There was a palpable buzz of excitement at Vayu Bhavan, the headquarters of the Indian Air Force, on Monday. This was the last day for the submission of preliminary bids for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft acquisition for the IAF. The Rs 42,000 crores (estimated $10.4 billion) acquisition for 126 aircraft has been billed as the most significant in decades and considerable lobbying has already preceded the start of the race. The government has gone out of its way to show that it intends to run a fair competition to come up with the best and most economical option for the country. But the past history of India’s defence acquisitions and the twists and turns the MMRCA project has taken till now has cast serious doubts about the government’s true intentions.
The first question is why a global competition. There was none, when the country went in for the massive Sukhoi project, one that will provide 230 cutting edge heavy fighters to the IAF. Neither was there any for the $700 million buy of 6 US-made C-130J transport aircraft, nor for the Navy’s purchase of maritime patrol aircraft whose first tranche will cost $8 billion, or for the $5 billion Scorpene submarine contract.
The whole process began in the mid-1990s when the Air Force came up with a new “vision” statement that envisaged a force with 200 or so heavy fighters, 200 MMRCA and 200 light fighters. The IAF’s Sukhoi 30 MKI fighters will take care of the first component, and the third tier would be looked after by the indigenous Tejas LCA.
As the years passed, the IAF’s inventory of obsolescent MiG-21s (and some MiG-23/27s) which constitute nearly 50 per cent of its present combat strength began to weigh heavy, so it began to press for more Mirage 2000s as an MMRCA. The governments of the day demurred but finally they agreed, on the condition that the acquisition would be through a global tender.
The MMRCA was seen not only as a means of supplanting the ageing Soviet-origin fighters but to bring the force to the threshold of a new era of network-centric warfare, with potential for future upgrade. The chosen aircraft would be in frontline service for at least 40 years ahead into the future.
The MMRCA acquisition process began in 2004, when the IAF sent out its request for information (RFI) for 126 jets. At the time, four companies responded — the Mig, Saab, Dassault, and Lockheed Martin. These were for their 15-20 tonne aircraft — the Mig-29, Jas 39 Gripen, Mirage 2000 and the F-16. Then the Boeing company began to lobby for the inclusion of its FA-18 Hornet. This is a heavier twin-engined fighter and actually outside the ambit of the RFI, but this was the time when the Indo-US nuclear deal had been announced and the American stock was high in New Delhi. But once the IAF agreed to this, other heavy fighters — the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Dassault’s Rafale — also entered the fray.
So six companies got the formal request to send bids (Request for Proposals or RFPs) on August 28, 2007 — Russia’s Mig for its Mig-35 (renamed Mig-29), the Sweden’s Jas 39 Gripen, France’s Rafale, the European consortium’s Typhoon and two US bidders, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Falcon and Boeing’s FA18 Super Hornet. The $10.4 billion estimated for the project included the initial purchase of the 18 aircraft, transfer of technology, licensed production, and life-time maintenance support for the aircraft.
As is clear from this account that the original purpose of the fighter — to fit between India’s high end Su-30MKIs and its low-end Tejas LCA — has now been scuttled. The competition holds little meaning because it means choosing between apples and oranges, when you want to buy only apples.
The six aircraft in the run are not comparable. You have three medium fighters (two with a single engine and one with two) — the Gripen, F-16, Mig-35 — and on the other hand, three heavy two-engined machines, the FA18, Rafale, and the Typhoon whose weight pushes them closer to the Sukhoi class. Naturally the latter are more capable than the former because they have more power, fuel capacity and armament capacity. They are also that much more expensive.
Here is another puzzle. The Cabinet has cleared the acquisition of 126 fighters for some $10 billion. This, as noted, includes the per unit cost of the machine, its lifetime maintenance support, licence production and transfer of technology costs. Yet, if we were to go by the cost of the Typhoon being bought by the British — $130 million or so per aircraft — the figure will go up to $16.3 billion. And this is minus the maintenance and licence production costs. The price for the Rafale could be even higher. So just why are these aircraft in a contest where they have already been priced out?
Then we come to the issue of the capability of the fighters themselves. Aircraft fighters are said to belong to a “generation”. The F-16s, Mig-29s and the F-18s are said to belong to the third generation of aircraft whose development began in the 1970s. The Typhoon, Rafale and the Gripen are fourth generation fighters. There is a huge difference between the two, a lot of it in electronics and data handling and their potential for future development. While the third generation fighters like the F-16, Mig-29/35 and the FA-18 have reached their limit, the others are at the beginning of their cycle of development. (The only fifth generation fighters in service today are the American F-22 Raptor and F-35 Joint Strike Fighter.)
So we come back to the issue we started with. Of what purpose is a competition where the competitors cannot be compared in terms of capability, size and cost? For example, if the Typhoon or Rafale were to win the competition, the IAF would be landed with a top-heavy profile. With the distinct possibility that the LCA will not make grade, the IAF would have only heavy fighters in its inventory which would be expensive to run and to maintain, and, of course, to buy.
Is there some hidden agenda in all this? Air Force officials say that once the RFPs are weighed, the aircraft that do not meet the criteria and budget will be dropped. But is it not a waste of time to assess aircraft which do not fit your bill in the first place? All this has raised concerns that the government is going through the motions of competition in order to favour a particular vendor. But if it wanted to do that it could have been straightforward about it. That would have saved a great deal of trouble for everyone. Instead we now seem to be destined to enter a process of intense lobbying that could not only delay the acquisition, but bring the already shoddy acquisition process into greater disrepute.
This article appeared in Mail Today April 30, 2008