Make in India Fighter Options: IAF
Notwithstanding the great show put up by Indian Air Force (IAF) in its largest ever exercise ‘Gagan Shakti 2018’, its depleting combat squadrons, are not only making headlines in the media, but the options with the IAF are subject of speculative discussions among public and in the think-tanks. IAF’s requirement of 126 MMRCA class aircraft was spelt out a long time ago, however, only 36 Rafale have been contracted for. The delays in the indigenous LCA made the situation worse. The writing has been on the wall and the crisis has been 20 years in the making.
IAF is today down to 31 fighter squadrons vis-a-vis authorized 42, and it is already facing the horrifying scenario where it may go down to 25 squadrons if urgent actions are not taken. It has already committed to 40 LCA Mk 1 and 83 LCA Mk1A and given tacit approval to go ahead with LCA Mk II. IAF is fully backing the indigenous AMCA. It had then sought around 150 single-engine MMRCA class aircraft (relatively cheaper than twin engine), as it already had many twin engine aircraft types in SU-30 MKI, Jaguar, MiG-29 and later to come Rafale, FGFA (if politically pushed in) and AMCA. However, the government, on seeing only two single-engine contenders in the F-16 Block 70 and JAS-39E Gripen decided that even if a little costlier it would be better to open the competition. So an RFI was issued in April 2018, once again to all the six contenders who participated in the MMRCA competition last time i.e. Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F 18E/F, French Dassault Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39E/F, Russian MiG 35 and the European consortium’s Eurofighter.
The current somewhat messy situation is an outcome of many factors such as mixed signals on the fighter aircraft requirements (twin/single engine), the complex long-drawn decision-making process before contracting (sometimes decades), lack of commitments on Transfer of Technology (ToT), slow LCA production, woefully low budget for capital acquisitions and the unfortunate political allegations that cast shadow over all acquisitions. The Air Chief, ACM BS Dhanoa has recently made it clear that any aircraft that India purchases should be able to match those with our adversaries. With Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) inducting world class fighters, any aircraft inducted by IAF henceforth should be of MMRCA class i.e. 4th Gen-plus. The expected over 200 LCA variants, are meant to replace the vintage MiG 21s. These cannot match the MMRCA class fighters. The IAF therefore needs nearly 250 or so additional 4th gen-plus generation aircraft. There is thus a need to take stock of what are the viable options.
Make-in-India Fighters in Competition
There were six aircraft in the MMRCA competition which was later withdrawn and 36 Rafale bought through Government-to-Government (G2G) contract. IAF preferred a single engine fighter due to costs and numbers involved. It thus became a two-horse race with Lockheed Martin F 16 and Saab Gripen as the contenders. On government suggestion the scope was increased to include twin-engine fighters to expand competition. Effectively all players of old MMRCA competition got revived. Now in the fray would be the latest variants of Lockheed Martin’s F 16 Block 70 and Boeing’s Advanced Super Hornet F 18E/F, French Rafale, Swedish Saab Gripen, Russian MiG 35 and Eurofighter. Ground reality is that money availability is a constraint and if many aircraft meet the RFP technical specifications, which is highly likely, it will be the lower cost that will matter, and a single engine may still win.
The Indian aviation community and the vendors have still to recover from the MMRCA fatigue. Such extensive technical evaluation also means significant time and costs. There is a continued decision conflict about light vs heavy fighters. Light aircraft are relatively simple with only essential features, and lower cost. Light fighters generally feature high thrust-to-weight ratio, high manoeuvrability, and high reliability. Intentional simplicity also allows buying larger numbers to out-number the enemy in the air under combat conditions. Larger fighters provide the opportunity for more technology, longer range radars, and heavier weapons, but are more expensive and often unaffordable. IAF has to maintain a balance to retain numbers, and thus was initially keen on a single-engine aircraft, but the RFI issued in April has opened the competition.
After a gruelling selection process, the omni-role Rafale came out a winner. It has been operationally tested in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Mali. Rafale is universally acknowledged as a good aircraft. Due to long delayed and extended negotiations, the deal was finally reduced to 36 off-the-shelf aircraft against original 126 aircraft which included significant Make-in-India component, which also got abandoned. Rafale deliveries are reportedly on schedule and will induct in 2019. In view of the depleting numbers, albeit expensive, one school of thought has been to order additional Rafale. Depending on additional numbers, they could be either Make-in-India option or G2G direct purchase.
Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 70/72
The F-16 Fighting Falcon is a single-engine air-superiority, multi-role fighter aircraft which first flew in 1974 and has since been operated by 26 countries. It has been repeatedly upgraded, including changes to airframe. Everything inside today is of latest technology and easily further upgradable through periodic replacement of modules to meet future threats and requirements. The latest Block 70 variant which is being offered to IAF will have the entire F-16 manufacture line shift to India, and India would be the global supply chain hub. With 2242 F-16 still flying in 26 countries, it will be a very significant move. The F-16 Block 70 is built to exploit the aircraft’s long combat experience, and introducing new front-end technologies including Northrop Grumman’s advanced APG-83 AESA radar and enhanced battle-space awareness avionics. On offer are also many weapons including latest versions of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. The aircraft is powered by GE F110-132A engine. The structural life of the aircraft has been extended to see it flying till 2040. Operational capabilities are enhanced through an advanced data-link, targeting pod and weapons; precision GPS navigation and the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (Auto GCAS). Lockheed Martin has a joint venture company with Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) which has proven expertise through manufacture of airframe components for the C-130J airlifter and the S-92 helicopter. Notably, the Pakistan Air Force has around 100 older Block 52s, first inducted in 1982. The Block 70 would be a class apart.
Saab Gripen JAS 39 E/F NG
JAS 39 Gripen first flew in December 1988. The 250 Gripen aircraft built are flying in Sweden, Czech Republic, Hungary, Brazil, South Africa and Thailand. The aircraft has been sourced roughly 67% from Swedish or European suppliers and 33% from the US. Some operators have adopted the less expensive GE F414G power-plant vis-à-vis the Eurojet EJ200. A plus is that all operators have access to the Gripen’s source code and technical documentation, allowing for upgrades and new equipment to be independently integrated. NG (Next Generation) version on offer to India can be with more powerful power-plant (more expensive EJ-200), have new avionics and AESA radar. An Electronic Warfare (EW) version of the Gripen F two-seater is under development. The Swedish Armed Forces plan to maintain 100 C/D-model aircraft until 2042. The first Gripen E was rolled out on 18 May 2016. SAAB proposed significant transfer of technology and to make India ‘an independent manufacturer’ of the fighter jets. SAAB has tied with the Adani group as their production partner in India. Proposal has backing of the Swedish government.
Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet
The Boeing F/A18E/F Super Hornet is a twin-engine multi role fighter. The aircraft evolved from YF-17 which had lost the USAF competition to F-16 in mid 1970s. The F-18 first flew in 1978 as Hornet, and is operated by US Marines and US Navy, Royal Australian and Spanish Air Forces among others. It is loaded with sophisticated avionics, and one of its variants, EA 18G Growler, is meant for Electronic Warfare (EW). The Hornet and Super Hornet have successfully taken part in the Gulf and Middle East wars. The Super Hornet has a new larger airframe and has seen extensive avionics upgrades. The variant being offered to India, with Make in India provision, will be Advanced Super Hornet with perhaps a newer AESA radar. Boeing and Tata Industries have a joint-venture company at Hyderabad for Apache fuselage and other aero-structures. The new entity would supply components for Boeing military aircraft world-wide, including for the Super Hornet. Boeing also partners with some other Indian companies for sourcing structural components for civil and military aircraft. This is the first time the Super Hornet is being offered for production in a foreign country. Boeing has promised to support taking Indian manufacturing to global standards. It may be noted that the Indian Navy is looking for 57 twin-engine shipboard fighter jets for which F-18 and Rafale are the likely contenders, even though experts are questioning such requirement because neither can land on any existing carrier.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a twin-engine, canard-delta wing multirole fighter manufactured by a consortium of Airbus, BAE Systems, and Leonardo formed in 1986. Aircraft entered operational service in 2003 and around 600 have been built till date and flown be 10 Air Forces. It is an agile-fighter that has seen operations in Libya. Eurofighter was one of the two aircraft short-listed after technical evaluation during MMRCA competition along with Rafale but lost out on commercial bid.
Mikoyan MiG 35
The Mikoyan MiG-35 is a Russian multi-role fighter which is essentially a further development of the MiG-29M2. MiG-35 was first presented internationally during the Aero India 2007. The single-seat version is designated
MiG-35 and the two-seat version MiG-35D. The fighter has improved avionics and weapon systems, including a new AESA radar, precision-guided targeting capability. With IAF having already upgraded the MiG-29s, it has already partially imbibed the technologies.
LCA ‘Tejas’ and AMCA Status
For India to emerge as a significant aircraft producer, the LCA program must not only succeed but it must become a launch pad for the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). Only eight LCA Mk1 aircraft have been delivered to the IAF till date. The first squadron will gets its full numbers only in late 2019. Meant to be replacement for MiG-21, the aircraft still has D&D issues, and is facing production hold-ups and induction delays. ADA-HAL combine has sought Rs 1,000 crore for D&D for the LCA Mk 1A which is more likely to meet the Final Operational Clearance (FOC) requirements. The Mk1A essentially will bring in a new radar, EW suite, aerial refuelling and some new avionics and weapons. The airframe having been tested, the upgrade is less likely to face major hurdles. If D&D funds were to be allotted today, the Mk1A could earliest be ready by 2021 and start inducting around 2024. The LCA production rate must be stepped up quickly from current 8 to 16 per year. It is a well acknowledged fact that LCA Mk II would be a new aircraft requiring significant ground and flight testing. The transition developmental complexities are also well known. Since only the Mk II will meet the original LCA specifications, IAF fully backs the program. Mk II is unlikely before 2025. The experienced gained could be utilized in the AMCA. The indigenous AMCA could help India to fly into the big league, but it is a very ambitious project and thus has its technological risks. If AMCA makes its first flight in 2028, it may actually induct around 2038. AMCA would require considerable foreign help which may come in-built in the new fighter selection package. Stealth is a very complex technology. In today’s world of long range AESA radars and very long range hypersonic missiles should India be wasting money on stealth at all?
FGFA – The IAF’s Reluctance
The FGFA program has faced many hiccups. The D&D work-share for HAL has been reduced to 15 percent from original 50 percent. Russia developed its PAK-FA as a single engine aircraft and has inducted into its air force as SU-57. Russia is demanding additional US$ 6.8 billion for the D&D of twin-engine IAF FGFA variant. IAF has nearly 50 technical observations. FGFA is expected to be maintenance intensive with high life-cycle costs. Russians continue to offer the older variant of the engine which has serviceability issues. Even the Russians who have inducted their PAK-FA with the designation SU-57, and opted for only one squadron, are known to be facing technical problems. Most importantly the money involved is huge. If IAF was to commit to FGFA in large numbers, it will have no money left for any other aircraft for next decade or more. With depleting numbers, IAF can ill afford this. It will also put IAF in exclusive Russian basket for another 40 years.
Multiple Fleets - Multiple Countries
While the trend world-wide is to have limited fighter fleet types, IAF is mired by multiplicity of fleets with Jaguar, Mirage 2000, Su-30, MiG-21/27/29, LCA and soon to be inducted Rafale. It will be a logistics nightmare. Larger fleets can amortise costs and can maintain decent spare backups. Ideally IAF should settle for SU-30 MKI, Rafale and LCA fleets in the long run with one new fighter and AMCA later.
Options for India
Any deal for the new fighter would have to have in-built in the contract maximum technology transfer and support for India’s LCA, AMCA, AESA radar and aircraft engine programs. Swedish Saab Gripen JAS-39 is the more recent aircraft with fairly modern technologies. Being an overall smaller political player, for India it will be easier to get a good deal from Saab. They are also willing to share the source-code. However, only 250 Gripen are flying world over at present, which indicates little business leverage for any exports, in the near future. Also, the original Saab plant may not be shut down. Nearly 30 percent aircraft systems are sourced from USA, which may be a cause of concern. F-18 is a twin engine aircraft, and therefore costlier. Its airframe has recently been redesigned. Boeing has significant presence in the country. F-16 is a
single-engine aircraft and has the largest fleet in the world, many of which will be flying well past 2035. India can get business worldwide for maintenance and overhauls (should the users opt for it)! Lockheed has made a follow on offer of F-35 at a later stage. MiG-35 though a contender in the MMRCA, with the MiG-29 and SU-30 MKI upgrades, the technologies have already been imbibed. So, MiG-35 is unlikely to be a contender. Earlier the Eurofighter had lost out to Rafale on the commercial bid, therefore, Rafale will have an advantage over it. Rafale also has the advantage of a naval variant thus advantage of numbers. All these aircraft have been extensively evaluated during MMRCA selection, as such only newer sub-systems require a look. Despite much refined DPP-2016, the only contracts that seem to have gone through have all been G2G deals with Soviets and Russians in the past, and with Americans (P-8I, C-17, Apache, Chinook and others) and French (Rafale) recently. A G2G approach would be the best for the selected fighter, for both cost and time savings. Among the twin engine, it may be in our interest to acquire more Rafale because significant expenditure has already been made on two-airbase infrastructure and weapons. In addition, a cheaper single-engine fighter between Gripen and F-16 be chosen. A very early decision is operationally most critical.