COLUMN: MMRCA, The Right Choice For The Wrong Reasons

By Admiral Arun Prakash

Media reports that the Ministry of Defence (MoD) has asked two of the six aspirants for the ongoing Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition to extend the validity of their quotes would seem a clear indication that these two; the French Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Consortium’s Typhoon II – both of European provenance – have overhauled their rivals, to reach the finals. This development coupled with US Ambassador Roemer’s recent resignation, related or not, is likely to cast a pall of gloom, at least temporarily, over Indo-American relations.

These are lean times, world-wide, and bagging this huge contract will have a positive impact on the relatively small economies of the European nations involved. Conversely, the loss of business worth $11 billion (running into many times this figure on account of product-support extending over the full 30-35 year life-span of the aircraft) would come as a blow to the aerospace industry of even a major economic power like the USA.

More than anything else, it could be interpreted as a rebuff to the sustained efforts of three successive US Presidents who have gone out of their way to bring about unprecedented warmth and proximity in Indo-US relations. There is a view that awarding the MMRCA contract to one of the two US contenders, the F-16 Super Viper or the F/A-18 Super Hornet, would have been an appropriate quid pro quo; a suitable expression of gratitude, ensuring strategic convergence between the two nations. Such a buy would have brought the respective industries and armed forces into much closer engagement, and possibly gained entry for the IAF into the world-wide US military logistics loop.

However this may merely be a simplistic view, because the affairs of State are guided by diverse weighty considerations, and things are not always as they appear to the man on the street.

The Good News and the Bad

On the other hand, let us look at the positives.

The IAF is now guaranteed a versatile, highly-agile and potent - albeit expensive - fourth generation combat aircraft in its inventory which can dominate the regional skies for the foreseeable future. Having flown both the F/A-18 and the Rafale, I can say that while the former would certainly have met all the IAF requirements competently and economically, the breathtaking performance of the latter leaves one in no doubt that it is a “generation-next” machine. The Eurofighter Typhoon, by all accounts, is equally impressive.

The complex and elaborate selection process involving field trials for six competitors in diverse locations in a compressed time-frame seems to have been pursued without a hitch by the IAF. Short-listing of the contenders has been undertaken meticulously, by the rules of the game, framed under the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Given the dismal track-record of delays in earlier projects, if the MMRCA contract is signed by year-end, the MoD would have broken some Indian records for “quick” decision-making. To crown it all, there has – so far – not been a whiff of scandal that one has come to expect from contracts of such magnitude.

By itself, the MMRCA decision is not a matter of huge significance; and we can safely assume that our thoroughly professional air force has chosen a combat aircraft that will capably discharge the multiple tasks of defending Indian airspace, conducting strikes inside enemy territory and providing aerial cover to ground and maritime forces for the next four decades or so. Furthermore, Indo-US relations will weather this minor turbulence, and soon resume an even-keel.

However, in the midst of breathless speculation and gossip relating to the MMRCA contract, we are likely to miss the forest for the trees. What we really need to worry about is a deeper malaise in India’s national security framework which has been starkly highlighted by the unfolding of the decade-long MMRCA saga. This is an opportune moment to reflect on the flawed processes and procedures that India follows in the critical areas of force planning and weapon system acquisition.

There are two deeply disturbing aspects here. Firstly; India’s huge defence expenditure, which represents a significant proportion of the central budget, is spent with cavalier abandon and fails to accrue proportionate benefits for national security. And secondly, into its 64th year of independence, and having become a trillion-dollar economy, India remains abjectly dependent on foreign sources for its security needs. And yet nobody seems to be bothered.

India’s Blinkered Vision

Most major powers undertake periodic Strategic Defence Reviews or issue defence White Papers which clearly highlight national interests, identify vital goals and objectives, and undertake an evaluation of the security environment. A deliberate exercise of this nature helps visualize the kind of armed forces the country needs, and pinpoints the specific capabilities they must field.

India, for all its fiscal constraints and competing demands on scarce resources, is one of the few countries which neither undertakes such introspection, nor generates security doctrines. In such a vacuum the Services tend to produce equipment wish-lists which focus on numbers (one for one replacement) rather than technologies or capabilities. Such demands take little or no account of force-multiplication, jointness, or duplication.

Moreover, such is the nature of the Chiefs of Staff Committee (COSC) system that a determined Service Chief can demand hardware for his Service by invoking the mantra of dire “operational necessity”. No provision exists, in the current dispensation, for the three Chiefs, the generalist bureaucracy or the Raksha Mantri (RM) to engage in a doctrinal discussion relating to the operational need of a requisitioned weapon-system, and the priority that must be accorded to it. After many instances of internecine sniping, an unwritten understanding has emerged in the COSC that, no Service will comment on another’s plans in the interests of harmony.

The MoD has neither the expertise nor the inclination to call for professional studies regarding national security issues. Therefore no critical examination or cost-benefit analysis has ever been undertaken on (for example) the continuing future relevance of weapon-systems such as battle-tanks, aircraft-carriers or short-range ballistic missiles in the Indian context, or the impact of an anti-ballistic missile defence system on deterrence stability. In such a scenario all wish-lists from the Services (and DRDO) become sacrosanct and, eventually, receive MoD approval.

The IAF Inventory

It is against this background that the IAF force-planning process, in general, and the MMRCA case in particular need to be examined, on the basis of information available in the public domain (IISS “Military Balance” 2010 edition). I must emphasise that the MMRCA case is being used only because it happens to be a current issue. This critique may also hold good for the acquisition programmes of the other two Services.

The mainstay of the IAF inventory, at its lower end, continues to be the vintage force of about 200 MiG-21 interceptors. Of these more than half have been upgraded to the Bison standard, encompassing a ground-attack capability. At the top end of the inventory are 140 Sukhoi-30 MKI air-dominance fighters which also have a significant strike capability. Additional Su-30s have been contracted and their eventual number will reach 272. Dedicated to the ground-attack role are 100 MiG-27 ML and 110 deep-strike Jaguar aircraft. Fifty Mirage-2000 multi-role fighters and 70 MiG-29 air-superiority fighters are available for combat tasks as required. The Jaguar, Mirage-2000 and the MiG-29 are all awaiting upgrades which will give them enhanced capabilities and extended life. This assorted force of about 650-700 combat aircraft is supported by air-air refuelling (AAR) and airborne warning and control system (AWACS) squadrons.

In addition to these combat aircraft of Russian, British and French origin already in service, the IAF has placed an order for 40 indigenous Tejas combat aircraft, with possibly another 80-100 more to follow. In December 2010 India signed a deal worth $ 300 million with Russia for the “joint development” of a 5th generation fighter aircraft. It is understood that about 250 of these aircraft, designated PAK-FA in Russia, will enter IAF service during the next decade. Finally, the Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA) is reported to have commenced design work on a fifth generation indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) expected to fly by 2025.

Assuming that the MiG-21s are withdrawn by the end of the decade, to be replaced by the Tejas; the MMRCA, when it joins the fleet, will become the 8th type of combat aircraft in IAF service. The increasing diversity of aircraft types (mostly of foreign origin) being accumulated by the IAF is going to become a nightmare in the spheres of training, maintenance, logistics and inventory-management.

The IAF had decided, in the early years of the last decade that the logical answer to its problems of obsolescence, attrition and declining strength was to induct additional numbers of the Mirage-2000. With a few upgrades, this excellent machine could become the future multi-role aircraft; bridging the gap between the heavy-weight Su-30 and the light-weight Tejas. It was the MoD’s rejection of this proposal that gave birth to the MMRCA project. However, a lack of clarity has prevailed about the specific space that the MMRCA is meant to occupy in the IAF order of battle, given the growing fleet of Su-30s, and the planned induction of the PAK-FA and the AMCA.

In this context, it is interesting to note the contrasting approach of two other medium sized air forces; the British and French. Both are equipped with about 300 combat aircraft, with which they meet operational commitments, not just at home but also world-wide. Their inventories are restricted to two or three types of aircraft: Typhoon and Tornado in the Royal Air Force, and Rafale, Mirage-F1 and Mirage-2000 in the Armee de l’Air. Versions of these aircraft undertake all combat tasks, including air-defence, ground-attack and strike & recce.

Foreign Dependence

One of the most deeply disturbing aspects of India’s national security policies is the nonchalance with which the country continues to spend colossal sums of money in acquiring weapon systems from foreign sources. There does not seem to be adequate realization of the fact that every such purchase makes India hostage to the seller nation, and seriously undermines our security as well as autonomy. For example, if the aircraft-carrier Vikramaditya arrives in 2012, the Indian Navy (IN) will remain captive to the whims and fancies of Russia’s creaky supply chain till at least 2052 for spares, and maintenance support.

In similar fashion every foreign aircraft that the IAF acquires, will place the Service at the mercy of another nation for 30-40 years thereafter. The denial of a tiny aircraft component can ground fleets, and we should be in no doubt that our dependence for spares, product-support and weapons on sources as diverse as Russia, UK, France, Israel and South Africa constitutes a crippling strategic vulnerability. We may soon be adding Italy, Spain and Germany to this list.

It is true that no third-world nation can aspire to be completely autarchic in advanced weapon-systems. And yet China has demonstrated that resolute pursuit of self-reliance can produce wonders. By deploying their scientific resources to “steal” technology and resort to reverse-engineering, the Chinese produce everything they need; from AK-47 assault rifles, cruise-missiles and stealth fighters to carriers and nuclear submarines. They also export $ 2 billion worth of arms annually. While it is sometime appropriate to disparage and berate the DRDO for its many delays, failures and false promises, the armed forces need to undertake some soul-searching themselves. Very often it has been their own their own detached attitude, and penchant for the illusory “fast-track” import option that has caused them to bypass any attempt at indigenization, and perpetuate foreign dependence.

Delving a little into history, it is interesting to note that it was at about the same time in the mid-1950s that two significant initiatives were taken towards self-reliance in defence. The IAF issued an Air Staff Requirement for an indigenous jet fighter, and the IN established a Corps of Naval Constructors (later to become Directorate of Naval Design) with the aim of starting indigenous warship production. HAL delivered the first twin-jet HF-24 Marut, designed by Dr. Kurt Tank, to No. 10 Squadron in 1967. Mazagon Docks Mumbai launched the first, licence-built, Leander class frigate, INS Nilgiri in 1968.

The stories diverge thereafter. Having delivered 150 Maruts, HAL doggedly persevered with further development of this elegant looking fighter. The designers, however, lost heart as successive versions like the HF-73, HF-24-M.53 and the single-engine HF-25 had to be shelved for lack of IAF interest and government support. Finally, HAL gave up when the IAF opted for the Jaguar and the Mig-23 BN, and the Marut programme was shut down. The LCA project taken up by DRDO, 30 years after the Marut, did not, till recently, evoke much enthusiasm from the IAF; which accounts for its tardy and halting progress.

On the other hand, Mazagon Docks went on to build four more Leanders before Indian naval architects stepped in to re-design the hull and add weapons and sensors to produce three different classes of warships. Today, the navy’s perspective plans rely heavily on the regular delivery of frigates, destroyers, amphibious ships and submarines by carefully nurtured Indian shipyards. A nuclear submarine was launched in 2010, and an indigenous aircraft-carrier will follow in 2015.

Backing Self-reliance

It may be somewhat late in the day, but there is still time to ensure that India’s aerospace industry does not completely miss the technology bus, and leave the nation forever dependent on foreign sources for combat aircraft. The MMRCA contract provides an invaluable window of opportunity, via the Offset Clause.

For far too long, have Indian defence PSUs claimed “transfer of technology” when they were only assembling components received from abroad using “screwdriver technology”. For the MMRCA offsets to be beneficial to India, they must be selectively chosen to fill known gaps in key technologies or provide high-end production-engineering skills lacking in our aerospace industry today. The USA had conveyed a distinct message that selection of either American candidate would open a cornucopia of technology to India – including the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter. The Europeans must be reminded of this and prevailed upon to follow a similar paradigm.

As far as the PAK-FA “joint development” contract is concerned, there is need for us to be even more careful because the prototype made its maiden flight early this year at Komsomolsk-on-Amur. The developmental process of this aircraft is, obviously, at least a decade old, and has been guided by the requirements of the Russian Air Force rather than the IAF. Thus, even if the “joint development” is no longer possible India must ensure that key technologies in areas such as stealth, super-cruise and active electronically scanned radar are actually transferred to the DRDO in return for the heavy investment made. The Russians are known to be parsimonious with technology transfer, and the pointless licence-production of 850 MiG-21s and aero-engines, as well as many BrahMos missiles is proof of this.

The IAF, on its part, can reinforce India’s aero-space self-reliance endeavours by articulating a 25-30 year capability-cum-force-planning vision, if possible, jointly with DRDO. This vision must use the LCA, AMCA and PAK-FA experiences and technologies as the basic building blocks for futuristic combat aircraft – manned or unmanned. Perhaps the establishment of a small Aero-space Design Cell in Vayu Bhavan may help.

The Advantage of Numbers

The IAF has justly complained, for many years, that its long-standing requirement of 45 fighter squadrons has never been met. Worse still, even the arbitrary “authorised" strength of 39.5 squadrons has been steadily eroded by attrition and obsolescence, so that today it is a force of less than 30 squadrons.

A point repeatedly made by the IAF leadership, in the context of declining force-levels, has been that while technology may have its place, “numbers have their own logic”. This is a valid argument for a force required to divide its strength between the western sector facing Pakistan, the north-eastern sector facing China, and the northern sector facing both adversaries. It must also be borne in mind that the Strategic Forces Command does not own any aircraft assets, and relies on dual-tasked IAF machines to be withdrawn for nuclear delivery missions. However the numbers argument has its limitations.

The IAF Hawker Hunter FGA Mk.9 that I flew in the 1970s could deliver a ton’s worth of rockets and iron bombs out to a little under 200 miles, and weapon accuracies of 15-20 yards were considered reasonable. The Jaguar, inducted in mid-1980s, was a great improvement and could deliver a 4 ton payload to over 300 miles. Today’s combat aircraft carry 6-8 tons of lethal weaponry to ranges of over 400 miles and deliver them with pinpoint precision on the target. Such is the accuracy and lethality of “smart” weapons that a single modern fighter can achieve the same effect in one mission as 15-20 earlier generation aircraft using “dumb” weaponry. This was amply demonstrated by the Mirage-2000 on Kargil heights in 1999. The “multi-role” appellation represents the ability to switch rapidly between interceptor, strike and recce tasks.

It is a moot question that if numbers are indeed so critical for the IAF, then why have the cheaper MMRCA options been discarded? Given that all six aircraft seem to have qualified in the flight-trials and technical evaluation processes, the line-up, in ascending order of price, shown in parenthesis, is as follows: MiG-35 ($ 45 m), F-16 ($60 m), F/A-18 ($60.5 m), Gripen ($82.2 m), Rafale ($ 85.5 m) and Typhoon ($124 m). The IAF could have, for example, added 400 Super Hornets to its inventory for the price of 200 Typhoons, and resolved many of its problems.

From this it becomes obvious that the time has now come for the IAF to undertake an exercise to determine the “capabilities” that it needs to discharge its roles and missions rather than insisting on a fixed number of squadrons. At between Rs. 350-550 crores per aircraft it would be unrealistic to demand the numbers contemplated in the 1960s; especially when technology opens up so many operational vistas.

Integrating the Expertise

There is no doubt that the General, Naval and Air Staffs at the three Service Headquarters embody in themselves the highest levels of field experience, domain knowledge and professional expertise. However, rhetoric apart, future wars are not going to be fought or won by a single Service. Whether we like it or not, concepts like “sea control” as well as “air dominance” are mere preliminaries for “boots on the ground”. It was for this reason that the post-Kargil Group of Ministers convened to “Reform the National Security System” recommended, in 2001, the creation of an Integrated Defence Staff to support the Chief of Defence Staff (CDS).

he CDS was to constitute the “single point of military advice to the Government”, and apart from administering the Strategic Forces Command (SFC), his two main functions, as Chairman COSC, were to be:

A combination of bureaucratic resistance and political indecision bolstered by scare-mongering from within a section of the armed forces, unfortunately, stalled the institution of a CDS. An IDS HQ was, however, created and has been functioning under a 3-star Chief of Integrated Staff to Chairman COSC (CISC for short) since 2001.

The Integrated Defence Staff (IDS) with a large number of 2 and 3-star officers from the army, navy and air force could have become a most valuable pool of inter-Service expertise. It could play a crucial role in rendering advice to the RM on all issues relating to capability creation, force planning and inter-Service prioritisation of acquisitions. However, in the absence of a CDS, the functioning of the CISC, understandably, remains constrained by the Chiefs, and the IDS HQ remains an under-utilised formation.

Fixing the System

In the current system of India’s higher defence management the Chiefs feel that the acute scrutiny of their respective Services will not permit any down-sizing or right-sizing, especially if it means disbanding units or losing high-ranking billets. No significant reform, or move towards Jointmanship is, therefore, likely to take place unless imposed by the political leadership – as has happened in other democracies like the USA and UK.

With China bearing down hard on us, and Pakistan ready to descend into chaos, India’s external security scenario is fraught with hazard. Internally, the Indian state, which has been struggling to cope with Naxalism and terrorism, is now confronted with a restless civil society seeking relief from all-pervasive corruption and administrative ineptitude. National security is, therefore, in parlous straits.

The political leadership in India has overwhelming political preoccupations which obviate focused attention on national security issues. The bureaucracy is only too happy to step-in wherever it can, but does not know enough about operational issues to make drastic interventions. Under these circumstances, there is a strong element of tunnel-vision and ad-hocism in our defence planning and expenditure; dictated by the compulsions of individual Service HQs. Consequently, our colossal defence expenditure of $ 35 billion (and growing), does not contribute effectively to national security, and some urgent re-engineering is called for.

At the conclusion of this, somewhat lengthy essay I have, regrettably, no “silver bullet” to offer. However the national security establishment needs to pay urgent heed to four salient recommendations:

Returning to the MMRCA issue as a post-script; no matter which aircraft eventually emerges as the winner in the competition, there can be only one litmus test for the decision. Has this choice been made for the right reasons, and does it serve India’s vital national interests? As a corollary one might also ask: how much longer must India remain dependent on foreign sources for security?

(A naval fighter pilot, Admiral Arun Prakash PVSM AVSM VrC VSM served as India's Chief of the Naval Staff from 31 July 2004-31 Oct 2006. As Chairman of the National Maritime Foundation (NMF), he currently divides his time between Goa and Delhi. This column is copyright and courtesy VAYU Aerospace & Defence Review (III/2011), at which the Admiral is Editorial Advisor. He contributes columns to journals, magazines, newspapers and, occasionally, to LiveFist)

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