India torn between East and West in multi-role combat aircraft contest

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At a time when defence budgets are shrinking or money is being diverted towards domestic welfare programmes in the face of a worsening global economic situation, India stands out as an exception.

New Delhi has allocated $30 billion until 2012 to modernise its armed forces, and former finance minister P Chidambaram promised when presenting the 2008 budget to India's parliament: "Any further amount that is needed for the defence forces, especially for capital expenditure, will be provided." That was before the global economic crisis became full blown. But India appears to be holding to its aims.

The defence ministry has taken him at his word, especially since it is no longer only reliant on long-time arms supplier Russia as it finally pursues a long-delayed and much-needed modernisation of its armed forces. The air force is a major beneficiary, with the ministry going ahead with a $1 billion order for six Lockheed Martin C-130J tactical transports in 2008, agreeing a $2.1 million deal for eight Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft in January, and confirming upgrades for other aircraft in its fleet.

aeronautical aevelopment agency
 © Aeronautical Development Agency

But it is the country's long-awaited tender for 126 new fighter jets that is attracting the most attention. The $10-12 billion Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition is in the evaluation stage, more than 10 years after it was first mooted, and pits the world's leading aviation companies against each other in a fierce contest that could have long-lasting implications for both the customer and the suppliers.

RUSSIAN RELIANCE

"MMRCA is fascinating because it represents an enormous choice for the Indian air force and perhaps India," says Richard Aboulafia, vice-president of analysis at the Teal Group. "It is between continued reliance on Russian equipment with low purchase costs and high lifecycle costs, and a move towards Western equipment, which costs more to buy, but is less expensive to operate and more reliable in the long term."

The competition's original aim was to replace several hundred RSK MiG-21 light fighters that have been in service since the 1960s. The MiGs-21s have served India well, but they have also suffered from poor maintenance and their high crash rates led to the Indian press giving them the nickname "flying coffins". They were to have worked together with the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, which was then in the initial stages of its development.

Since then, the original aims have been modified as bureaucrats dragged their feet, problems arose with the LCA programme, and the air force's strategic thinking changed. A projected fall in the air force's capability led to India reviewing the service's combat status in the 1980s and 1990s.

As a result, New Delhi began to retire its older aircraft, ordered additional Sukhoi Su-30MKIs, and began upgrading existing aircraft such as the MiG-21 and MiG-27, Dassault Mirages and Sepecat Jaguars. It meant a temporary fall in squadrons, but the defence ministry pushed for the MMRCA competition to go ahead - leading to the RFP in mid-2007 - and for the Aeronautical Defence Agency, which oversees the LCA, to increase its efforts to come up with an aircraft that the Indian air force will want.

Instead of choosing a light attack aircraft, the objectives of the MMRCA competition were modified to buy a fighter that would serve in between the Su-30s and the LCAs, which are now expected to begin entering into service from 2010.

The selected aircraft should allow the air force to project its power in the Indian Ocean and South China Sea, which meant that they should have a bigger range and additional requirements such as AESA radars. This will have major implications for the contenders, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 Falcon, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen.

mig-35 mark wagner 
 © Mark Wagner/AviationImages.com

"The competition includes lighter fighters such as the F-16, Gripen and MiG-35, and heavier twin-engined aircraft such as the Typhoon, Super Hornet and Rafale. The unit costs vary from $30-100 million, and that is likely to be a major factor," says a New Delhi-based analyst who is close to senior air force officials.

"The winner must also be able to operate with India's future fifth-generation fighter, whether that is the joint development with the Russians or even the [Lockheed] F-35. The capabilities of the Pakistani and Chinese air forces, which have also been inducting newer aircraft, will also be considered."

CONTENDER SHORTLIST

India's defence ministry says that it will issue a shortlist of contenders when technical evaluations and flight tests, which are going on now, are completed. "That is when the political considerations come into play as well. These are the best fighters in the market and it makes sense to evaluate all of them before making a decision. This probably makes it harder for the manufacturers, but this is to our advantage," says a second source who is also familiar with the evaluation process.

The contenders have little choice. Boeing and Lockheed Martin need overseas markets to keep their production lines open at home, The Eurofighter consortium and the Russians need to expand their reach beyond their captive markets, and this could be a make or break opportunity for Dassault and Saab to open a major export market.

The Russians, who have supplied over 75% of India's defence, remain confident their decades-long friendship will hold. Alexei Fyodorov, director-general of Russian corporation United Aircraft, says: "We have several trump cards - the MiG-35's superb performance characteristics and the fact that Russia and India share a long-standing partnership in strategic and political co-operation."

Moscow says that the MiG-35 is a highly manoeuvrable air superiority fighter that will be powered by the RD-33 OVT thrust vectoring engines, and will suit all of India's needs. Given that it is the latest version of the MiG-29, which India already operates, Moscow contends that the costs will be lower and learning process shorter. In addition, Moscow is willing to transfer all of the aircraft's technology to Hindustan Aeronautics, which will licence-produce 108 of the fighters and has extensive experience with the Russians.

Some Indians look back to the US arms embargo in the 1990s, after their country conducted nuclear tests, and say that Russia is a more reliable long-term supplier. "Yes, we are getting closer to the Americans now. But we have satisfied them by buying the C-130s and P-8s. Fighters are an air force's backbone, and we can't be held hostage by America if there should be ideological differences," says a former senior Indian air force official. The Russians have played on this, saying: "The RSK MiG has always delivered the most advanced technology and platforms to India, which for various political and secrecy considerations were denied to other countries."

Others within the Indian defence establishment want to move away from the dependence on Russia. They point to past problems with Russian aircraft and say that reliability issues will persist. Bilateral relations have also became strained in recent years due to problems with the refurbishment of a used aircraft carrier that New Delhi bought, and unhappiness over the level of access India has had to the Russian fifth-generation fighter programme.

EUROPEAN OPTIONS

An acceptable option could be a European fighter. France would be an ideologically neutral option for India and Dassault has already sold Mirage fighters to India. The company says that India's experience with French fighters could result in a shorter learning curve and lower costs, and it promises a full transfer of technology, including source codes.

"When we talk about technology transfer, we mean full technology transfer and not in bits and pieces. The way we work, we first have to obtain clearance of the government before putting in our proposal. If we win the order, we can begin work on transferring technology from day one - unlike our competition," says Dassault Aviation's senior vice-president for military sales, JPHP Chabriol.

The inability to win even a single export order could work to the Rafale's detriment, and the aircraft's unit cost could be an issue. Chabriol says that the Indians have to decide what they want from the competition. "The Rafale is a twin-engined, heavier aircraft and in the same class as the Super Hornet and the Typhoon. The other three aircraft are lighter," he says. "The Indian air force has to decide whether it wants a heavy or a light aircraft. We are worried, we don't want a situation where the other three are RFP-compliant, but we lose out on the price differential."

Like the Rafale, the Typhoon is also an expensive aircraft. Unlike the French fighter, however, the fighter is operational in several countries and has had more than 700 orders, making it a mature programme. Eurofighter has also offered to make India a full partner in the programme, enabling New Delhi to manufacture the fighter in India and be involved in the production of future tranches.

 © Eurofighter

"We expect a very tough international competition that will be steered through operational aspects and political as well as industrial criteria. However, we are optimistic when it comes to a comparison," says Matthias Schmidlin, director Eurofighter Campaign India. He adds that the Typhoon is at the beginning of its lifecycle, able to have national capabilities implemented in the future, and that New Delhi will get full access to all the technology.

SAAB PROMISE

That is also a promise made by Saab. New Delhi has been keen on the Gripen since it began the competition, and Saab is offering the Gripen IN, a variant of the Gripen NG that has a more powerful engine, higher payload, and upgraded avionics compared with earlier versions. Saab points to its experience in fulfilling offset requirements in countries such as South Africa, and says the Indians would get full access to the fighter without having to make compromises or a politically expedient choice.

"Gripen IN, the independent choice, is the only option that will fundamentally shift India's defence capabilities from a dependent technology recipient to one that is able to realise its ambitions of being an emerging global player in synergy with its regional superpower status," says Eddy de la Motte, director of Gripen International in India. "A wide range of state-of-the art weapons can be sourced from manufacturers worldwide, and gives the Indian air force freedom of choice by avoiding sole-source supply constraints."

US defence contractors, however, are optimistic about Boeing and Lockheed. Increasingly warm ties between the two countries, including last year's civil nuclear deal, have led to some commentators saying that this is one of the most crucial bilateral relationships around.

The New York-based Asia Society said last year: "India matters to virtually every major foreign policy issue that will confront the USA in the years ahead. A broad-based, close relationship with India will thus be necessary to solve complex global challenges, achieve security in the critical south Asian region, re-establish stability in the global economy, and overcome the threat of violent Islamic radicalism."

Lockheed is possibly in a trickier situation, given that it has sold the F-16 to Pakistan as well and the Indians are unconvinced that the fighter - despite its success in many countries and the upgrades to its capabilities - is what they really need. The company, however, reiterates that the F-16IN has similar abilities to the Block 60 F-16s that it is selling to the United Arab Emirates, and is much better than the Block 52s that Pakistan will acquire.

"The F-16IN is specifically tailored to meet Indian air force needs and is the most advanced multi-role combat aircraft in production anywhere in the world today. We have spent years assessing the needs of the air force and we believe it will not just meet but exceed Indian expectations," says Lockheed executive vice-president for aeronautics Ralph Heath.

To sweeten the deal, Lockheed is also offering India future access to the F-35 and the possibility of jointly developing fifth-generation aircraft. Pointing out that Lockheed is the main contractor for both the F-35 and the F-22, the only two fifth-generation fighters now in production, Heath adds: "We advocate the path of [India's] logical transition from F-16s to the F-35s, beyond the MMRCA requirements."

Some analysts believe the F/A-18E/F is an early favourite. Boeing's long-standing close relationship with India through its civil business and Australia's recent order for the aircraft certainly help. "Among the Western players, the F/A-18E/F has a strong chance. A strategic relationship with the US Navy is an attractive draw, and Boeing and [engine supplier] GE have a very strong presence in India. I'd regard the Super Hornet as the leading candidate," says Aboulafia.

LIFECYCLE COST

The F/A-18IN, the Super Hornet offered to India, is based on the F/A-18E/F flown by the US Navy and being built for the Royal Australian Air Force. "One of the concerns in India is the cost of owning and maintaining combat fighters over their lifetime," says Vivek Lall, Boeing IDS vice-president and India country head. "The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet offers a very attractive lifecycle-cost dynamic, since the fighter won't need a scheduled visit to a maintenance depot until it has clocked a minimum of 6,000 hours of flying time, and even well beyond that."

But the unit cost of each aircraft is likely to be high and the Indian air force will have to spend money to build its infrastructure from scratch. Its servicemen are also not used to US aircraft, and there are worries that the type is not as modern as the Typhoon, for example. Given that the Super Hornet is based on a naval fighter platform, there have also been questions about its suitability for service with an air force. Australia's order of 24 F/A-18s appears to have helped allay those worries.

There remains a perception that this competition is still up in the air. "The India media occasionally report that one contender or another has run into headwinds, but the defence ministry remains committed to issuing a shortlist only after the completion of technical evaluations and field trials. A decision, therefore, is not likely until later this year at the earliest," says one New Delhi-based observer.

More hand wringing is likely in the Indian air force and at the headquarters of six expectant aerospace companies in Europe and the USA before this procurement is resolved.