ANALYSIS: Factors That Should Determine The MMRCA

By Air Cmde (Retd) JASJIT SINGH


With the technical, flight and staff evaluation of all the six contenders for the 126 M-MRCA fighters now done, time has come to seriously look for a national consensus on the parameters of the selection. This is not a simple acquisition and the decision making will be extremely difficult unless we are clear of the key factors that should be decided upon in advance besides the technical specifications met and as no doubt spelt out in the RFP (Request for Proposals). Our decision must be guided by two basic factors: that nearly a decade has gone past from the time that IAF was looking for a ‘Mirage 2000’ type to fill the slot that has come to be described as the M-MRCA (Medium-Multi Role Combat Aircraft). This term is critically important for a number of reasons.
To begin with, like in most countries, the Ministry of Defense (ours is at South Block) would decide the mix of aircraft types that the IAF would need in future, based on the operational tasks and capabilities, that is, the quality and the quantity, while the Finance Ministry at North Block would look closely at the budgetary costs of acquisition as well as the ‘life-cycle’ costs which would have a major influence on defense budgets for the coming decades. An excessively high-performance (beyond the medium level fighter) will lead to higher costs and budgetary commitments which will force the size of the IAF to be curtailed when it actually needs to get back to 39+ combat squadrons and then expand to the Cabinet-sanctioned 50 squadrons. For obvious reasons the bulk of these factors should, and would, remain classified. Yet the informed public in the world’s largest democracy needs to have some idea of at least the parameters that might finally go into decision making.
The most crucial parameter has already been indicated by the very nomenclature which provides the description of the type of aircraft required: that is, medium sized multirole combat aircraft. The necessity of this class of aircraft has arisen due to a number of factors. Firstly, we need to fill the gap that has already arisen due to life-expiry of a large force of MiG-21s. The only ‘medium’ sized multi-role combat aircraft left in the IAF today is the Mirage-2000 with an inventory of around 50 aircraft. At the level above that, we are already committed to the heavy Su-30MKI being manufactured at HAL for the past few years. And at the lower size level, we have already embarked on the indigenously designed LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) that was to have replaced the MiG-21s before they went out of service, which Russian-type itself was a ‘light combat aircraft’. The LCA’s glitches, which inevitably exist in all complex new designs (for example, the F-35), would no doubt keep getting resolved as we go along. Of course it would be useful if the vendor selected for the M-MRCA also gives assistance in incorporating the necessary improvements in the LCA to improve upon it.

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.

Ultimately all this must fit into the principle of broader national interests and (grand?) geopolitical strategy to sustain them beyond system costs and performance factors. The question of American ‘reliability’ will continue to worry a lot of minds for a long time. But in this business, most suppliers would be under the same scanner. European policies in the past have raised doubts about the impact of US policies on even product support and now some EU partners’ differences may also impact their future actions. The Soviet Union (and the relationship it had with us) disappeared long ago and new dimensions are already impacting Indo Russian arms relationship, not the least of them being the Russian high-end military technology flows to China and the China-Pakistan strategic nexus where China is one of the two suppliers of high-technology arms for the Pakistan Air Force. The signals that Moscow is sending out are not very encouraging.

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.

25 thoughts on “ANALYSIS: Factors That Should Determine The MMRCA”

  1. Eurofighter may be the same class as Su-30 MKI's. F-16's and Gripen are in the class of our Tejas. So better go for the Rafales.

  2. It will proboly be from SAABs own reserv, as the Sweden Democrats party will vote that all of Swedens 204 + 2 aircraft will remain in the Royal Swedish Airforce ( that is the correct name)

    // First Sergeant

  3. quote : However much would depend on what is carried by the aircraft in terms of avionics and weapons.

    Pretty much !

    Not very convincing argument for the gripen in. It sounds more like an advertisement for the swedish rubbish.

  4. MMRCA NEEDS TO DO THE HEAVY LIFTING TOO …. so that it can shoulder the SukhoiMKI in combat missions…..

    Gripen NG with its single engine would not be that perfect on such missions …

    Rafale or the EF typhoon would be suited better for the IAF …

    IAF is depleting rapidly … need to fix this hemorrhage ….

  5. Just imagine the Pakis are getting the J10 fighters and FC 1 fighters for as cheap as 15 million per piece…. that is a ridiculous price … though the avionics are Chinese …. it is still cheap for Pakistan to operate them …. 4 – 5 chinese fighters for the price of one F 16 fighter … the equation is simple … the more the number the bigger the advantage …

    Also the job these chinese fighters have to do on their missions to India would be to carry and drop the bombs … simple and straight forward business … no talk about air to air superiority … just some decent 4th gen fighters to target our bridges and roads and dams and ports to cripple us during war … India on the other hand are going in for expensive gold plated western aircraft … even losing a few means a huge loss for the IAF with a depleting fighter squadron with further political delays … not to forget the nightmare in maintaining these western fighters and operating them in war …. IAF needs fighters that can do simple and basic missions to carry bombs and drop them … let Sukhois do the air to air superiority thing ….

    LCA tejas costs 25 million per unit … that looks attractive … the Mark II version should be simple … longer range and be able to carry enough bombs into Paki territory ….

  6. Difficult to disagree with the toplines. We do need technology to build our own fighters and that's not happened with the French and the Russians and unlikely to happen from either the Americans or the European conglomerate. We need an aircraft that performs and we need enough aircraft to stock up all squadrons. While the Swedes stand out on all those counts, there is much to be said for the comfort level, performance and reliability of the French aircraft though they have tended to behave, to borrow an analogy, like Suzuki in the days when they tried to get Maruti to shaft the 800 in the early 90s! One gets the sense that the French have not really been effectively engaged in this current program, starting with the MoDs little leak last year about the Rafale being out. Further, and rather strangely, the French have chosen to be silent except for the occasional iteration of the standard clauses. Time, Shiv, to do a fuller piece on the French proposition.

  7. It would have been far more stimulating had the Ret'd Air Commodore done a comparative analysis involving the three M-MRCAs–Gripen IN, F-16IN and the Tejas Mk2. By not dwelling on this point, he is implying that it is perfectly financially viable to induct two M-MRCAs in tandem–the Gripen IN or F-16IN and the Tejas Mk2. And that in itself is a contradiction of his financial analysis of the on-going M-MRCA competition! He also overlooks the fact that the 80-odd F-16A/B/C/Ds of the PAF will be numerically overshadowed in the years to come by the FC-20 M-MRCA and JF-17 Thunder–both from China.
    Lastly, he overlooks the fact that in future wars the battlefield air interdiction and tacftical strike sorties will all come under the ambit of effects-based operations, where all-weather standoff precision strike capabilities will take precedence over the tonnage of droppable offensive payloads. Therefore, in light nof the above, what exactly is it that the Gripen IN/F-16IN can do today which the Tejas Mk2 will not be able to do by 2014? That's what needs to be analysed and revealed, which no one from the IAF or CAPS is willing to do, regretably.

  8. Good article where he generalised everything sans any juicy stuff – akin to mini skirt on hairy legs.

    Relating to India´s fighter purchases, I see that Media is in a overdrive mode, without taking into account the shortage of Indian fighter Pilots. India´s state-owned flag carrier Air India flies 130 foreign Pilots, something Indian Air Force can not replicate who are short on 400 of them (Air Force Pilots), for loyality is the key word here. So its many aircrafts, few aviators in India´s case!

    Give you the (not so) parallel example:

    Tiny Singapore has few roads(3400 Km), many cars (Million),
    Albiet Singapore's average car speed on arterial (main) roads during peak hours is 27 kmh, compared to as low as 16 kmh in London yet gridlock is rarity. Its efficient management with creativity and vision.

    Its time India tackles pilot issue head on simultaneously as purchase process goes on.

    Then there is a lack of skilled/technically specialized manpower for the likes of DRDO, as said by our MOD on Kaveri issue. This information was given by Defence Minister Shri AK Antony in a written reply to Shri C Rajendran in Lok Sabha.

    Best Indian brains (cream of the coffee cup) are siphoned off overseas by multinationals right from University campuses with handsome salaries and perks. No wonder where there is honey, bees ought to be there. Similarly (as in the case of Air Force), DRDO can not hire Latvians and Lithuanians as technicians – Bili dud ki hifazat kaise karegi!

    The (above) task here is not that of putting a toothpaste into the tube, yet, pragmatisim and prudence is the key here, something that is lacking big time in our (beaurocracy infested) defense folks.

    Think 3D!

  9. I dont agree with cmde singh on this article.

    He did not mention anywhere about in operation AESA radar Only F16in and F18 has that.
    Others are talking about AESA in 2015 – 2020 but they are just projections.

    AESA with AIM 120D will be deadly against any force in ASIA.
    R77 / MICA range and effectiveness is not tested during war.
    US products will work effectively during war. thats where PAKIS has upperhand due to US machines. Soviet and Russia machines are good on paper. but when it comes to war experience does matter.
    The problem is how you integrate the F16 or F18 with our awacs phalcons.
    Off topic: LCA with AESA from US and AIM 120D will kick the ASS.

  10. No apprehensions on the denial of US technology have been raised. Still I think as I have read somewhere that Gripen shall be most eager to cooperate in the matters of knowhow and tech transfer, may be even to the extent of allowing industrial co-production.

    Weight category shall not be any particular criteria over the overall aspects. Because medium can be defined both as near the light or near the heavy.

    Under the emerging constraints, I think Rafale should be the best, but can someone enlighten me as how to with the relatively lower engine power than EF, can Rafale perform better than EF with higher payloads. I mean how it can be possible on the high end of technology. Is such a feat performed at the cost of the speeds of operations or agility.

    Till then I feel:

    Item>> compatibility>> Capability>> Industrial Conversions

    Rafale>> 1 >> 2 >> 2 = 5
    EF>> 3 >> 1 >> 3 = 7
    Gripen>> 2 >> 3 >> 1 = 6

    I.e. Rafale is First in compatibility, Second in Capability and Second in Industrial Conversions.

    EF is Third in compatibility, First in Capability and Third in Industrial Conversions.

    Gripen is Second in compatibility, Third in Capability and First in Industrial Conversions.

    EF is placed Third in compatibility and Industrial Conversions, because it has too many parents difficult to be appeased in unison.

    Obviously the costs and the real costs may be other matters of concern.

  11. Rather than paying billions of dollars to foreigner, offer lucrative salary to IITians and indian scientists working abroad and get them working on research projects. One day we will get success. Chinese are doing the same.

  12. Nothing out of the world here.
    But Mr. Singh made a very important point at the end, the High end Russian fighter we fly, Chinese also do , and Hence Pakis just seem to know as much about the fighter as Chinese themselves.
    A point that needs to be debated. We also needs to ensure that Russians don't help Chinese on Jxx project.

  13. His figures are all wrong the Gripen is NOT a medium fighter.
    It is a light fighter just like the LCA (both have 14 tons max TOW).

    The Su 30 MKI max TOW is close to 40 tons while the Eurofighter is about 24 tons, which is the very definition of a medium fighter.

    As for the Rafale, 10 yrs down the line when the or even now , if the IAF wants an upgraded version or some future developments it well have to pay the entire development costs to the French!
    And with France being the only operator the Rafale has a very shaky future.

    The Eurofighter is exactly the opposite in this regards.
    Its future development looks a lot stronger than the Rafale and we'd be sharing the costs with the other countries.

  14. A very superficial analysis ..

    For example, Naked the F-16E/IN weights the same as the Rafale C, but the french plane is able to carry 30% more load…

  15. A good Article indeed I must say but not a very good analysis the requirement here is not to replace the entire inventory of Mig 21 but it is to replace already decomissioned Mig-23 and the ageging Mig-27 older variants also as stop loss to some Mig 21 (bisons)this is a requirement for an advanced medium capacity multirole aircraft which can do bombing runs and air to air with eaze against f-16, J-10 and J-17 also not be a mere target for some advanced fighters like Su-27, J-11A and J-11B so we should choose wisely

  16. I am not sure if US has a veto over Gripen or not, but one thing is for sure…US is not obliging Sweden (or India, if we opt for Gripen). If they are manufacturing 60% of the engine, they are being paid for the same…& the world knows that the US runs on business, so no worries.

    I do support the Gripen IN purchase due to a number of reasons which include high operational availability, rapid turnarounds, minimal support requirements (therefore, sustaining high sortie rates), advanced aerodynamics, latest generation of off-bore sight missiles & what not! In addition, world leading weapon integration for high kill ratio, super-cruise capability & world's only 2nd generation AESA radar (improved target tracking, wide field of regard, mode flexibility, increased detection range & increased operational availability together with low life cycle cost) gives Gripen an upper hand.

    Just to remind you in addition, Gripen IN's features also match with our requirements in terms of weight, operational cost & life cycle cost.

  17. they are not, we have and always have had a full licens will full tech transfear.

    The Engine will proboly be modified again and called Volvo RM-14

    the RSWAF will in tiem replace all of its 204 (+2) jets 🙂

  18. I'll definitely go for Eurofighter. Cannot depend on US for anything. Moreover the F18 and F16s could be phased out soon once F35 comes into service.

    MIG35 is not a good option as we are already depending on Russia too much for our defense.

    Gripen is not a good option as it almost comes in LCA class, more over it uses GE engines. It is equivalent to going for any US aircraft.

    Rafale& eurofighters are the best options we have. In that, i believe Eurofighter comes in a better class.

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