The MMRCA Competition: What Next?

Two days ago, I received a mysterious phone-call from a Russian journalist who claimed to have very reliable information that the Indian Air Force and the Defence Ministry had chosen the MiG-35 in the $12-billion medium multirole combat aicraft (MMRCA) competition, and had communicated as much to both MiG chief Mikhail Pogosyan as well as UAC president Alexey Fedorov. Cut. A well-known senior Indian defence analyst, who junketed off to Farnborough this month, assured me just before he left, that the Typhoon was going to sail through to the finish line -- I'd stopped listening by this time, but he said something about "knowing people in the know". Cut.

There's a lot of stuff swimming around out there about the MMRCA, and it's all tantalizing. Rumours of first blood.

At this point in the game, it's common for vendors to pick journalists' brains about what they're hearing. Well, what they're hearing is a lot of noise. A carefully crafted cacophony of permutation, combination and possibility -- some delectably elegant, some morbidly unthinkable. The campaign chiefs from Boeing and Lockheed-Martin, for example, have frequent briefings in Delhi -- thinly veiled opportunities for them to get exchange notes with reporters about where things stand on the MMRCA, what the rumours are, what they're picking up from "people in the know". All of the rumours are tantalizing in their potential to create massive upheaval -- political, technological, doctrinal, what have you. And in the run up to what is expected to be a downselect this year -- but what is also likely to not be a downselect at all -- I thought I'd put down everything I've heard in the last six three months. The structure, I should say right away, does not indicate a descending order of probability. And yet, it might.

For the purpose of clarity, let me state that the six competitors are the RAC-MiG MiG-35, the Boeing F/A-18IN Super Hornet, the Dassault Rafale, the EADS Eurofighter Typhoon, the Saab Gripen IN and the Lockheed-Martin F-16IN Super Viper.

SCENARIO 1: NO DOWNSELECT: All six contenders make the cut. Commercial negotiations begin with all six companies, and bam, they hand it to one. Right through the field evaluation tests (FET), there have been rumours of scrubs, snags, even hearsay that four of the six failed the test leg at Leh. All six competitors independently assured the press that their horses had come through beautifully and that all rumours of climb-rate disappointments and payload inadequacies were malicious nuggets passed around by "vested interests". Can't think of one person who isn't a vested interest, actually. If all six aircraft dodge the "downselect", it'll mean the FET gave the IAF nothing it could really work with in terms of defining what it really wants to go with. Always bear in mind the supremely incomparable airplanes the IAF is working to compare.

SCENARIO 2: NO DOWNSELECT, BUT PREFERENCE INDICATED: All six contenders make the cut, but are presented in the IAF's report to the MoD in descending order of preference. Best of both worlds -- everyone makes it past the first guillotine.

SCENARIO 3: THE NEGATIVE RECOMMENDATION: An interesting one. The IAF submits its report to the MoD along with a list solely indicating the aircraft it definitely doesn't want. The government then takes a political decision among the ones the IAF doesn't mind operating.

SCENARIO 4: SINGLE OUT: IAF chief PV Naik says the MMRCA field evaluation trials make for an international yardstick on how fighters should be evaluated the world over – a masterpiece of a testing templace. Most people believe him, because they’re still trying to figure how a disparate line-up of aircraft can be meaningfully compared with a result-oriented focus. Many were shocked when Boeing elbowed in the Super Hornet into the MMRCA competition way back when the Mirage-2000-V was still in contention and widely believed to be the signature platform for the MMRCA. Things have changed drastically since. This scenario suggests that the IAF has come round to wanting a twin-engine platform. So goodbye F-16IN and Gripen IN. Also, the possibility of a war of the Eurocanards -- the Rafale vs Eurofighter.

SCENARIO 5: KEEP IT REAL, KEEP IT MEDIUM: An old scenario that’s more wishful thinking than anything else. There’s nothing “medium” about the Typhoon, Rafale and Super Hornet. So the downselect pushes forward only the MiG-35, the F-16IN and the Gripen IN.

SCENARIO 6: GRIPEN, MIG OUT: The downselect eliminates the Gripen IN and the MiG-35. The former, because it’s Swedish (and woe betide any government that ever buys anything Swedish ever again). The rumour goes that the government has expressly instructed the IAF not to allow the Gripen past the FET phase. The latter because its Russian, and there’s a limit to the whole eggs in one basket thing.

SCENARIO 7: NO OP AESA? GOODBYE!: Only the F-16IN and the F/A-18IN make it because they’re the only two contenders with fully operational AESA radars (the NG APG-80 and the Raytheon APG-79 respectively). The others are work in progress, and the IAF doesn’t want to take a chance. That the IAF has been super-impressed by both American AESAs doesn’t hurt.

SCENARIO 8: TYPHOON OUT: A nightmare scenario for EADS, considering the weight of its pitch. This scenario suggests the Typhoon is ejected from the competition as a result of deficient air-to-ground performance, and that all promises aren’t worth the cost of the airplane.

And these are just eight possible scenarios. I haven’t mentioned the obvious permutations. It’s going to be a yahtzee. Will keep updating this post as I hear more. And, of course, feel free to comment with more scenarios if you’ve heard any.

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