Stage set for MMRCA Ver 2.0 as Aerospace Giants Make Beeline to India.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is discreetly setting up stage for what can safely be termed the MMRCA Ver 2.0. The efforts are in line with its hunt for an able fighter aircraft to add credible teeth to its striking force. The Air Force and the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is now believed to be evaluating the offers of global aerospace players to locally manufacture fighter aircraft under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The IAF, the fourth largest air force in the world, is one of the most formidable force which has enjoyed unquestioned regional dominance. However, this dominance is slowly receding as the air force is forced to retire its aging fleet of aircraft. The rapid induction rate followed by India’s neighbours has only compounded the problem.

The air force currently under its command has 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft. Centric to the aerial operations are the Sukhoi Su-30 MKI air superiority fighters. Mirage-2000’s and Mikoyan MiG-21 interceptors augment the Su-30’s. The MiG-27 and Jaguar ground strike aircraft are in-charge of neutralizing ground threats.

The 32 squadrons however are well short of the mandated 44 squadrons which is necessary to repel a now inevitable two front war. IAF operates over 14 squadrons of the MiG’s which were inducted in the late 60’s. The airframes are now several decades old and rapid retirement has left the IAF teeth-less. A simple answer to counter these problems would be to induct aircraft in masse.

The IAF in the late 90’s drew up several ambitious acquisition programs. The LCA programme was drawn to replace the aging MiG’s. It was launched in an effort not only to procure a fighter but to build an aerospace ecosystem in the country. The program today has reached its zenith of achievement. The need for a medium multi-role fighter still loomed and thus emerged the MMRCA tender in 2005.

The MMRCA tender when seen through would arm the air force with 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. These aircraft which are capable of carrying heavier payloads, flying deep into enemy territory and delivering punitive strikes are true force multipliers.

MMRCA was India’s largest defence deal and its height was termed the ‘mother of all defence deals’. The competition was stiff but the French based Dassault with its Rafale fighter emerged victorious. The aircraft was selected after a gruelling technical evaluation process during which it outwitted the Boeing F18 Super Hornet; Saab Gripen; Lockheed Martin F16; the Eurofighter backed Typhoon and the MiG-35 aircraft.

rafale-first-raid

IAF was slated to become the first foreign operator for the Rafale. The fighter was selected not alone for its technical capabilities but also for the promised ToT and low-cost maintenance cycle. Under the tender clause, 18 of the fighters were to be built in France while the rest were to be manufactured in India. The state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) was nominated to take forward the manufacturing process in India.

As the deal progressed grappling indifferences surfaced between Dassualt and the MoD. Dassault emerged in loggerheads when the ToT clauses surfaced. The company remained reluctant to stand guarantee to the HAL built aircraft. Several high-level delegations failed to break ice even as the costs inflated.

By the late 2014 the program was reported to have reached a point of no return. With no solution in sight the NDA-led Indian government cancelled the RFP in 2015. The MMRCA tender crashed and burnt even before taking off.

With the ambitious deal falling apart the IAF was left in troubled waters. Taking into account the air force’s dire need, the government signed an IGA with France for procuring 36 fighters off-the shelf. India and France negotiated hard and freezed the decade long deal at $ 8.89 Billion. The deal is expected to be signed on 23 September 2016 when French Defence Minister Jean Yves Le Drian arrives in India.

The Air Force apart from the 36 aircraft will procure armament, logistics and maintenance support facilities and also infrastructural installations as part of the deal. The first fighter is expected to be delivered to India by 2019 and the rest by 2024. Dassault after deliberations has agreed for a 50% off-set clause and promises to boost the maturing aerospace ecosystem in the country.

The $ 8.89 Billion deal is already being taunted in India as too many less in numbers and too late. Everything apart the Rafale’s when inducted will be the most modern and capable fighter aircraft to have ever served under the IAF.

The dire need of the air force however will remain unanswered. The deficit in force is a worrying factor for the security establishments. Thus, India is considering offers of global aerospace firms to locally manufacture fighter aircraft under its celebrated ‘Make in India’ initiative.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar has on several occasions confirmed the search for an able fighter. Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, Chief of Air Staff (CAS), has been vocal about the plans and has confirmed that the air force is indeed in the process of short listing a combat aircraft under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

The hunt assumes greater importance even as the number of active squadrons plummets towards alarming levels. IAF’s plan to induct the indigenously developed Tejas aircraft has met with limited success. The air force will have around two squadrons of Tejas in FOC standards by 2020. Even though the program has taken time to mature it has ramped up India’s aeronautical capabilities to take on future challenges head-on.

Saab manufactured Gripen fighter aircraft; Source - Saab Groups.
Saab manufactured Gripen fighter aircraft; Source – Saab Groups.

India’s working partnership with Russia for the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) has barely made any progress. The strategic partners have failed to address the repeated concerns that have emerged in the program. It will be years before the FGFA will fly in the air force’s colour.

In this background the government is left with no other option but to opt for a foreign vendor. Boeing with its F-18 Super Hornet and the Sweden Saab with its Gripen E aircraft are making a strong pitch to enter the lucrative Indian market. Lockheed Martin the manufacturer of the F-16 has already made detailed presentations to India.

Several statements by the MoD indicate that a deal might not be too far. The race is too stiff and too competitive. The MMRCA Ver 2.0 when seen through will not only arm the air force with an able aircraft but will also create an unmatched aerospace ecosystem in the country. The ecosystem thus created will be instrumental in placing India in the global arena. The program is bound to boost the capabilities of not just the air force but the whole country.

© KARTHIK KAKOOR.

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