After our much-read interviews with FlightGlobal’s Stephen Trimble and Hush-Kit’s Joe Coles, we’re delighted with the next in line on our #EyeOnIndia series. It’s difficult to find a more committed and obsessive aviation journalist in the world today than Italy’s David Cenciotti, founder of The Aviationist, one of the world’s most popular aviation sites. Since 1996, David Cenciotti has been a freelance journalist based in Rome, Italy. He founded The Aviationist in 2006 and has since become an oracle of sorts on all things aviation. A private pilot and himself a former 2nd Lt in the Italian Air Force, Cenciotti has written four books and contributes to magazines across the board. Take it away, David!
LIVEFIST: The first thing that comes to your mind when you think of Indian aerospace contracting?
DAVID: I can only comment based from an international perspective that usually tends to focus more on what made the news for being chaotic or inefficient than those contracts that went on more or less smoothly. That said, the first thing that comes to my mind is delay and uncertainty.
LIVEFIST: What do you think of the LCA Tejas?
DAVID: I think it’s a lost opportunity to show a real capability to develop a credible sort-of “indigenous” aircraft after the experience with the HF-24 Marut (a pretty cool design). Although some programs have had long development times, a wannabe-superpower can’t wait three decades for the development of a MiG-21 replacement. The way weapons systems (including those developed or procured by neighbouring nations) have evolved in the same time frame New Delhi industry has spent developing the Tejas, a “MiG-21++” as someone has dubbed it, clearly shows Indian aerospace is just in its infancy and clearly quite far from being self-reliant for engine, radar and weapons. Still, in spite of its clear limits in terms of payload and range, from Indian national interest’s point of view it was imperative to work on this project and let the whole environment grow before venturing into an even more ambitious project like AMCA.
LIVEFIST: Your opinion on India choosing the Rafale?
DAVID: Both the shortlisted competitors met the MMRCA RFP requirements but the Rafale turned out to be the “lowest technically qualified bid” and won. I was a bit upset to be honest: if I recall correctly, there were rumours ahead of the announcement that suggested Eurofighter would win. For this reason, I had prepared a draft post for The Aviationist with a long comment about the win, the impact it might have on Eurofighter export plans, etc: a text that I had to trash once the real winner was made official…
Anyway, I wasn’t really surprised. Back then I was pretty sure that, despite the Typhoon offered superior air-to-air capabilities, the Rafale was more mature as a truly multirole and better prepared to undertake the air-to-surface role. It was just a few months after the Libya Air War, a conflict during which The Aviationist had offered an unprecedented coverage. At the end of March 2011, before the Typhoon and the Rafale were shortlisted, all of the contenders of the MMRCA competition but the MiG-35 were deployed to the Med area to take part in Operation Odyssey Dawn (that later became Operation Unified Protector) proving, once again, that any air war is also a marketing effort; an opportunity to test the weapons systems and get media attention. The Rafale played a major role in northern Africa and was the first foreign aircraft to enter the Libyan airspace on Mar. 19, to attack ground targets in the Benghazi area (where the risk of SAM or AAA fire was pretty low to be honest) relying on the Spectra integrated defensive aids suite. Although it couldn’t be considered as multirole as to be capable to perform a typical SEAD/DEAD (Suppression/Destruction of Enemy Air Defenses) strike as an EA-18G Growler or a Tornado ECR, that are highly-specialized assets, the French plane proved the validity of combining its sensors (such as the Spectra) and the AASM (Armement Air-Sol Modulaire – Air-to-Ground Modular Weapon) PGM to identify, designate and hit ground targets: during Unified Protector, the AASM demonstrated to be effective against a tank at a range of 57 km. Furthermore, the aircraft undertook a wide variety of missions, including reconnaissance, and it was already available in navalised version: for instance, the French Navy Rafale jets took part in the war launching from the flight deck of the Charles De Gaulle aircraft carrier.
Back then, the Eurofighter was starting its multirole journey: it was accompanied by Tornado GR4s whose navigators assisted the Typhoon pilots with “buddy lasing” and the air-to-ground payload was limited to the Enhanced Paveway II GPS/LGBs.
Although large procurement programs are mostly politics and price than capabilities and performance, the Dassault Rafale was probably ahead of its contender in both.
LIVEFIST: India wants to build a foreign fighter in India. Which should it be?
DAVID: It should be the one able to meet the Indian requirements for technology transfer whilst ensuring a fast delivery of more modern aircraft. India needs these aircraft to finally replace the most obsolete and unreliable lines and make the Indian Air Force able to tackle a regional conflict. Indeed, even though improving the national aerospace industry capacity is paramount, rushing the new fighters into active service is probably even more important: the Indian Air Force can’t wait too long to get rid of its Soviet-era MiG-21 and MiG-27 jets and return to a number of squadron closer to the famous magic number of 42 ones mandated by the Cabinet Committee on Security.
Now that the single engine limitation has been lifted, with several old and new contenders at the horizon and a long procedure ahead (with 11 formal steps before a deal can be signed) the risk is to see an MMRCA “reloaded”: a never ending contracting procedure and subsequent negotiations similar to those which led to the failure of the original MMRCA v1.0. Although it’s hard to foresee the final outcome (if any) of the new procurement program, I would bet on the Gripen for a low-cost light jet fighter.
LIVEFIST: India has three fifth generation aircraft options at various levels of likelihood: the Su-57 FGFA, the homegrown AMCA concept and the F-35. What should it bet on?
The Indian Air Force is clearly disappointed with the FGFA delays and has somehow voiced its frustration about the inability to meet some key requirements, including the one about the Radar Cross Section and (once again) the amount of technology transfer. However, thus far it has not been able to halt the collaboration and it’s unlikely that it will scrap the program anytime soon. The deployment to Syria of the Russian Su-57 prototypes may have slightly boosted the credibility of the Russian stealth project but the future of the cooperation remains unclear.
On the other hand, despite its astronomic costs, the F-35 is gaining momentum, slowly recovering from a “difficult start”. This does not mean it has solved all the issues, but it might be mostly fixed and more affordable by the time India decides to jump on the bandwagon.
Dealing with a domestic 5th gen. aircraft, let’s keep it real: India can’t consider AMCA anything more than a dream now. The troubled development of the Tejas should be a reminder that the Indian aerospace industry is simply not ready for a domestic fifth generation aircraft without a significant foreign help. It might be ready in some decades, but most probably not in the foreseeable future. One might wonder whether the Indian Air Force needs a 5th gen. aircraft at all, considered that it still operates a large fleet of 3rd generation aircraft it still needs to replace. I think it needs it as a consequence of its competition with China in the India Ocean and Asia-Pacific region. For this reason, despite the possible lack of major industrial offsets and the risk of becoming too reliant on the U.S. for what concerns stealth tech, I think India should seriously consider the F-35 in the near term while continuing to invest in a domestic project for the long term. This would mark a significant shift in the relations with Moscow and Washington but I believe New Delhi is looking for a strong player to keep its geopolitical ambition and to counter Beijing’s influence. And the U.S. is surely more interested in supporting India’s efforts for regional leadership against China than Russia.
LIVEFIST: Which aircraft in the Indian military would you take a spin in?
DAVID: The Indian Air Force operates an impressive “cocktail” of combat aircraft. I like legacy aircraft but I would love to give the Su-30MKI a try. I’ve had the opportunity to fly in an Italian Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon playing the Aggressor role in a 4 vs 3 sortie: as part of the three-ship Red Air flight, our two-seater simulated a Su-30. So I would be glad to test how the real thing flies and fights, especially if compared to the Typhoon. You know, there’s been some debate after the Indian Flankers returned from Exercise Indradhanush 2015 with the British Tiffies in the UK so I’m particularly curious.
LIVEFIST: What’s the worst thing you’ve heard about Indian defence contracting?
DAVID: I’ve heard that it is strongly influenced by politics, affected by bureaucratic delay, inefficiency and corruption.
LIVEFIST: India is developing a stealth UCAV. Your thoughts?
DAVID: Several nations, including the U.S. and China, are developing or testing weaponized stealth drones: therefore, I find it normal that India is working on a stealth UCAV program as well. Once again, it’s an ambitious program that will take some time. Hence, good luck.
LIVEFIST: What’s India’s most visible strength in aerospace/defence?
DAVID: The most visible strength is its ambition. India is a prosperous defence market with local companies working on several different current and future projects. In spite of a crazy contracting process, India attracts tech vendors from all around the world eager to sell their “goods” but also willing to invest locally, leveraging the tax breaks, low wages and education level of the local workforce.
LIVEFIST: Do you see India as a countervailing force to China?
DAVID: Not yet. In the last decade, China has made giant leaps in terms of in-house weapons systems development and currently dwarfs India in overall capabilities (at least for what concerns aerospace) also thanks to a defence budget that is about three times that of its most fearsome regional rival.
Coming up: #EyeOnIndia Part 4: The War Zone’s Tyler Rogoway takes 10 questions