So, two decades after the Indian Air Force (IAF) projected a requirement for 126 medium-role combat aircraft (MRCA), we are back to the starting point. That journey had ended abruptly in 2012 when the government, after a laboured process, selected the Dassault Rafale and began negotiations for the purchase—only to have the succeeding Narendra Modi administration scrap the deal and decide in 2014 to purchase only 36 Rafales off the shelf.
Last week, the IAF issued a request for information (RFI) for the purchase of 110 MRCA. Three-fourth of these will be single-seaters and the balance twin-seat aircraft. Eighteen or so of the aircraft would be bought off the shelf. The rest would be ‘Made in India’ through a partnership between the manufacturer and a strategic partner. The fighters would add six squadrons to the IAF; the order could be worth between $9 billion and 15 billion.
It is no secret that the IAF is in dire straits, both because of its declining numbers and the government’s refusal to raise the defence budget. The numbers are telling. The IAF has 31 squadrons today as against a desired 42. It will lose nine in the next five years when the remaining 7 MiG-21 and 2 MiG-27 squadrons retire. And presuming it gets the two Rafale, two LCA and one more Su-30MKI squadrons, it will be at an uncomfortable 27 by 2022. If it repeats the fiasco of the first MRCA deal, taking more than a decade to select an aircraft, it could well end up in a disaster where it is down to just 15 squadrons in 2032, when its remaining six Jaguar, three MiG-29 and as many Mirage 2000 squadrons also retire.
The budgetary part is vital because the IAF, at the insistence of the government, wants the bulk of the aircraft to be “Made in India”. Setting up an assembly line for just 80 or so fighters will actually require the exchequer to pay double or even triple the sum that would be needed if you simply imported the aircraft off the shelf. When India purchased the Su-30MKI from Russia directly, its average cost was Rs 270.28 crore, but some years later when its manufacture from raw material was begun by the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd it cost Rs 417.85 crore.
But the Air Force is to blame as well. In crafting an RFI that mixes single- and twin-engine aircraft, it makes selection that much more difficult. Actually, the IAF knows what it wants—it has been saying so loudly for decades—a light fighter, cheap to run, that would be the work-horse of its fighter fleet. After the forced rejigging of the Rafale purchase in 2014, the IAF had issued another RFI for buying and building 100-200 single engine fighters in 2016. This had had boiled down to a competition between Lockheed Martin’s F-16 and the Saab’s Gripen.
By scrapping its 2016 aim, the IAF has muddied the competition again. Instead of narrowing down the choice, the Air Force has broadened it to the point of obtuseness.
The problem is that by the time RFIs and RFPs (request for proposals) are sent, lobbies enter the picture and muddy issues. That is what happened the last time around, and that is what is happening now. With the inclusion of twin-engine fighters, the competition is back to the future. In other words, it is a repeat of the old MRCA competition. So, Rafale can re-enter it and conceivably win it again. Because in a competition against the single-engine fighters, the heavier twin-engine fighter will end up superior—in range, endurance and capability. If budgetary issues are taken into account, as they most certainly should, it is 40 per cent or more expensive to run a twin-engine machine. Incidentally, an analysis of the accidents in the IAF has shown that twin-engine aircraft like Jaguars have had more crashes than the single-engine Mirage.
By scrapping its 2016 aim of getting a single-engine fighter, and including twin-engine fighters, the IAF has muddied the competition once again. Instead of narrowing down their choice, the IAF has broadened it to the point of incomprehension.
Given the detailed questions relating to the ToT (transfer of technology) component in the RFI, perhaps this time around, the key element in the decision-making matrix will not be the fighter’s performance alone, but the willingness of the partner to transfer technology. According to the RFI, the transferred technology would have to be state-of-the-art and boost India’s indigenous design and development, production and maintenance capabilities as well. Also, the transfer should also aid the country’s indigenous programmes.
Actually we have been doing ‘Made in India’ kind of license production of fighters since the mid-1960s, beginning with the MiG-21. Subsequently, the MiG units gave way to the Su-30MKI production line in the 1990s. Yet, we learnt little in the design and development of fighter aircraft.
The Sukhoi is now allegedly manufactured from “raw material”. But this is deceptive. For example, the raw material that goes into the fighter such as titanium and steel must be sourced from Russia, along with nuts, bolts and rivets. Likewise, while most of the engine is made with Indian-made components, key high-end composites and special alloys—some 47 per cent by value of the engine—are imported.
Countries could well be willing to offer some design and development technology but those that are being phased out by them. But they will certainly not offer their crown jewels, say, technology related to engines. This is one area where the West retains its edge and even the Russians are not quite there. The Chinese have spent an arm and a leg and only slowly moving towards developing a viable fighter engine, but not one that can be compared to what powers the western fighters. In any case, why would anyone offer cutting-edge technology for a deal involving 110 aircraft and $15 billion?
If India thinks the acquisition will help it leapfrog its way to acquiring world-class fighter aircraft design and development capability, it is chasing a chimera. Such capabilities, as the Chinese story suggests, take place over decades and are directed by those in authority. They involve not simply ToT, but espionage and, as the Americans now charge, forced technology transfer.
An advanced capability to design and manufacture aircraft involves thousands of engineers and technicians and takes decades to build. So, it requires a systematic build-up of design, development and manufacturing capacities, accompanied by a symbiotic effort to develop engineering and technical institutes to support the effort. Most importantly, it needs sustained higher strategic direction, much in the way that the Space Commission has provided in building up the capabilities of the Indian Space Research Organisation. The members of the Space Commission include Nripendra Misra, principal secretary to the PM, and National Security Advisor Ajit Doval, besides the Cabinet, Finance and Foreign secretaries.
The RFI suggests that the IAF wants a heavy fighter capable of everything: air defence, deep strike, reconnaissance, maritime strike, electronic warfare, buddy-refuelling capability and so on. The RFI is loaded with all sorts of possible requirements. One asking whether the fighter on offer will “allow crew members to relieve themselves and take provisions in flight”. Now, existing fighters do have provision for urine collection, but for defecation, things are more complicated. The Russian Su-34 would seem to be the only one to fit this bill since it has a small toilet and kitchen behind the tandem cockpit crew cabin. Then, the RFI wants an aircraft that “can fly in excess of 10 hours with air-to-air refuelling”. Now ten hours of flying in a fighter is way beyond human endurance. US Navy pilots, for example, are not expected to be in the air more than 6 hours at a time.
In all this, everyone seems to have forgotten that there was another important deal the IAF was looking for. That was for a fifth-generation fighter to be built jointly with the Russians—a deal that also incorporated sharing a great deal of design and development know-how. But that seems to have receded into the background, and no one knows why.
The threats we confront by 2025 will most certainly include fifth-generation fighters like the Chinese J-20 and possibly the J-31, which could even be exported to Pakistan. Speed and manoeuvrability may matter less than sensors and weapons, and the manner in which they are fused. Beyond this is the possibility that threats will mutate to include autonomous unmanned aerial combat vehicles and drone swarms guided by artificial intelligence. In the meantime, we’ll be trying to play catch-up in a game where the rules have changed beyond comprehension.
(The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi)