Tellis: US fighters lost MMRCA contract due to technical faults

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Both US bids for a major Indian Air Force fighter contract lost because of technical faults - not US export control policies or corruption in New Dehli, Carnegie Endowment for International Peace scholar Ashley Tellis said in an interview.

The former American diplomat in New Dehli arrived at his conclusions after a three-week trip to India that included meetings with top Indian government, military and industry officials. The IAF selected the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon as finalists for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).

By excluding the Boeing F/A-18E/F and the Lockheed Martin F-16 - as well as the Saab Gripen and MiG-35 - the Indian government angered Washington DC, as well as set off a wave of speculation that the decision was based on concerns in New Dehli about overly restrictive US export policies.

But Tellis believes that interpretation of the MMRCA downselect is incorrect, while providing the most detailed assessment of the factors that led to the final decision.

According to Tellis' sources in the IAF, the F-16IN bid received low marks in the technical evaluation for a slow turn rate and poorer handling performance due to the addition of conformal fuel tanks.

Those deficiencies made the F-16IN less competitive in dogfights against older F-16 Block 50s, which are operated by Pakistan.

The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet was the US government's best shot to win the contract, but it was also hampered in the Indian evaluation by poor manoeuvrability compared to the European fighters, Tellis said.

Boeing's bid proposed to improve the Super Hornet's power by introducing the General Electric F414 enhanced performance engine (EPE), with 20% higher thrust.

But the Indian evaluators refused to credit the EPE because it is a developmental item, Tellis said. This contrasted with India's acceptance of active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar technology by the European bidders despite its developmental status.

"They just gambled on the fact that they were going to get an AESA by the time the airplane was going to enter the force," Tellis said.

The decision also reflected the IAF's preference for an aircraft with strong dogfighting performance over a combat style emphasising beyond visual range engagements using long-range sensors, Tellis said.

Indian officials expressed no concerns about the US government's export policies, which would have required heavy monitoring by US officials if certain sensors and avionics systems were included in Boeing's or Lockheed's bid, Tellis said.

"What they would have done in this case was demand that the vendor [substitute] equipment that did not have [monitoring] constraints," Tellis said. India had agreed to a similar arrangement with the acquisition of the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.

Despite the initial reaction by Washington officials, both sides are cooling off since the announcement, he added.

"The damage was certainly serious," Tellis said. "But both sides have understood how this outcome came out and both sides have made efforts to get beyond it. The US is going to win many more competitions in India."