In the class of heavy multirole combat aircraft, the choice was made (wisely under the circumstances) a long time ago and the Su-30MKI, which is the envy of our neighbors and the pride of the IAF, is already under series production and this type will likely equip over 60% of IAF’s authorized combat force by the time the last Su-30 rolls out of HAL’s Nasik factory. No doubt the FGFA fifth generation fighter (which is largely based on Su-30/35 technologies) to be jointly developed by Russia and India would at a later date add to the heavy category. About 16-20% of the authorized combat force (around 126-200 aircraft) would then need to be equipped by the medium multi-role combat aircraft, the balance 20%, hopefully by the indigenous LCA. This raises the question of what type and size of aircraft we should be looking at, subject to its operational parameters for satisfying the IAF needs.
The cost and performance of a combat aircraft broadly depends upon its size and weight and what avionics and weapons it carries. This parameter would virtually rule out the Boeing Super Hornet (an excellent aircraft in its class) and the MiG-35 (for another reason) but both not too far from the Su-30 in size or origin [Livefist note: The MiG-35’s MTOW is much less than the Su-30’s]. It would neither be prudent nor affordable to maintain nearly 80% of the combat force consisting of just heavy multi-role aircraft from a single source for the coming decades since the world situation would no doubt have undergone major changes during this period.
At around 24,000 kg maximum weight, the French Rafale and the European Eurofighter Typhoon also come closer to the upper end of a medium combat aircraft. They offer great advantage in the quantum of fuel and weapon load carried, but it is only actual operation and detailed cost calculations that can tell us of their desirability in our inventory. This leaves us with two types with obvious advantages of being clearly in the category of ‘medium’ multi-role combat aircraft that have been offered in the RFP: the US Lockheed-Martin F-16IN Super Viper and the Swedish Saab Gripen NG/IN, both configured specially to meet Indian requirements (hence the ‘IN’ in their nomenclature).
Popular perceptions may opt against the F-16 since this has been mainstay with the Pakistan Air Force since 1982 and recent inductions are raising that force level to as many as 118 F-16s in PAF inventory [Livefist note: PAF F-16 force levels are less]. These are being upgraded, but are expected to remain somewhat ‘inferior’ to the F-16s being offered to India which should be taken serious note of. While the F-16 would remain the backbone of the Pakistan Air Force, its Indian version would imply a maximum of 16-20% of the IAF combat force level with the Su-30MKI far outstripping it in numbers. There is also an advantage if the United States is willing to transfer (on lease or sale) 100-odd partially used F-16s from its Air National Guard to the IAF.
However, the choice that comes closest to the ‘medium’ multi-role aircraft that the IAF has been seeking since a decade ago (the Mirage-2000 type) is the Swedish Gripen IN which has maximum and empty weights at around 17,000 kg and 7,000 kg respectively, almost equal to that of the Mirage-2000. Since the Mirage 2000 is not in the running anymore, this makes it necessary to focus on the aircraft type closest to the medium combat aircraft, that is, the Swedish Gripen and Lockheed-Martin F-16, with the EADS Eurofighter Typhoon included at the higher end. Gripen’s manufacturers could also offer some aircraft from Swedish Air Force reserves as an interim. However much would depend on what is carried by the aircraft in terms of avionics and weapons apart from its flying performance that meets our needs.
But there is a larger issue that should receive serious attention: this refers to the other matter we set out to deal with, that is the impact of acquisitions from abroad on our aircraft industry in the future. It is vital that the next fighter deal must go well beyond simple purchase and even local manufacture of the fighter and its major systems. Even the license manufacture option leaves the country dependent on external sources of supply. We were lulled in the past into the belief that ‘transfer of technology’ was taking place while the reality that it was ‘production technology’ that was actually transferred and not the essential design technology and data. This is why we have had to go back to Moscow to upgrade even the comparatively less sophisticated aircraft like the MiG-21. We now have the Su-30 being manufactured under license though we don’t know how much design data is being transferred to HAL. This is probably the reason for Russian discomfort over inclusion of the offsets clause on new purchases from them.
Large investments in defense modernization with high-technology weapons, particularly the acquisition of new fighters must be leveraged to energize our defense (especially aerospace) industry once it is clear that they fit into our doctrine and strategy in the larger context of what quality and quantity of aerospace forces are required for the next several decades. This should aim to serve two key purposes: build interdependence through horizontal and vertical partnerships and, secondly, empower India’s industry through capacity building with acquisition of modern aerospace technology. Both these principles are crucial to strengthening self-reliance through enhancing mutual dependence with countries and their industries that are willing to do so. These are also important for sustaining our broader techno-economic growth rates. But these requirements can be met only through process of acquisition and horizontal diffusion of technology beyond our present vertically organized hierarchical aircraft design and development model remotely, but firmly, managed from South Block. Global trends in aerospace industry on one side and India’s growing technological and economic capabilities on the other, point towards seeking mutual advantages in pursuing the horizontal technology diffusion route. This is where the issue of offsets assumes great importance.
The offsets clause in our procurement policy may be seen by many as infusing FDI to the extent of 30-50% of every contract into our economy. In spite of large reserves of foreign exchange available, future FDI would continue to be an important factor. But this cannot be the primary reason for seeking offsets. We will need spare parts for thirty years or more. In between there will be many requirements of modifications and upgrades of the systems. We should be able to provide as much as possible from indigenous (mostly private) industry through joint ventures that must be negotiated now. The importance and extent of such agreements would be crucial to maintaining high serviceability and low accident rates of the combat force and hence its effectiveness during war over the next three decades, and more.The IAF’s new fighter would require a mid-life upgrade 10-15 years after it enters service and this should provide a benchmark criterion for offsets to establish the ability to design and undertake that in India. This can be expected only if the prime manufacturers establish the necessary design, development and production facilities in country. The Maruti-Suzuki experience of vendor development which has led to high levels of automotive parts exports needs a special look in this regard. It needs to be remembered that design and development is the foundation for self-reliance and till recently this had suffered in our aircraft industry. The new M-MRCA has already been designed elsewhere. But we still have opportunities to access design and development of components, systems and sub-systems in partnership with foreign enterprises.
In the ultimate analysis our decision on the new M-MRCA must rest on broader national interests.
A well-known authority on aerospace in India, Air Cmde Singh is currently Director of the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS). The former Canberra pilot has also headed the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses (IDSA) in New Delhi. This column appears in the latest issue of Vayu Aerospace & Defence Review. A copy of the column was sent to Livefist by CAPS.