Which combat jet for the Indian Air Force?
The Indian media regularly highlights well-known issues with diminishing squadron numbers of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The long-awaited Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition did identify a suitable fighter for the IAF from amongst six capable contenders, but with its many offset clauses and caveats, the MMRCA tender failed to galvanize the needed urgency in the purchase of fighter jets to replenish the IAF’s shrinking squadron-numbers.
Price disagreements, differences over offset clauses and negotiations for “discounts” continue to delay Rafale negotiations even for the 36 aircraft that shall be built in France and purchased off the shelf. In the end, delays led to cost escalations and the MMRCA competition was canceled. The Rafale’s manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, steadfastly refuses to guarantee aircraft built under license by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL).
Meanwhile, Egypt commissioned and completed its own trials for a combat jet, selected the Rafale, and has already begun taking delivery of this capable French aircraft.
The Indian government has quietly invited 3 competing aircraft manufacturers of the MMRCA competition to bid once again. In the new race between the F-16 and F/A-18 of the United States and the Saab Gripen JAS 39 from Sweden to manufacture combat jets in India under “Make in India”, there are some important yet lesser known facts that make the choice for the Indian Air Force less than straight-forward.
Russian-origin combat aircraft are constructed from metals – and not composites – and yet, while being robust and cheaper to manufacture, have their own unique legacy of headaches for the IAF; MiGs are unreliable, suffer limited range (a classic Soviet tactic to minimize pilot defections) and supply of spares and consumables has never been consistent.
The much-touted Sukhoi Su-30 is a versatile, highly maneuverable and capable platform handicapped by low operability; less than 45% of the fleet is airworthy at any given time with several being grounded for lack of spares and technical glitches. Ironically, even a key safety option for a combat pilot – the ejection seat of the Sukhoi – has caused accidents for the IAF while Western-origin aircraft use highly reliable Martin Baker systems. The Su-30 requires a co-pilot because it also lacks advanced avionics and therefore requires a dedicated radar- and weapons-operator. In any case, the Sukhoi is a heavy fighter with a very large payload and deploying it to deter any airborne threat would be “overkill”. Russian-origin jets such as the MiG-29 in the IAF also lack critical weapons of the modern battlefield, such as beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles and smart munitions.
In its present state, the Indian Air Force would be hard-pressed to achieve its operational doctrine of fighting a war simultaneously on two-fronts, with Pakistan on the West and China in the East.
The reliability of the US as a hardware partner is questionable, as in the event of a short conflict, withholding of spares can become a tactical game-changer. It also does not make sense for the IAF to use the F-16 platform on which Pakistani pilots already have years of experience. The much-touted Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) planned by the Sukhoi Design Bureau and HAL is still a prototype and both partners continue to disagree on technical parameters. With delays and disagreements about the FGFA dogging the program, even after all performance parameters are met, it is likely that the projected price of US$ 100 million per unit will see a cost escalation akin to the multiple price revisions that happened for the Russian-built aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov.
An unenviable safety record led to almost half of the IAF’s MiGs being lost to crashes and the MiG-21 received unsavory monikers such as “widow-maker” and “flying coffin”. However, India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) or Tejas in its present form is also not likely to resolve the IAF’s woes because a successful fighter jet platform is more than mere hardware. Avionics, data links, integration with AWACS, phased-array and multi-mode radar, “smart” weapon systems and modular construction to permit future upgrades may make the difference between survival and defeat in air combat since dogfights of earlier decades are less relevant than ever before; air dominance in the next few decades will hinge on the ability to fight – and survive – beyond-visual-range battles.
The “most survivable” fighter jet is now not the fastest but the most agile, and will be the platform with the most advanced radar and capable flight computer. Grim proof of this may perhaps be the downing of a Russian Su-24 by a Turkish F-16 on 24 November 2015. The poor survivability of Russian aircraft in the Gulf Wars and earlier in the Yom Kippur War also points to the critical role of radar, avionics and weapons in modern air warfare.
A modestly-marketed product designed by the Scandinavians quietly stands apart from the other contenders of the MMRCA contest. The Saab JAS 39 Gripen, a wholly-Swedish design, is an agile, multi-role combat jet and with air-deflecting front canards can be landed in principle on an aircraft carrier without an arrestor hook, making it useful on India’s future indigenous aircraft carrier(s). It takes off and lands on semi-prepared strips, making it compatible with the government’s intent to operate Advanced Landing Grounds in the North East.
Truly outstanding is the ability of the Gripen to “scramble” in just 60 seconds. Re-arming the Saab Gripen takes just ten minutes and only one technician.
And finally, a version of the venerable GE F414 turbofan engine that does duty in the F/A-18 Super Hornet and Tejas is set to replace Volvo’s RM12 turbofan which will also permit the next generation Gripen to “supercruise”. The only valid argument against the Gripen would be that is a single-engined aircraft; however, this is a misplaced anxiety that is understandable in an air force that traditionally flew unreliable MiGs which were unreliable, single-engined (with the exception of the MiG-25 and 29) and notorious for engine flame-outs.
In the wake of the US decision to arm the Pakistani Air Force with 8 more F-16 jets, it would be prudent for India to study Saab’s offer to transfer the production line of the Gripen to India. This is a competent and multi-role combat jet from a nation that aligns itself differently from the US and UK and thus better suited to India’s geopolitic tradition of non-alignment. With Saab already entering partnerships with many Indian firms for land-based defence systems, extending the relationship to aircraft (and thus to Sweden) might be a strategically sensible decision. The performance and reliability of Swedish weapon platforms such as the Bofors artillery gun is almost legendary.
The Saab JAS 39 Gripen is smaller (and lighter) than the Eurofighter Typhoon, more capable than the F-16, half the cost of an F/A-18, more reliable than a MiG-35, has better (and NATO-compatible) avionics than the Tejas will ever have, has a highly advanced data link system, is rugged and reliable, already fully weaponized and operational with the Swedish Air Force, will even share its engine with the Tejas and the Swedes are eager to transfer full production of the Gripen to India. Saab’s Gripen even has more international customers than the Dassault Rafale; a team of Brazilians is in Sweden, training on the Gripen.
India needs to re-examine the real winner of the MMRCA competition. The IAF is so desperate to replenish combat aircraft that it is inducting the Tejas in Mark I version as the Mark II would lead to unacceptable delays. The Indian government should put aside nationalistic pride over exaggerated indigenous capability and acknowledge with humility the suitability of the cost-effective Gripen for the IAF. India’s best bet at giving teeth to its ageing air force would be to partner with Saab in co-producing the Gripen under the so-called “Make in India” initiative; a decision with the potential also to kickstart a robust and mutually beneficial strategic partnership with the Swedes.