A Big Fat MMRCA Update

Sick of hearsay and rumours? Well, here's some stuff that's confirmed true, authoritative, new, and potentially explosive for contenders in the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition. Let me just start by saying that the ball is squarely with the MoD now -- the field evaluation trial report has been submitted, but has not yet been approved by the MoD. There is likely to be a measure of back and forth between South Block and Vayu Bhawan before it is approved and passed on for the next stage. In the meanwhile, chew on this. No rumours here.

Point One, The Indian Air Force won't choose a twin-engine aircraft in the MMRCA, if a single-engine aircraft can "do the job", i.e, is satisfactorily compliant on all 643 test points that each of the six airplanes were tested for during the field evaluation trials (FETs). The IAF is of the view that both single and twin engine platforms have their own advantages, but that it will not discriminate between the two. If all six aircraft are compliant, the cheapest will be selected whether its twin or single-engined.

Point Two, and this is a biggie -- The model being used to gauge cost is not the lifecycle cost (LCC) model (American) as was previously thought. That model has been dumped since the IAF perceives it to have too many "indeterminables" (read, ambiguities), and not measured in precisely the same way across the six aircraft being offered, despite being specifically asked for. In other words, the MMRCA purchase model will be based much more on unit flyaway cost of aircraft and financing options -- i.e, not quite overall cost of ownership, or at least not in the way the IAF had thought it would. The IAF and vendors have held 14 meetings on LCC so far -- that gives you an idea of the tangle. The IAF decided that it would only work with what is "determinable". In other words, no complex formulae on future savings on maintenance and overhaul. Do you see why I used the word bombshell in the post title? :)

Point Three, cost is going to be a big determinant. Out of the six aircraft that are judged compliant, the cheapest will be identified as L1, and will logically be the chosen aircraft.

Point Three-and-a-half, it emerges now that each vendor was extensively briefed on their performance once the trials were over, so they have a comprehensive sense of how they performed -- their function of compliance, if you will -- but they have nothing to compare it with. So unless you account for industrial espionage, none of the vendors know how the others have performed, but know exactly how well or badly their own platform performed during trials.

Point Four, the air force's trial report has been submitted to the MoD, but the latter hasn't approved it yet. The trial report strictly contains a tabulated representation of each contending platform's compliance or otherwise for each of 643 test points. Significantly, the trial report does not quantify the level of compliance of each airplane, but rather leaves this for the MoD to understand. In other words, the trial report has all the data and results, but no recommendations, no merit list, no explicit downselect, no stated eliminations, nothing. Yet, by virtue of the data it presents, everything is implicit. It provides the data. It provides the benchmarks for compliance. The MoD figures out who's in, who's not quite in, who's definitely out. The IAF hasn't put that down. The IAF has submitted a "factual report" -- the rest is upto the MoD. Again, there's been no ranking at any stage.

Point Five, there have been frequent attempts by various players to suggest that some of the non-US contenders will have trouble getting export licenses for subsystems that may be of American origin (like the Gripen's engines, weapons on some of the others etc). Let's lay that to rest for now -- the IAF extracted government-endorsed guarantees from each such contending vendor that there would be no problems in the supply of such equipment, and it was based on this guarantee certificate that the contender was allowed to participate in trials.

Finally, the option exists for the IAF to go for more than 126 aircraft, but a decision has not yet been taken on whether to club that option with the principal purchase. Having said that, chances are that the option will be exercised.

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