Defence Industry

Need for MRFA
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Issue Vol. 39.1, Jan-Mar 2024 | Date : 18 May , 2024

In January this year, the Defence Minister Rajnath Singh led a high level delegation to the UK; reportedly, one of the points on the visit’s agenda was a possible partnership in the Tempest project, a sixth generation fighter design and development programme in which the UK, Italy and Japan are currently collaborating with 2035 as the target date for the fighter to fly. The outcome of any discussion on Indian participation is not in the public domain yet but its inclusion in the agenda served to put the spotlight on India’s ongoing efforts to bolster up the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) dwindling combat aircraft squadron strength. A sixth generation fighter appears to be too ambitious and avaricious a dream when India’s indigenous aircraft design and development is struggling with its 4th generation aircraft and a 5th generation fighter programme is under progress, albeit at least a decade away from fruition. Meanwhile, the IAF awaits the induction of critically needed combat aircraft. This article looks at the IAF’s quest for a Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) to meet its inescapable need to meet its shortfall.

The IAF’s Shortfall

To situate the MRFA into IAF’s need, a look at the current scenario is necessary. The current squadron strength is 31 or 30 (depending on which open source one consults) against a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. These include two squadrons of Rafale (the last aircraft arrived in December 2022), 12 of Su-30 MKI, three each of MiG-21, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000, six of Jaguar and two of Tejas (which are of limited operational capability and lack a trainer).

By 2025 all the MiG-21 squadrons would have been sent out of service due to their old age and the ever increasing accident rate. The Jagaurs, MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s are already operating on extended life cycles. The Jaguar fleet would be phased out between 2025 and 2032. By then, the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 squadrons, whose induction began in the 1980s, would start reaching the end of their useful days and all would be phased out of service by 2040.

The Jaguar was inducted into the IAF in 1978 and was later produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under license. With fair use, the thrust of the original engines has reduced by around 20% and replacement engines are horrendously expensive at over Rs 200 crore a pair. Meanwhile, plans to install an Indian engine have been still-bornas India has not produced any worth while aircraft jet engine so far. Thus, another upgrade is not considered wise and the IAF continues to persevere in using the aircraft.

The MiG-29s were inducted in 1986 and had a life cycle of 25 years which was later extended during the mid-2000s to 40 years. This extension will expire starting 2025 and a second life extension programme for the MiG-29 fleet is being contemplated in view of the grim situation.

The Mirage 2000s are not being given another extension as they have been phased out by the French Air and Space Force. India has contracted to acquire 24 phased out Mirage 2000s from France for the purpose of cannibalising spares and components, thus giving the ageing IAF fleeta sort of extended life ‘on a drip’. India was offered the opportunity twice to manufacture the Mirage 2000 in India — at the time of the first induction, and later again in 2000. However, India passed up on those opportunities. With cannibalised parts the last of these would be out of service by 2040.

The figure of 31 is far short of 42, the sanctioned strength. The theatre command concept, when instituted, would have an Air Defence Command theatre which would charge the IAF with the air defence of the nations’ territorial frontiers. In addition, IAF would need to execute offensive and defensive tasks associated with any future war — on one front or on two. In the latter case, our long land borders with China and Pakistan, our extensive coastline, and our island territories would need to be protected. Even 42 squadrons may not suffice.

To summarise, the current squadron strength is inadequate to the IAF’s envisaged roles and tasks. The fact that it is going to reduce further is alarming. The Chief of Air Staff (CAS) is on record as having stated that IAF requires five to six new squadrons of 4.5 generation aircraft to meet its immediate requirements. Can indigenous aircraft meet this requirement? And if so, how soon?

Indigenous Designs

The IAF currently has two squadrons of the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk1 which is not really ready for frontline operations; it is essentially a test bed for the Mk1A which is a slight improvement over the Mk1. The IAF has 40 of Mk1s and these count as two (albeit non-effective) squadrons of the IAF’s 31 squardons. In June 2021, the IAF ordered 73 Mk1As and 10 Mk1 trainers (which had not been developed alongside the Mk1). At the time of writing this, the first Tejas Mk1A is expected to be inducted at the end of February 2024 into No 3 Squadron at Air Force Station, at Nal. HAL is expected to deliver 16 (of these 83) every year for the next five years but, given HAL’s past track record, this time frame may not be adhered to. The Mk1A is expected to come with more composites (and hence reduced weight), enhanced Electronic Warfare (EW) capability, the indigenous Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar (which DRDO is to make available by the time the 17th Mk1A is to be fitted with it as the first 16 Mk1As are planned to be fitted with the Israeli ELM 2052 AESA radars). It will also carry the locally assembled, European missile producer MBDA’s Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) and the indigenously developed Astra Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile. It will also have some other improvements including air-to-air refuelling capability.

The Mk1A is only a slight improvement over the Mk1 but the Mk2, which is expected to be a 4.5 generation Medium Weight Fighter (MWF) would be a jump from the Mk1A. The Tejas in its name is misleading inasmuch as the Tejas Mk1/Mk1A is a ‘light’ fighter while the Mk2 is a ‘medium weight’ aircraft with a Maximum Take Off Weight (MTOW) of 17.5 tons compared to Mk1a’s 13.5 tons, a more powerful engine (although still a General Electric (GE) engine and not an indigenous one), and a larger payload of 6.5 tons compared to a little over 4 tons for Mk1A.

The Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) is planned to be a twin engine, 5th generation aircraft in contrast to the Tejas Mk1/Mk1A LCA and the Tejas Mk2MWF, both of which are single engine, 4th to 4.5 generation fighters. AMCA was originally envisaged as a Medium Combat Aircraft (MCA) with an MTOW of 15 tons but subsequently its nomenclature was changed to AMCA and its MTOW upped significantly to 25 tons (with the Tejas Mk2 sliding into the 15 ton space). A power plant for it remains an uncertainty as India has produced none so far. The AMCA may fly with a GE engine (like the Tejas). An indigenous AESA radar is not yet a certainty, and the stealth technologies and some other minor but critical elements needed as essential criteria for fifth generation are not also available indigenously. The CAS has reportedly called for foreign collaboration for development of niche technologies for the AMCA and has expressed concern over timely delivery of AMCA. The IAF plans to procure seven squadrons of AMCA, the first two squadrons in Mark1 configuration, equipped with a GE engine, and the remaining five squadrons in Mark2 configuration with an indigenous engine. However, the AMCA is not going to immediately assuage the shortfall problem of the IAF in a hurry. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS) is yet to give the go ahead for AMCA. Reportedly DRDO Chief Dr Samir V Kamat is on record as stating that the first AMCA prototype is anticipated to roll out seven years after receiving CCS sanction, with potential induction into IAF approximately ten years later. As a result, the IAF is likely to commence the induction of the AMCA after another decade at least.

A 23 ton, twin engine, medium class Omni Role Combat Aircraft (ORCA) is also spoken of sporadically but it will come later than the AMCA and hence will not be a help any time soon.

To summarise, an indigenous 4 1/2th or 5th generation aircraft that meets IAF’s needs is unlikely to be inducted into the IAF before 2035. That brings us to the option of the MRFA whose history goes back two decades.

MRFA Background

The LCA project detailed above was begun in 1983 to provide an indigenous replacement for the MiG-21 but its progress was agonizingly slow. During the 1990s, anticipating serious shortfalls, IAF proposed going in for more Mirage 2000 aircraft to be produced under license by HAL in India to cater to the anticipated shortfall. The IAF carried out all the staff work necessary with diligence, but the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) scrapped the whole idea in 2003. Instead, a Request For Information (RFI) was floated in 2004 for purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) possessing 4½th generation capabilities. The plan was to induct the first aircraft by 2010. Bureaucratic stalling kept postponing the final decision but ultimately the IAF shortlisted the Rafale in 2012 and in March 2014, HAL and Dassault signed an agreement for licensed production of the Rafale in India.

While the final details of that deal were being negotiated, in April 2015, the present dispensation dropped a bombshell on the IAF by announcing during an official visit to France, that India would acquire 36 Rafales from France in a fly away condition (neither the IAF nor the Ministry of Defence or MoD appeared to have made that recommendation). As a result of the 36-qircraft deal, the 126 MMRCA deal was scrapped altogether and the Parliament officially informed later on as a fait accompli. All the hard work and diligence by the IAF from 2004 to 2015 for procurement of 126 MMRCA was wasted. A Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) was signed in 2016 for 36 Rafales which have since been received. However, this number was 90 short of the original figure of 126 and the shortfall had further increased during the decade long wait for the MMRCA.

In April 2018, a fresh RFI was promulgated by MoD for the acquisition of 110 Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) (the figure was later revised to 114). Seven aircraft Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) responded initially; the figure has moved up and down since then and currently there are eight contenders. In the single engine category are US Lockheed Martin’s F-21 and Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen while the twin engine candidates are US Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III and F-15EX, French Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian Mikoyan MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35. There is a question mark over the last two contenders as Russia continues to be preoccupied with its ongoing war with Ukraine.

As an aside, UAE has suspended its $23 billion deal with the US for procuring fifty F-35 aircraft and is favouring Russia’s Su-57E. Following this, Russia’s Rosoboronexport has offered trilateral co-production of the Su-57E fighter jets with India and the UAE, with part production in Russia, India and the UAE. The offer is interesting although there is a question mark on how it will accommodate India’s ‘Make in India’ and ‘Atmanirbhar’ aspirations.

There is much merit in the suggestion that the deal should favour the Rafale, as that will afford economy of scale in terms of training, equipment and spares, while permitting speedier negotiations as both sides are already aware of the basic facts and figures. Indeed, France sees the 36 Rafale purchase as unfinished business and is making all endeavours to clinch the 114 aircraft deal. Incidentally, the Navy is also looking at Rafales and the commonality of ground equipment and weaponry may be a factor in favour of the Rafale.

The IAF has finalized Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) and has had comprehensive discussions with the eight Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEM). In December last year, the Parliamentary Committee on Defence tabled a report in the Lok Sabha which disclosed that the MRFA procurement is being progressed under the Make In India framework and recommended that, if there are delays in the process, procurement of 5th generation fighters may be considered. However, it is unlikely that the Committee’s recommendations will be heeded by the government as the 5th generation aircraft will come at a higher price tab than a 4th generation one. Moreover, the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) approved purchases of INR 2.23 trillion last year but did not grant Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the 114 MRFA proposal.


Government’s procrastination over the MRFA deal is not understandable; the shortfall of the IAF is not going to disappear unless new aircraft are inducted. Meanwhile, from the arithmetic explained above, the squadron strength of the IAF is likely to dip further before it rises again; how soon the upward trend sets in depends on how fast the MRFA decision is taken. The IAF Chief of Air Staff is on record as saying that even with an MRFA deal being finalised in the near future the squadron strength of the IAF may touch only 35 over the next decade and that it critically needs at least six squadrons of 4½th or 5th generation fighters to meet its designated roles and tasks (even discounting the increased requirements once theatre commands are introduced). As an indigenous aircraft of that capability is at least a decade away, consummation of the MRFA deal in the near future is inescapable.

Historically, major procurement decisions have not happened during the months preceding a general election so a final decision on MRFA is unlikely before the third quarter of this year. However, what is important is that even after that decision is taken, induction of the new aircraft would not happen immediately thereafter.

The progress of the MRFA deal so far since 2018 indicates that the government is in no hurry to bring it to a logical conclusion, just as was the case with 126 MMRCA quest which struggled for 12 years before being smothered to death.

Impressive alacrity was demonstrated by Modi in procuring 36 Rafales earlier; one hopes that a similar sense of urgency can be applied now as the squadron strength has worsened since the 36-Rafale deal. Of course, the 114 MRFA deal is unlikely to be similar to the earlier Rafale dealas the Make In India and Atmanirbhar agendas would have to be satisfied too. Moreover, if HAL is projected as the Indian partner, there could be further delays as in the case of 126 MMRCA Dassault had refused to take on HAL as a partner if it was to be responsible for the quality and punctuality of the production of Rafales in India.

Overcoming all these hurdles and bringing the 114 MRFA deal to fruition remains an urgent and critical need (not want) of the IAF.

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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

Gp Capt AK Sachdev

Director - Operations, EIH Ltd.

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