COLUMN: M-MRCA, A Difficult Choice For The IAF

By Air Commodore (Retd) Ramesh Phadke

The trial phase of the proposed purchase of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) is nearing completion. Last heard, the Swedish JAS-39 Gripen was not able to take part as the company had brought a different (older?) model for trials supposedly because the new Next Generation model proposed for India was undergoing some trials in Sweden. Whatever the truth, the competition is heating up.

What should be the criteria for the final choice? The IAF strength has dwindled to some 30 squadrons in the last few years. But the effect has been mitigated to some extent by the induction of the Su-30, which, with its multi-role capability, long range and highly advanced avionics and armament suite, is far more capable than the phased out fighters such as the MiG-25, MiG-23 (MF/BN), MiG-21 and some others. In any case the Su-30, Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar combination have proved themselves in many joint exercises with the air forces of Singapore, the UK and US. Does it then mean that simply getting more Su-30s, and according to the Air Chief, some 150 more are being ordered, would make up the shortfall?

The Su-30 is a very large and heavy twin-engined fighter in the 30 ton class (empty weight: 18,400 kg, loaded weight: 24,900 kg, and maximum take-off weight: 38,000 kg), two engines of 131 kN max after burner thrust each) which gives a thrust to weight ratio at loaded weight of 1.07 and 1.15 with 50 per cent fuel. Its price is reportedly in the US$ 34-53 million range. That is not something to be scoffed at. Given such sterling qualities and a long, if at times uneven relationship with its manufacturer, Russia, why is the IAF looking for another fighter?

The main reasons could be to diversify the sources of foreign supply, access Western technologies, work out mutually beneficial Joint Venture (JV) deals and perhaps leverage the buy for larger foreign policy goals. Given the rapidly changing regional geopolitical scenario, the last factor seems critically important. Having set the background straight, let us now look at the six contenders for the MMRCA competition.

All six contenders are equipped with state-of-the-art avionics and AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) airborne radar with only marginal differences in performance. There is also little difference in their armament carrying capacity and, where needed, such changes/modifications should be possible.

The French Dassault Rafale, the European Consortium Eurofighter Typhoon and the American Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet are all twin-engined fighters in the 25-30 ton class. All of them are reportedly very expensive, with reported prices ranging from Euro 48 million for the Rafale to Euro 88 million for the Eurofighter and US$ 58 million for the Super Hornet. Admittedly, these are only notional figures and no vendor/buyer is likely to divulge the real/actual price and the services, equipment, spares/maintenance support that it might include. Would the IAF want to purchase such ‘heavy duty’ and expensive (?) aircraft?

The MiG-35 is a further development of the MiG-29K version that the Indian Navy is now inducting. It was first unveiled at Aero India Show-2007 at Bangalore. While it no doubt has some extra wing area (8-10 per cent?), smokeless (?) and supposedly the latest version of the RD-33 engine fitted in the MiG-29, the Phazotron Zhuk AE- AESA radar with additional provision for the ground attack role, LCD Multi Function Displays (MFD) and possibly the option to fit Western avionics if needed, it is not exactly a proven design nor are its life cycle costs known. Its official price is not known but going by our past experience it is likely to be low.

That leaves us with the F-16 IN Super Viper (F-16 E/F Block 60) described by Lockheed Martin as, “the most advanced and capable F-16 ever,” and the JAS-39 NG Gripen. Both these are relatively lighter aircraft at a maximum all up weight of just 16,000 kg and yet each carries an external/armament load of around 8,000 kg. They are highly manoeuvrable multi-role fighters.

The F-16 has been around for nearly 40 years but it still commands respect among the experts. It is combat proven, has operated in all parts of the world in very demanding conditions and like the freak if admirable design of the venerable MiG-21 and DC-3 Dakota, is destined to be remembered as the best multi-role fighter ever. It comes with conformal external fuel tanks to reduce drag, and the GE F110-132A engine giving a maximum afterburning thrust of 143 kN. About 4400 F-16s have been sold to 25 countries so far. The aircraft has a total accumulated flight time of some 4.5 million hours and hence the Mean Time Between Failures (MTBF) is likely to be very high. Snags and technical problems are likely to be more predictable. It should also help reduce life cycle costs to a large extent. The Saab JAS -39 Gripen is also reportedly as good. It is relatively new on the scene and has an American GE F 414G engine, which means that Sweden would have to get US permission before it is sold to India.

The issue of access to technology and how each vendor fulfils the ‘offset’ commitment is not yet known, but it is reasonable to assume that no country is likely to transfer the latest technologies without necessary safeguards and confidentiality/end-user agreements. The main issue, therefore, is one of continued reliable spares and maintenance support throughout the projected life of at least 30-40 years. Would Lockheed Martin keep the F-16 line open that long? Another sticking point may be that Pakistan also flies the same fighter. But then the Chinese air force (PLAAF) also flies the Su-30 in fairly large numbers and is likely to use them for another 30-40 years and that did not deter India from buying it in 1996. The Gripen has been offered at reduced cost to Bulgaria, so some further bargaining might be possible. The F-16 could also cost India less if the Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route is followed but one cannot predict how the Obama administration would handle the deal and, who knows, Lockheed Martin might even transfer the entire production line to India as was once promised in the case of another American fighter the F-5.

There was some talk of the contract being split between two vendors and a separate tender for the AESA radar. This, in my opinion, might have been conjectured to meet the Tejas LCS radar requirements. India is already committed to buying six C-130J, 10 C-17 Globemaster heavy lift aircraft and other equipment from the US and hence it might become somewhat easy to buy additional GE 404 or more powerful engines for the indigenous LCA.

In the final analysis, it seems that the political factor is likely to influence the choice of the MMRCA more heavily than just the performance parameters. As an old fighter pilot, however, I would always pitch for a light, easily manoeuvrable, agile and relatively inexpensive fighter that delivers every time, generates high sortie rates and is easy to maintain and train on a day to day peace time schedule. What counts in war is the number of fighters one can launch every hour, every day, day after day, with full confidence and ease of operation.

(Air Cmde Phadke, a former fighter pilot with the Indian Air Force, is currently Advisor (Research) at the Indian Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses (IDSA) This column appears courtesy the institute | Photo by Shiv Aroor / Laage AFB Germany)

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