The Indian government's decision to eliminate four of six aircraft in contention for the $9.5-billion medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) competition dismantles -- or at least puts on the stand -- many perceptions that had gathered a sense of unspoken legitimacy in the mythology that surrounded the competition. It's still too soon to call anything, but Wednesday's decision at the very least showed that the following stand refuted for now:
#1. The pervasive belief that any selection in the M-MRCA would be guided more by political and strategic considerations than strictly what the Indian Air Force wanted for its next fighter. And that since strategic considerations overwhelmed all other impulses in the effort, the deal would go to the Americans for three broad reasons: (a) quid pro quo for the substantive political realignment that New Delhi and Washington have engaged in, underscored by the Indo-US civil nuclear deal, (b) the indubitably more meaningful politico-strategic package that the US potentially offered, compared to the other competing nations, and (c) and that considering everything else that India was doing with the US -- exercises, other military contracts, intelligence sharing and a substantive multi-tiered diplomatic engagement -- the MMRCA not going to the Americans would stick out like a sore thumb and damage all the good bilateral work done so far. It would signal an arrogant lack of reciprocity. Why would India risk the bad blood knowing all too well how much the US was politically and economically invested in a favourable decision. This Livefist post earlier this month pointed straight at the death of this perception. The other view is, of course, that choosing the Typhoon and Rafale actually is a political decision: one that gives the IAF what it wants while still signalling to the US that India won't put all its strategic eggs in a single basket.
#2. Another early but powerful perception was that the IAF would hold sacred its requirement for a medium fighter (more or less comparable to the Mirage-2000H), and be wary of selecting heavier jets like the Typhoon, Rafale and F/A-18. The Gripen (a light fighter) and the F-16 campaigns included elements to suggest that buying "heavier" aircraft made little sense for the IAF considering the steady ongoing induction of Su-30MKIs. The two aircraft surviving the downselect come closer to the definition of heavy than any of the others, barring the F/A-18 which is the heaviest of the six. To be fair, this perception was history quite a while ago, but in 2004-06, there were plenty in the IAF who guffawed at Boeing's F/A-18 entering the fray.
#3. The perception that credible operational experience, and the presence of proven AESA radars (a stipulation in the 2007 RfP) would count for a lot, and as a result, the F-16 and F/A-18 being the only two with both, were cruising. The decision takes this perception and puts it straight through a shredder. The government has basically selected two of the three most operationally inexperienced jets in contention -- Eurofighter and the Rafale (I'm counting the MiG-29, since the MiG-35 doesn't exist) -- and neither the Typhoon nor the Rafale has an operational AESA radar yet.
#4. The perception that life cycle / ownership costs would play a meaty definitive role in any downselect or selection. While this has to have been a criterion at some level, the IAF has chosen two large twin-engine fighters. While Saab and Lockheed-Martin have done a great deal to defeat this impression, the fact remains that a twin-engine platform is more reliable, notwithstanding the undoubdtedly enhanced reliability of the new generation engines that power the F-16 Block 60 and the Gripen NG. At the same time, twin engines and life cycle savings aren't exactly best friends. The twin-vs-single engine debate got quite heated in 2009-10, but the government went with two twins in the end.
#5. The perception that considering the complexity of the competition and the inherently disparate types being compared, the effort would take inordinately long. Also, the perception that the benchmarking of substantially different airplanes would raise questions that would delay the process and lend itself to protests. Well, there could still be protests/appeals, but there is no question about the relative swiftness with which the Indian establishment has evaluated the M-MRCA competitors. I'm talking strictly from issuance of RfPs in 2007, and taking into account the hugely altered methodologies that were practically being concurrently conceptualized along with the procurement effort, including but not limited to the algebra of ownership cost and offsets. Also, the usual time it takes for decisions to be made here.
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