Here’s a quick challenge. Find us anyone in the business that’s truly surprised with the big development in India’s jet contracting journey this week. The rumblings of it had been known for months, but this week the Ministry of Defence made it official the only way it knows how — through a series of strategically placed source-attributed press reports making the announcement. Those familiar with the way the MoD does things, especially in the singularly meandering and turbulent world of military aircraft purchasing, knew this was practically the real thing.
What stands scrapped now is India’s much touted plan to choose between Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and Saab’s Gripen E and have a leading private corporate house build over a hundred in India as part of the Make in India program. A series of newspaper reports this week quote unnamed ministry sources as saying that the original stipulation to build only a single engine fighter in country was seen as restrictive.
There’s a gentle, almost lilting absurdity to the proceedings. The single engine fighter program was fashioned from the detritus and lessons of India’s most well known (and ultimately doomed) fighter procurement effort, the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (M-MRCA) program. Icarus-like in its ambitions and variously described as a beauty contest on specs, the breathtakingly disparate contest between light, medium and heavy fighters sought to contrive a industry standard-setting template to choose and procure military jets. All in an effort to bring 126 new fighter jets into the Indian Air Force, with most of them built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). While the process itself finally resulted in India down-selecting the Typhoon and Rafale — with the latter technically emerging triumphant — budgetary and other constraints meant that the deal was dust. One of the successors to the doomed M-MRCA was the now politically contentious ‘flyaway’ procurement of 36 Rafale fighters in 2016 in a straight government to government deal with France. But since 36 fighters were never going to fill the IAF’s squadron hunger, it was deemed necessary to think smaller. A single-engine fighter program was thus proposed, in the hope that a smaller lighter fighter would be faster to process, cheaper to build and budget-friendly to procure. It is this effort that has now been, well, shot down.
Given that the M-MRCA selection process is one that a former IAF chief famously wanted to patent, reports suggesting that the government is hoping to hold another full contest to choose a fighter is more than just odd. It would, for starters, completely discredit the M-MRCA selection process, the system that fashioned and guided the process, as well as the reliability of the Indian government. But given that jet procurement has has now become a familiar political flashpoint between the ruling party and the opposition (it was under the latter that the MMRCA was pioneered, guided and finally stalled), the idea of brand new selection process isn’t beyond the realm of imagination. That, of course, isn’t saying much in a playground that has over a decade distinguished itself by profoundly uninterrupted whim.
Secondly, it is unclear how a new contest that involves both single and twin engine fighters addresses the crippling cost wall that doomed the MMRCA. Nothing suggests that the MoD and air force have evolved a better template to choose aircraft. Far from it, the Strategic Partnership policy has made it significantly more complex and time-consuming. A looming election in 2019 doesn’t help.
And that’s probably why the Indian Air Force is typically nervous, though the last decade or so has given the IAF a stronger disposition to disappointment in the field of fighters than most air forces around the world, not to mention the IAF’s own hand in the current state of affairs. Failing to defend the single engine program, the IAF has no choice once again but to bow to MoD concerns. Reports this week suggest the IAF is pushing for a quick government to government deal, rather than meandering contest. What’s fully unclear is what aircraft they’re talking about. The Rafale? The Americans? None of the above? Unclear.
The scrapping of the single engine fighter build program also fuses two procurement intents — for single and twin engine fighters. The latter wasn’t announced but widely expected to have followed the first. Notionally, a selection process going forward under the facts so far known, will include the original MMRCA six-pack: the Rafale, Typhoon, F/A-18, MiG-35, F-16 and Gripen.
Significantly, Livefist learns that the Indian Air Force has launched an all-out internal opposition to the Indian Navy’s separate quest for 57 carrier fighters. This makes things even more delicate, considering that the navy’s prospective contest is a highly constrained two-horse race between Boeing’s F/A-18 and Dassault’s Rafale. Sources say the IAF believes the navy’s contest could be used to constrain the former’s own choices on what aircraft it should choose from, since it stands to reason that type commonality will be a priority. At doctrinal meetings over the last year, sources present tell Livefist that IAF representatives have even suggested that the roles of carrier-based fighters can easily be fulfilled by shore-based IAF squadrons. Merits of aircraft carriers aside, with a concrete aircraft carrier build plan by India at least for the moment makes such a flashpoint somewhat theoretical. What it does indubitably is add to the tensions and pressures that bristle through the procurement landscape, threatening at every stage to help pull plugs.
The new developments once again focus attention on obsessive platform-specific planning at the Indian Air Force rather than one that hinges on a long-term capability roadmap — an affliction that has evolved a crippling inability to look beyond the limited scope of clearly difficult contests.
That the single engine fighter program was on shaky ground has been known for over a year. In July last year, Russia abruptly re-entered the conversation by aggressively pitching its MiG-35 to India. Evidently few had missed the doomed trajectory of the single engine fighter contest. But it’s the path ahead that’s truly littered with questions, so here goes:
- How does India plan to choose its next fighter? Will this be a full-fledged tendered contest?
- What bearing will this prospective new IAF contest have on the Indian Navy’s quest for 57 carrier fighters?
- Will the new contest be guided by the same process principles of Make in India and Strategic Partnership (SP)?
- Does the government plan to create a real time-frame for the process?