Dogfight: India’s MMRCA Decision

Air Cmde (Retd) Ramesh Phadke was Advisor, Research at Institute for Defence Studies and Anaysis, New Delhi. Click here for detailed profile
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  • February 07, 2011

    Dogfight: India’s MMRCA Decision by Ashley J. Tellis, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, Washington DC, 150 pages.

    Last week Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington DC based think tank released a 150 page monograph by its Senior Research Associate Mr Ashley Tellis, a highly respected strategic analyst, on a subject that is of great interest to many in the Indian strategic, defence and business community.

    Coming as it does at a time when the first five steps in the selection process are reportedly over; its timing is of immense significance. Calling it the ‘largest Indian fighter deal in years’, the author explains in great detail how the selection process is important and how it will play an ‘essential role in India’s transformation from a regional power into a global giant’. Notwithstanding the superlatives one would have to acknowledge that the deal may indeed prove to be a game changer.

    Tellis is extremely thorough in marshalling his arguments about the comparative strengths and weaknesses of each of the six contenders and goes into great detail. He then goes on to explain in simple terms the operational context and the environment in which the fighter would operate, the likely threats that it would face, its role in the shaping of India’s defence industry and India’s overall defence posture in coming decades.

    Eight countries and six companies are participating in this competition and its sheer size, from USD 10.5 billion for 126 units to nearly twice that if India eventually opts for 200 aircraft, would undoubtedly have profound international political implications and according to the author would seriously affect not just the profitability but the viability of key aircraft manufacturers, especially the European companies. The winner will undeniably ‘obtain a long and lucrative association with a rising power and secure a toehold’ in India’s emerging Military Defence Industrial Base. All of these arguments are unexceptionable and deserve serious attention.

    “India’s defence strategy since the 1971 War has been to maintain superior air power capabilities. India has always considered air power as the critical war fighting instrument of first resort.” The fast dwindling strength of the Indian Air Force (IAF) in the last few years (presently at an all-time low of 29 squadrons) makes it a critically and profoundly important decision. Tellis calls it a ‘growing and dangerous hole’ that needs to be filled quickly especially when India’s neighbours are rapidly modernising their air forces. Tellis makes the following major points:

    India must expedite its decision making. This is because the longer it delays the decision the later the fighter would join the IAF and that would mean further reduction in the IAF strength as more and more MiG-21 class fighters would be phased out and that is dangerous. The RfP requires some 60 per cent of the aircraft technology to be transferred in four phases and the winner has to offer up to 50 per cent offsets which decisions would also take time. Only 18 of the 126 aircraft are to be bought in flyaway condition with the remaining 108 being assembled by HAL in India which means that HAL would have to set up a new assembly line and that would further delay the whole process. In any case 126 aircraft will not suffice to make up for IAF’s dwindling assets and India would, in all probability, opt for 200 aircraft. The T-50 PAK-FA deal India signed with Russia on 21 Dec 2010 would also not materialise before 2017 if all goes well and in any case the fifth generation fighter is not in this class. Both the PLAAF and PAF are fast adding to their inventories with the J-10 and JF-17 which are already in service and flying. China is also fast developing its own fifth generation fighter, the XXJ or J-20.

    By simply and honestly completing the evaluation process the IAF has done its job. It is now up to the Indian government to make the final selection based on relative costs and the all-important political considerations. Tellis cautions against the temptation to split the buy to appease this or that country. This he fears because the Indian political decision makers, he believes, already think that all six of the contenders are more or less equal in their overall technology status. This is not quite correct. The relative costs also differ sharply. Inducting two different types into the IAF is a nightmarish prospect because it already has too many types of aircraft and if anything, it must try to reduce the variety and diversity where possible. Getting the best out of the offsets from two different vendors with totally different technology and business practices might also not be desirable. A split would also make it difficult for local assembly and technology absorption for HAL.

    Tellis convincingly makes the case for getting the ‘best buy’ for the IAF. Simply stated, he recommends that the IAF must get an aeroplane that has the right technology, sensors & avionics, weapons, aerodynamic effectiveness, along with favourable TOT provisions, relatively low costs and also offer political benefits. The new fighter must fit the current IAF force mix and also meet its doctrinal needs. While Tellis is right in saying that the IAF is more interested in offensive and defensive counter-air operations, he appears to lay too much store by this requirement alone. He cautions that most of the so-called Multi Role Fighters are rarely so and are invariably better in one or the other role. Given that most of the air-to-air combat would take place in an AESA/ AWACS environment, Tellis advocates that a fighter that is capable of launching the latest BVR as also WVR or Within Visual Range missile with first detect, first shot capability, is what the IAF must get. He also states that the Single-Shot Kill Probabilities of most missiles are usually highly exaggerated and hence there is need to buy mature and combat proven technologies. Tellis is also right about the IAF needing a suitable strike fighter but believes that the force mix of Jaguar and MiG-27 should be adequate.

    With its Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Su-30 fleets the IAF need not make such clear categorisations. All of these can be used in the strike role. Tellis forgets that the IAF, after absorbing/neutralising first actions of the enemy would have to launch both air superiority missions and also take counter surface force actions. It would have to keep attrition at the very minimum and much of it in high mountainous terrain. To do this effectively it would need numbers with adequate range and weapon load so long as aircraft like the Su-30 and Mirage-2000 can guarantee freedom of action against a strong enemy. Minor advantages in technologies might not be important but costs would certainly play a major role in the decision. The Eurofighter at USD 123 mn is the costliest; the Rafale at USD 85 and the Gripen at USD 83 mn come next; with the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-16IN at USD 6o mn and the MiG-35 is the cheapest at USD 45 mn. According to the author these figures are representative and there is no definite way of calculating life cycle costs since the vendors would disclose these only to the price negotiating committee. Tellis asks a pertinent question: Is the additional advantage in latest technology and aerodynamic qualities such as sustained turning performance worth nearly double the cost of the Eurofighter? While Tellis is no doubt making a strong case for the American fighters his premise is not entirely wrong.

    Tellis calls the MiG-35 a ‘souped up’ MiG-29 and rejects it outright with the same logic that some critics have used to suggest buying more Su-30MKI. The MiG-35 is still under development. This is the more interesting part of the report. Some if not all the European fighters are dependent on American engines, weapon systems, avionics and other spare parts that make their continued availability during wars a problematic assumption.

    On costs and political considerations Tellis awards more points to the two American contenders, the F-16IN and F/A-18 Super Hornet. He refutes the impression that these are old and confidently predicts that these would be around for at least twenty more years and since their AESA radars are already proven these would remain useful and in fact pave the way for accessing the US Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft the F-35 Lightning II in the near future. While the argument might sound convincing from the technology view point one wonders if Indian security managers would like to put all their eggs in the American basket. He contends that “having an American fighter flying in Indian livery will simply be transformative for bilateral defence relations and it would send an important signal about the changing geopolitical dynamics in South Asia.” But would India want to send such a signal?

    Tellis suggests that India seriously consider the prospective fighter’s technical merit, relative cost, its place in the IAF force structure and above all the political considerations to minimise India’s vulnerability to supply restrictions during war and assured transfer of technology as this purchase would largely decide the future force structure of the IAF. With this purchase India can and must ‘forge new transformative geopolitical partnerships that promise India’s growth globally’. He readily acknowledges that all the contenders are almost equal in their technology, aerodynamic handling/effectiveness, avionics, and weapon systems but the US F-16IN and the F/A-18 Super Hornet enjoy a definite edge.

    In the reviewer’s opinion it is worth debating this option if India can get into a ‘grand bargain’ with the US to get the production line for the F-16IN at least for the Asian region and slowly build its indigenous capacity to manufacture modern fighters in India. That the PAF already has the F-16 C/D Block 50 version is not a valid argument because the F-16IN is vastly superior combat proven aircraft with relatively low life cycle costs. In any case the PLAAF is also flying the Su-27/Su-30 fighters.

    The author concludes that India must get the best buy for the IAF, which in his opinion must be the least expensive, mature, combat proven fourth generation fighter as a bridge towards more advanced stealth aircraft in the future and not only recommends the F-16IN or the F/A-18 Super Hornet, but also the F-35 Lightning II at a later stage. To counter the perception that the US fighters on offer are older designs with little scope for further technology infusion and hence relatively short service life with the IAF, Tellis wants the US government to offer India generous terms on transfer of technology, assured support during crisis and access to future fifth generation US fighters and to also support India’s strategic ambitions.

    All in all, a very informative and interesting addition to the current debate on the subject.