The MMRCA deal and its subsequent avatar in the form of an off-the-shelf purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets have been making news for a long time now. Of late, there have been a lot of contradicting statements by the defence minister, the Air Force chief, representatives of Dassault – the makers of the much talked about fighter, and other stakeholders about the outcome of the price negotiations. But, even after all this hype, one would wonder whether the government is doing the right thing by opting for the 36 fighters (2 squadrons) of the seemingly exorbitantly expensive Rafale, with a possible additional order for 18 fighters (1 Squadron).
…the purchase would do little to arrest the worrying shortfall in the IAF’s squadron numbers, not to mention that the original MMRCA requirement was for 126 fighters with a possible option clause for 60 plus additional aircraft.
The high cost doesn’t mean that the Rafale is a bad choice. It is indeed a good choice going by the technical evaluation that the IAF had conducted. One parameter that sets the Rafale apart from other contemporary fighters is its high combat radius (> 1800 Kms). This would mean that the Rafale can be used as a long-range strike fighter which can carry its payload deep into hostile territory, a capability which can be matched by very few fighter jets worldwide, if any.
Even if the Rafale deal goes through and assuming that the defence ministry would exercise the add-on clause for the additional 18 fighters, the fact is that the purchase would do little to arrest the worrying shortfall in the IAF’s squadron numbers, not to mention that the original MMRCA requirement was for 126 fighters with a possible option clause for 60 plus additional aircraft.
There have been demands from various quarters that the IAF should consider buying more LCAs than what is being planned for, to meet the MMRCA requirement. But, such demands cannot be justified from a strategic and economic perspective, since buying more fighters in the light combat category like the LCAs is meaningless, considering the fact that the MMRCA program was for a Medium combat fighter – the Rafale being one. The LCA is not capable enough to evade the enemy’s air defence network and strike deep inside hostile territory. It is also not suited for the deep strike role because of its limited payload capacity. Although such rules may be overlooked at in times of war, they shouldn’t be ignored when making procurement decisions.
The unit cost of the F/A-18 Super Hornet will also be much lesser than the Rafales.
That leaves the IAF with a few options to fill in the gaps which the trimmed Rafale deal would create in its squadron strength – the Lockheed Martin F-16, the Eurofighter Typhoon (which also passed the IAF’s MMRCA technical evaluations), the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Mig-35 and the Saab JAS 39 Gripen. Of these, only Boeing, Lockheed Martin and Saab have offered to assemble their respective fighters in India and thus will be favoured in case the defence ministry decides to produce fighters to meet the MMRCA requirement. The Gripen is a good fighter, albeit with little combat experience. The F-16 and the F/A-18 are proven fighter jets with a good enough track records.
The F-16 is a fighter which started flying in the late 1970s.It has undergone various upgrade programs during its entire operational history with the U.S. Air Force. It is a known fact that the fighter is about to reach the end of its evolution cycle as a platform and that no further upgrades to it would be made in the future, other than the ongoing upgrade programs. However, the USAF might opt for further upgrades in the form of mere lifecycle extensions, if the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter is not ready on time for mass production. This would mean that the F-16 would be a bad choice for India. Also, it is not a good idea to procure the same fighter which Pakistan already has in its inventory.
Though this leaves the IAF with only the F/A-18 Super Hornet as a choice, there are other important reasons why choosing the F/A-18s should be the right way forward.
Firstly, there are arguments that the Super Hornet is basically an upgraded version of the older McDonnell Douglas F/A-18 Hornet. Factually this is not entirely true, since the Super Hornet is a completely redesigned new fighter with some commonality with the older F/A-18. The Super Hornet started flying in the mid-90s and has since been flying with multiple Air forces and Navies around the world. The unit cost of the F/A-18 Super Hornet will also be much lesser than the Rafales.
India had been working on its Kaveri engine program, which has now been dubbed as a failure.
The second and the most important reason are the engines. Boeing has offered to setup an entire assembly line for the F/A-18s in India. And if this means that even the engines for the F/A-18s will be manufactured in India, which will be a very good value proposition. This is because the General Electric F-414 engines that are used by the F/A-18 Super Hornets will also power the Tejas Mk2 which is now under development. If the engines are made in India, this will benefit both the Super Hornets and the LCA program and there will also be the added benefit of availability of life cycle support within India for the engines for both the fighters. This would mean huge cost savings, since a single fighter jet uses 3.5 engines over its lifetime on an average. Assuming that the Indian Air Force would decide to procure around 100 twin-engined F/A-18s and that both the IAF and the Navy will eventually buy around 120 plus single-engined LCA Mk2 fighters, the demand will be for a minimum of 1000 GE F-414 jet engines throughout the lifetime of both the fighters – providing economies of scale.
Thirdly, under the Defence Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI), which is the name of the framework for Indo-US defence co-operation, joint development of a jet engine is also being discussed. That the U.S has reportedly offered to rewrite its laws so that India could gain access to classified technical information related to the GE F414 jet engines, is a lucrative offer which cannot be ignored. There will be consequences of allying with the U.S in such a way and those will have to be factored in by New Delhi.
Only a few countries have been successful in developing jet engines for their fighter aircraft. India had been working on its Kaveri engine program, which has now been dubbed as a failure. China, for instance, hasn’t been able to master the jet engine technology even after pumping in billions of Yuans into its engine R&D programs. General Electric has also been planning on a project for up rating it’s F-414 engines, so that its peak thrust with afterburners is increased from 98 KNs to 110 KNs.
If the Indian Air Force makes the right procurement decisions, it would help in increasing its fighter squadron numbers to the sanctioned level of 42.
Apparently, GE is keen to work with the DRDO in this project, which would mean that India can use these up rated engines for powering it’s futuristic Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). If such a co-operation fructifies, the F/A-18s, LCA Mk2 and the AMCA programs will mutually benefit from each other because of engine commonality. The Indian Navy and the Air Force will have a combined requirement of around 250 or more twin-engined AMCAs. This would mean an additional requirement of more than 1500 F-414 engines.
According to the soon-to-be-released Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP – 2016), the defence ministry will be choosing an Indian private company as the strategic development partner for aero engines. The best way for this company to take off will be to join this proposed DRDO-General Electric R&D project, so that it gains enough technical expertise for supporting India’s future military and civilian aircraft engine programs.
If the Indian Air Force makes the right procurement decisions, it would help in increasing its fighter squadron numbers to the sanctioned level of 42. A far-sighted decision should be one which benefits India’s defence industry in the long run. The Ministry of Defence will have to be prudent enough while implementing its policies and decisions. This will ensure that India’s indigenous defence industry gets a much needed shot in the arm.