used by pilots due to a perceived resemblance to a viper snake. The F-16IN Super Viper initially on offer to India was similar to the F-16E/F Block 60 (4.5 Generation) supplied to the UAE. The features include conformal fuel tanks, AN/APG-80 AESA radar, GE F110-132A engine, and advanced avionics. The Pakistan Air force has the older Block 52s.

The IAF had plans to induct 200 twin-seat and 50 single-seat FGFAs to replace the MiG-29 and MiG-27 aircraft…

On offer as a package was the F-35 Lightening-II aircraft in the future, as replacements, if the F-16 was chosen. There are currently enough orders to keep F-16 production line live till 2017. 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 committed to F-16 upgrade using technologies imbibed in the F-35 programme. One key upgrade has been the Ground Collision Avoidance System (GCAS) to reduce instances of controlled flight into terrain. Onboard power and cooling capacity limits are being upgraded to take on addition 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 Scalable Agile Beam Radar (SABR), the new AESA radar. 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.

On offer are also many weapons including latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. South Korea, Oman, Turkey and the US Air National Guard have already requested for F-16 upgrades. The F-16 had 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 operations in Bekaa Valley in 1981, Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria. Older F-16s are being converted into QF-16 drones to be used as targets.

The most advanced variant of F-16, the Block 70/72, is being offered exclusively for India under the ‘Make in India’ programme. The proposal would give India partial control along with the USA over which countries are able to purchase F-16 fighter jets and spare parts. If India were to select the F-16, it would become the sixth country to build it. The PAF operates nearly 100 F-16s, including 13 second-hand F-16A/B Block 15 jets bought from the Royal Jordanian Air Force in 2014. Bulk of the Pakistani fleet consists of Turkey-upgraded Block 52 standard. It also has 18 F-16C/D Block 50/52 planes.

On offer as a package is the F-35 Lightening-II aircraft in the future, as replacements, if the F-16 is chosen…

USA’s growing proximity towards India has pushed Pakistan even closer to China. Pakistan is worried that F-16 production shift to India will have implications for them. USA may coordinate its product support through Turkey. The PAF developed the JF 17 Thunder jointly with China and inducted more advanced Chinese J-10 aircraft. It has also shown interest in Chinese stealth aircraft J-20. In September 2015, Pakistan began talks with Russia for possible purchase of Sukhoi Su-35 air-superiority multi-role fighter.

Saab JAS 39 Gripen NG

The JAS 39 Gripen first flew in December 1988. The 250 aircraft built are flying in Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand. The aircraft has been sourced roughly 67 per cent from Swedish or European suppliers and 33 per cent from the US. The JAS 39E and F variants have adopted the less expensive F414G power-plant vis-à-vis the Eurojet EJ200. All operators also have access to the Gripen’s source code and technical documentation, allowing for upgrades and new equipment to be independently integrated.

On offer to India initially was the Next Generation (NG) version with more powerful power-plant (EJ-200), new avionics and AESA radar. In September 2015, Saab announced that an Electronic Warfare (EW) version of the Gripen F two-seater was under development. The aircraft cost was around $60 million. The Swedish Armed Forces plan to maintain 100 C/D-model aircraft until 2042. The first Gripen E was rolled out on May 18, 2016. Sweden plans to order the Gripen NG, designated JAS 39E/F, that will enter service in 2017 and the cost will reduce only in case of export orders.

Click to Buy: IDR Jan-Mar 2017

SAAB proposed significant Transfer of Technology and to make India ‘an independent manufacturer’ of the fighter jets. The potential customers include Botswana, Brazil, Colombia, Croatia, Finland, Indonesia, Poland, Slovakia, and Switzerland. Sweden has made a strategic move to join and offer to collaborate with the Adani group to use their muscle to bid for sale of the Gripen. Under this proposal, which has backing of the Swedish government, Adani will be their production partners in India.

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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

Air Marshal Anil Chopra

Air Marshal Anil Chopra, commanded a Mirage Squadron, two operational air bases and the IAF’s Flight Test Centre ASTE

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