How GE's Tejas MK-II Win Affects The MMRCA. Or Doesn't.

In a little over two months from now, the Indian Ministry of Defence will approve the Indian Air Force's field trial evaluation report and begin commercial negotiations with what the IAF hopes will be a downselected list of vendors. Remember, the IAF has not explicitly indicated a downselect, leaving it to the MoD to understand this from the level of compliance index.

Now, there's an overwhelming sense that India's selection of the GE F414 engine makes things much, much clearer about the MMRCA competition, and narrows things down considerably. For clarity's sake, variants of the F414 power the Boeing F/A-18 IN Super Hornet and the next generation Saab Gripen IN, while the Eurojet EJ200 -- which lost to GE in the Tejas MK-II competition -- powers the Eurofighter Typhoon.

The logic was always compelling. A dedicated licensed engine production line in the country for the Tejas MK-II would provide robust economy of scale advantages and funnel down the contenders in the MMRCA. That's how it probably should happen, but will it? Another matter altogether. Some scenarios:

SCENARIO 1: At least six IAF officers I spoke to suggested that it would be wrong to connect the Tejas MK-II and the MMRCA on too many levels. One of them suggested that the two deals were mutually exclusive, with a sharp line dividing the two -- in other words, the decision on one had no way of influencing the other. Therefore, in this scenario, the GE F414 selection provides no tangible advantages, going forward in the MMRCA, to the F/A-18 and Gripen NG, even though those advantages would normally shout loud. When I asked an Air Marshal, formerly at Eastern Air Command HQ, how this could be justified -- considering how it goes headlong against the economies of scale notion -- he said, "You must understand that each deal is a leverage in itself. The government can choose to draw connections and give the country the most effective deal. Or it could keep everything separate and leave all options open for maximum leverage. In my understanding, the government would not hand GE an automatic victory in the MMRCA as a default result of the Tejas MK-II selection. That is not how things happen in India." The other crucial point here is: if the GE victory wasn't politically premeditated, then there exists no procedural route for the Tejas MK-II engine selection to be taken into account in a potential MMRCA downselect. In other words, if the MMRCA is sticking unflinchingly to the RFP (as the Indian Defence Minister recently stated in Washington, and reiterated yesterday by Air Marshal NAK Browne, the IAF's Western Command chief), then GE's win would/could have no direct bearing on the MMRCA downselect simply because there is no official route for it to do so. The last critical point: the F414 engine that will be built in India under tech-transfer, will be a modified engine for the Tejas. If an F414-powered airplane happens to be selected in the MMRCA, then it is likely that there will be two lines, or a fork in the main line.

SCENARIO 2: The opposite scenario. Here, the government decides that a dedicated GE F414 engine line in the country means it makes sense to narrow down the selection based on the economies of engine scale logic. In other words, you have the Gripen going against the Super Hornet in the MMRCA finals.

SUB-SCENARIO 2 (a) But there are important points to remember here to: two extravagantly different aircraft, same engine in different configurations. The US government would obviously support the F/A-18, and GE would clearly prefer the F/A-18, since it's American and a twin-engine platform, so it means double the number of engines sold by GE as compared to the number it would sell if India chose the Gripen. In this scenario, the GE F414 economies of scale and political considerations would push the F/A-18 to the top of the list.

SUB-SCENARIO 2 (b) In this scenario, the government decides it already has economies of scale, and pushes the Gripen forward as a perceived compromise: the cheaper aircraft, with American engine and weapons. The US cannot exercise export licensing controls on the Gripen's GE engine since each vendor had to submit a signed affidavit before field trials that all systems listed in their bid documents were available, and needed no further approvals from any government. Remember, the IAF has said it 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). But now it's up to the MoD.

SCENARIO 3: In this scenario, the GE victory in the Tejas MK-II engine competition, has a reverse effect on the MMRCA, and pushes the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale and F-16 (the MiG-35 is all but officially confirmed to be out) to the top of the pile, since alternate engines provide their own leverage. Scenarios 2 & 3 are of course assuming the government won't look at the Tejas MK-II and the MMRCA as "two watertight compartments" as an officer put it.

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