Visitors to Aero India this year could be forgiven for feeling a sense of déjà vu. Back in 2011, the soundtrack to the show was the roar of fighter aircraft as eager bidders put their jets through their paces.
The noise was much the same this time around, with a number of repeat participants in the air display as the Dassault Rafale, Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab Gripen all took to the skies.
Added to that was the familiar chatter from salesmen promising combat capability and, crucially, industrial partnerships.
Six years ago, Aero India saw the climax of the country’s medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition for 126 aircraft. This long-running saga had six actors, and featured plot twists and turns worthy of the most serpentine Bollywood epic.
The Rafale eventually won, but after years of tortuous negotiations, New Delhi ditched MMRCA altogether over disagreements about technology transfer. Instead, 36 Rafales were ordered in a flyaway condition.
Meanwhile, the fleet of Cold War-era MiGs that MMRCA was supposed to replace have steadily decayed, eroding the air force’s capabilities.
The other fighter that was meant to be a substitute for some of these aging assets, the Hindustan Aeronautics Tejas, has been a poor performer for years.
It is slowly entering service after decades of development. Measured against its own low levels, the Tejas is making progress. However, by international standards it is already obsolete.
This year’s show saw MMRCA veterans battling for several requirements, namely an ill-defined order for up to 100 single-engined fighters, plus a navy request for information for 57 carrier-borne jets.
Expect two things from both deals. First, a clunky MMRCA-style acronym will be applied to each. Second, the industrial participation, and technology transfer, required of manufacturers will be exceedingly high.
Local workshare is not all bad, and highly skilled aerospace jobs are the delight of politicians globally. That said, New Delhi appears to place far too much emphasis on the industrial value of buying fighter aircraft, rather than the military purpose of their acquisition.
Strategic imperatives cannot be comprised for the sake of economic benefit. If India’s new fighter acquisitions fail as dismally as MMRCA, the Indian air force will be staring at obsolescence.
In wartime, a nation’s industrial policies will be cold comfort to a pilot parachuting from a crippled jet.