COLUMN: A Response to Ashley J Tellis’ Assessment Of The MMRCA Down-select

By Mihir Shah

Dr. Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, has written a commentary for FORCE Magazine, in an attempt to explain in some detail the reasons why two American aircraft – the Lockheed-Martin F-16IN Super Viper and Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet – vying for the Indian Air Force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract worth an estimated Rs. 42,000 crore, failed to make the down-select. While the piece is a must-read, owing to the plethora of facts, figures, and new information presented, the analysis itself falls short on several counts. This post attempts to refute some of his arguments.

The first, and in some ways, most startling assertion by Dr. Tellis is that the IAF’s decision “was made entirely on technical grounds”, and that “in retrospect, this may have been exactly the problem”. While there is nothing wrong with this observation per se, the way in which it is being said appears to suggest surprise on his part that political, strategic, or financial concerns were not allowed to interfere in the decision making process. Indeed, when seen in the light of his earlier charge that India “settled for a plane, not a relationship”, it leaves the reader with the impression that the IAF, backed by the Ministry of Defence (MoD), made a serious error in not letting these other factors influence its decision. This impression is only reinforced by the use of adjectives like “mechanistic” and “perverse” that he uses to characterise the IAF and MoD’s adherence to the two-step acquisition process. Altogether, these comments seem to carry the subtle (and in many ways, dangerous) insinuation that it would have been better for all parties had the process been designed in a way that would have allowed it to be ‘calibrated’ to geopolitical needs and considerations. In fact, nothing could be farther than the truth. The only thing keeping the MMRCA competition from being stymied in charges of impropriety, corruption, or political rabble-rousing like the tenders for 155 mm artillery and light utility helicopters, is a strict and almost pig-headed adherence to laid-down rules and procedures. Dr. Tellis recommendation is a sure recipe for disaster, as leaving even the smallest procedural gaps open to exploitation by vested interests would delay the induction of these fighters by years if not decades. What this would do to India’s war-fighting capabilities is not hard to imagine.
The other argument put forth by Dr. Tellis is that the IAF gave an inordinate amount of importance to air combat manoeuvering at the expense of superior sensors, weapons, and assorted electronics while framing its air staff qualitative requirements (AQSRs). It was this anachronistic focus on things that make a difference in close-range knife-fights, he claims, that led to the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale making the short-list, while the F/A-18E/F, the superior combat system, did not. While it is certainly possible that the ASRs were framed with a strong focus on aerodynamic superiority, Dr. Tellis fails to appreciate the reasons behind such a requirement. In the last decade, the IAF has been steadily shifting its attention towards countering the threat posed by the Chinese People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) and air defences on India’s eastern frontiers, where the ability of aircraft to operate in hot and high conditions will be of prime importance. The Kargil War only served to highlight the importance of being able to mount high-altitude missions in mountainous terrain, and also introduced the IAF to the unique challenges of doing so. So while Dr. Tellis is probably correct in declaring that “marginal differences in aerodynamic performance rarely affect combat outcomes”, he fails to grasp that even the minutest aerodynamic shortcomings can amplify themselves into serious operational deficiencies in such conditions, and no amount of superiority in sensors or weapons can compensate for these. Indeed, it is not difficult to see why the F/A-18E/F, an aircraft designed to operate from aircraft carriers at sea level, with its well-documented aerodynamic compromises and relatively high wing-loading, would be one of the four aircraft that failed to make the cut in the Leh trials.
Also, while he laments the IAF’s preoccupation with within visual range (WVR) combat, Dr. Tellis is guilty of a similar error in completely discounting the ground attack component of aerial warfare from his analysis. In doing so, he entirely misses the point of the MMRCA acquisition, and knocks down a strawman argument of his own making. If the IAF’s current force structure and future acquisition plans are studied in conjunction with its increasing focus on the eastern theatre, it is not hard to reach the conclusion that the MMRCA will be the primary strike fighter in its arsenal. In that role, the ability to attack ground targets with high precision weaponry and put sophisticated air defence networks out of action will be of prime importance. And the Rafale and Typhoon’s superlative passive sensors, data fusion, defensive aids, and wide range of modern weaponry, combined with their canard-delta configuration and high-powered engines would make these aircraft uniquely suited to take on the might of China’s dense air defence network and the PLAAF in the thin air of the Himalayas and the Tibetan plateau. That neither aircraft currently has radar that comes close to matching the impressive performance of the Super Hornet’s AN/APG-79 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar remains a problem, but the air force seems fairly confident that these will be available in good time.
Going further into his analysis, Dr. Tellis proceeds to question and attack the IAF’s ASQRs, in the process giving fallacious and simplistic examples of how these requirements were defined too narrowly. One would think that the IAF, like any other professional air force, would define its requirements based on an assessment of how and where its future conflicts would be fought. However, Dr. Tellis only alleges, though in a roundabout way cloaked in elaborate arguments and sophisticated language, that the IAF pulled these requirements out of a hat without fully understanding their implications as far as modern air combat went. Such matters can (and indeed should) be debated in military circles that have access to all the relevant information. But coming from a civilian analyst who was in no way involved with the procurement process, and professes no special expertise or experience in the strategic, operational, tactical, and technological aspects of aerial warfare, the argument merely comes across as indiscreet and perhaps not fully thought-out.
Much of this is in direct contradiction to what he wrote in a comprehensive report [PDF] on the status of the competition in January 2011. At that time, Dr. Tellis spared no superlative in heaping praise on the air force for its handling of the trials. He noted that “the IAF has bent backwards to be both scrupulously transparent and extraordinarily neutral throughout this process” and the reports it submitted to the MoD were “comprehensive” and “impartial to the point of appearing disinterested”. In the concluding paragraph, he wrote: “No matter which way India leans in the MMRCA contest, keeping the IAF’s interests consistently front and center will ensure that its ultimate choice will be the right one. A selection process that is transparent, speedy, and focused on the right metrics will not only strengthen the IAF’s combat capabilities, but it will also earn the respect of all the competing vendors and their national patrons. Some of them will be disappointed by India’s final choice, but those, alas, are the rules of the game.” The process was everything Dr. Tellis would have liked it to be – transparent, speedy, focused on the right metrics, and most importantly, driven entirely by the IAF’s requirements and interests. The professionalism displayed by the IAF had also come in for much acclaim from Lockheed-Martin and Boeing more than once; their statements after the down-select have been just as complaisant and agreeable. The reason why he would choose to essentially go back on his own counsel and vilify the air force in so public a manner, therefore, remains a mystery.
(Mihir Shah is a US-based engineer who tracks aerospace issues closely. He has contributed before to Livefist and Pragati magazine. He works at a firm specialising in energy efficiency consulting. Mihir has previously analysed the Pakistani JF-17 programme for Livefist. Views expressed by the author are his own.)

39 thoughts on “COLUMN: A Response to Ashley J Tellis’ Assessment Of The MMRCA Down-select”

  1. Nicely Done…though India's faith in European AESA and Engine can be debated since Americans were better in both these areas …

  2. Well written analysis by mihir. ashley tellis seems have to been afflicted by the indian political bug of shifting stances according the prevailing mood. In his first article the IAF selection process was a very professional and neutral process. In his second article that very same process is flawed since the US jets did not make the cut.
    Trust the government will rapidly expedite this process once the commercial bids are opened.

  3. In all these debates and arguments, virtually everyone fails to understand that no matter what India does, it will be insignificant compared to what China does. Whether it is a Rafale, Typhoon, F/A-18 or Gripen, none of them will single-handedly be a match for 20 J-17s. That ratio is exactly by how much all Indian aircraft will be outnumbered by China within 5-7 years.

    Goodbye India!

  4. Anon 12.21PM,
    Those JF-17s are heavily dependent on Russian jet engines, which of late Russia has stopped selling to China. So, without engines how are you gonna fly supposedly 20 JF17s against single Rafale/EF?? Your Chinese engines are even worse than the Russian engines, hence you opted for the better of the two.

  5. For the person above who mentioned about 1:20 ratio, can you please find out how many aircraft can lift off from Tibet with a good enough load?

    For crying out loud PLAAF flew first full fledged training sorties with J-11 in tibet few months back.

    Even if India attacks tibet now, there is no worth while PLAAF jets to defend it.

    Let's stop fearing the PLAAF so much.

  6. nice piece of work.Indian airofrorce now look beyond Pakis and thinking to take on Chinese dragon.

  7. what i hear from my chaiwalla is that the hypersonic BhraMos missile will be tested in few weeks….and there is sum big deal in the offing worth billion $$ss with Russia…not sure wat is the deal about…

  8. The Pakistani Fighter Pilot's interview regarding the F-16s scoring over the Typhoons is very disturbing and mindboggling. The point is that either the Eurofighter or the Rafale with an AESA radar should be able to beat the Pakistani F-16s and also the Chinese SU-27, 30 and the J-10s if such a situation arises any time in future.

  9. Overall a decent article but i am sure India alone can't take on china all be itself, We neither have the numbers or the political will to face up against a dragon growing evermore powerful. A sheer numerical superiority is never to be underestimated. That said, both Ef and Rafale are expensive choices, both will be hella expensive to acquire and operate throughout a lifetime, a Super Hornet with new EPE engines on offer can easily take off from Leh and other high alt. airbases, furthermore, with atleast having the super hornet in the downlist, they could have put pressure on the US to take out the intrusive clauses in the CISMOA, better tot packages, redrafting of EUMA without all the checks etc and atleast force the price of the Ef and Rafale down. A super hornet is nearly half the price of a Ef or Rafale and comes with new epe engines, new large cockpit, new defensive aids, new irst, new and not to mention much cheaper and far more lethal weapons. The overall Super hornet package including weapons would have been around 10 to 14 billion. For Ef or Rafale the cost will be atleast 16 to 18 billion or more. Besides due to large amounts of us made parts on Ef and Rafale full tot isn't guaranteed, atleast if US was feeling genrous they might even have given full-tot. i believe they should have allowed super hornet into the donwlist.

  10. An analysis to analize an alnalysis is about as anal as we need to get on this.

    Any of those western fighters in quantity could serve India well right now. We just need airplanes as soon as possible. IAF knows this and this is why they stick to procedures – don't want to give any babu any chance to derail the train in the 11th hour.

    Just get on with the process and place the orders. This is just taking too long.


  11. This Mihir character's article is like the retort of a petulant child – "No, I'm correct and you are wrong!". This juvenile garbage that is considered as "a good article" only describes the aptitude of those who read it.
    Seemingly in defending the indefensible short-sightedness of the IAF "technical evaluation" team, this Mihir character is laughably trying to perpetuate the absurdity that WVR combat performance and high altitude performance are synonymous. You don't have to be a aerospace engineer with Lockheed Martin or the blokes that make the J-20 Faux-stealth fighter that this is nonsense par excellence.

    Next, this so called "engineer" (of what? Ignorance ?) tries to divine what the Indian Air Force "really thought" about in formalizing the ASQR without having the courtesy to provide one single shred of evidence to back up his surreal and grandiose opinion about the IAF and its "future requirements". Apparently, the audacity of this Mihir character is such that he tries to sell us this fantasy that aircraft like the EF2000 (which can carry out strike missions as well as a blind man can paint a rainbow) and the Rafale (Dassault's attempt at translating the sad misery of owning a French car into owning a French Fighter!) are what the IAF needs as it is now more concerned about defeating the "Chinese Air-defense grid"! Let's ignore the fact that the EF2000 which can't throw a teddy bear over the Chinese and has the radar capability of a glorified speed gun; its alternative the Rafale is better thought only marginally but in a pretentious sort of way. Neither fighter has ANY real ECM capability on par with the F-18E/F. Neither fighter has really penetrated any significant Air Defense network and neither fighter has the radar capabilities that the American AESA offers. Yet, we are told ipso facto that sensor capability is not a priority as the IAF is going to conduct knife-fights with the PLAAF in some Bollywood remake of Top Gun!


  12. Mihir – did you talk to people in the decision making loop or just ripping apart Tellis's article one by one by sprinkling your own masala?

  13. @Anon 6.02 pm : you may be right or wrong but anyway, India selected the EuroCanards, whether you like it or not because the India considers they better address IAF requirements, whether you like it or not. Your sad comments on the finalists does not deserve your credibility, have some respect please.

  14. The statement "is a strict and almost pig-headed adherence to laid-down rules and procedures." in para 2 should be the statement of the year. Shortly there is going to be a case filed which will reveal what were the rules and procedures which were flouted.

  15. I am sure the conditions Americans put in using their weaponry and thereby cleverly trying to control the foreign policy of the buying nation is the biggest stumbling block.Russians,French and Europeans just sell their wares.

  16. @Anon 6.02PM — What is it are you trying to say…. some rubbish .. try to put a cogent argument as to why the IAF is wrong in the selection process. your statements are meaningless unless u show how the US planes were better than ones selected.

  17. Well analysed Mihir.. The only person who has criticised you is talking off his hat. Your retorts to Ashley's article are bang on.

  18. The author is absolutely clueless, his emphasis on WVR combat in defense of the IAF down select is preposterous. When was the last time two adversaries met in a dog fight? The IAF Chief should be booted for selecting two outrageously expensive aircraft, one of which proved ridiculously ineffective in Libya.

    Current Rafales production engines need a core replacement after 700 hours of operation, the F-414-EDE can do without for 6000 hours. Rafale weapons like MICA and AASM's are much more expensive nearly half a million dollars for one AASM (hammer) and then there is its little radar that can't see very far.

    I'd rather scrap this MMRCA farce and put the money into poverty alleviation and education for our citizens – why waste it on 'hot rods' for the IAF jocks.

    -Angry Indian

  19. To the 602pm anonymous wonder. Are you for real?? The super hornet is a good plane no doubt! And what great air defence systems has it penetrated in it's combat career – Iraq / Serbia/ Bosnia & for a couple of days Libya.
    For the first three countries there adf systems were softened up by massive cruise missile barrages in the initial hours of the conflict followed by fighter strike packages flying in conjunction with ew jamming aircraft.
    However rather than going into merits of rafale or typhoon which are superior planes to the hornet in the long run over the next 30 years.

    Lets get to a basic undeniable fact that the mighty USA will not back down on cismoa or eum regulations since it is law enacted by their senate to protect their interests above all else. Even if IAF went ahead and brought the hornets at 50 million a piece .. Yes it would be a good buy we could buy more of them than we could have dreamt of. At the first signs of a conflict with either Pakistan or china without a shred of doubt one can say the the American government at that time will pull the pin on all arms deliveries and support to the subcontinent. So then what is the IAF gonna do use the fancy hornets till they fall out of the skies due to lack of spares. Wake up all you hornet loving experts who have suddenly fallen in love with all things American and think that all is well if we went the hornet route. Ain't gonna happen thanks to responsible individuals within the IAF who possess far more insight into what they need than all us punters put together. Do not belittle the IAF decision on the final shortlist and how expensive these fighters will be. If the Indian government and the IAF do not give a flying fish as to the cost of these planes then why in heavens name are we working ourselves into a froth spitting frenzy that these planes are expensive. Look at taiwans predicament they are unable to source any of the so called latest generation f-16 fighters since America is really wary of pissing the Chinese off this despite the fact that there is a Taiwan Act legislated by US congress which mandates them to come to taiwans defense if it is ever attacked by the Chinese. Now if thats the case with the Taiwanese what makes you hornet lovers think that the USA is gonna support the Indians in case of a conflict with either Pakistan or china. To the dude who quotes some interview with a Pakistani pilot who claims to have beaten the pants of a typhoon well he must have flown against the Saudi airforce whose pilots are not the best in business. The only legitimate known encounter that the paf has had against the typhoon rafale f22 and UAE falcons was in a combined air exercise held in UAE last year and FYI the paf sent it's F7 fighters and not F16A fighters. If the F7 had ran rings around the typhoons it would have front page news in the leading aircraft magazines of the world. That didn't happen so it can only mean the pakis must have flown against the Saudis who have only just taken to the typhoons and whose skills ate highly suspect. Also for all the chinese j20 cry babies have you forgotten india is getting the MIGHTY FGFA by the end of 2020. Hornets you say….india should get hahaha a joke indeed. Go rafale or typhoon who ever we buy will play second fiddle to the FGFA when it enters IAF service.

  20. Since Rafale and Ef are the most expensive of all the MMRCA jets, the kickbacks they can pay will also be higher (paying a cut of our own money to our babus and netas). This is the reason why rafale and Ef won the race. Another reason could be to appease the Russians MOD didn't select any of the yankee jets.
    If the "sensors, weapons, and assorted electronics" of EF and Rafale are inferior to F18 then the selection process is not fair. Modern wars are fought and won predominantly by BVR tech and not WVR. Latest Gulf war is a case in point.We can hope to gain complete air supremacy only thru BVR tech and not WVR be it in China, Pakistan or anywhere else.

  21. Ok wish to correct my earlier post regarding paki pilot flying their latest f16 block 52 against typhoons in Anatolian eagle exercise held in turkey. The 3victories he claimed was in visual range combat against the typhoons. The typhoons must have been flown by rookies compared to majorly experienced pakis hahahaha. If he had come ip against IAF flown typhoons or rafales he would have had to kiss his chuddy good bye in all three encounters visual range or beyond visual range regimes. GAMEOVER. Only plane in amrikan arsenal capable of taking the good fight to typhoon or rafale is F15 super eagle equipped with AESA. F22 no contest since it requires 40 hours maintainance for every hour it spends in the air.

  22. To Jithen @12:23 AM
    You say the F22 needs 40 hours of maintainence for every hour of flight? The French operate the Rafale for 180 hours a year – Do the math genius! The Rafale is as bad as the F22 may be worse.

  23. Hi folks,

    Thanks for all the compliments and criticism! I really appreciate it!

    Kuljeet: Indeed, the Americans had the best radar technology on offer. But the IAF, for whatever reasons, believes that the Europeans will come up with radars adequate for its requirement in good time. After all, the RBE-2 is already in production.

    Anon @ 4:55 PM: I don’t really disagree with your observations. But all the speculation on what the EPE engines may be capable of, the ability of the GoI to negotiate its way out of CISMOA and EUMA, and costs is just that – speculation. The IAF and MoD have access to much more information than we common folk do, and I would like to think that they knew what they were doing when they made the down-select.

    Anon @ 6:02 PM: I tried to base my analysis on the assumption that the IAF knew what it was doing. It is based on that assumption, as well as the information presented by Dr. Tellis, that I tried to understand why the IAF framed its requirements and conducted the evaluation the way it did. You are free to disagree, of course, but may I suggest that something more substantial than mere accusations of petulance, misrepresentation of words and intentions, and frivolous commentary such as “the IAF is going to conduct knife-fights with the PLAAF in some Bollywood remake of Top Gun” will be more helpful in getting your point across?

    Deepak: That has always been one of the biggest problems with the Typhoon project, hasn’t it? All the political wrangling, supply chain issues, and what not… The French must be thanking their stars they pulled out of the consortium at the right time! So why, you ask, did the Typhoon make the down-select? The simple answer is that is that it passed the technical evaluation, where these issues likely did not have as much of an impact. How and why that happened, we really have no idea of knowing. On a side note, it would be interesting to know what effect the problems mentioned in that report you quoted are having on Saudi Typhoons.

  24. To the 112am anonymous genius no more maths needed to be done regarding rafale utilization rates. You say it is as bad or worse than the F22 so ?? The IAF has done a thorough analysis of all contenders and it come to its decision. Are you accusing IAF of incompetence?? Whose side are you on??

    All you want is the super hornet to be selected but that ain't happening dude.. Wake up smell the coffee for once the coffee could be a French or European brew not American. And that is a good thing.

  25. Amardeep Rangi

    @ Mihir Shah

    1stly My view about this competition is that MMRCA competition might come out as very professionally executed and everything but from what IAF has down-selected in this competition just shows the lack of strategic vision as well fact that they have not learned from past. Linking of LCA's engine and MMRCA would have made a much better economic and strategic sense. eg: If they select EF-2000 as winner and also award them the LCA engine contract. They can save LCA fleet from US sanctions and avoid the situation in which Navy found its sea-king and harrier fleets during sanctions after 1998. Would make better sense to license produce EJ-200 in India. Fact that Eurofighter consortium is willing to add India as a equal partner in a ongoing project will give India part-ownership(no-sanctions) as well as participation in R&D of technologies which we want to learn. But instead now we will have a cocktail of jet and engine types even in future adding to our costs and maintainance woes.

    I found Dr. Tellis article uninformed and confusing. Here are some of my takes on the main points you mentioned:
    1. 1stly i agree that if India selects the winner purely on technical grounds it will be a huge waste of money and opportunity. India can get so much more than jets if it wishes to at this point.
    2. As far as IAF giving importance to air-combat maneuvering is concerned, this is because of the fact that recent BWR engagements have shown that all BWR capabilities do is hopefully give you the 1st shot which too is not a 100% assured so in many vs many engagement BWR combat will for sure become a WWR combat in a short time as some will survive enemy missiles. Now here i will make 1 point that even in BWR combat the aerodynamic performance of the jets plays a very important role. Same missile fired from a faster and higher flying jet may add upto 20-30% range to the missile as throwing a spear down a hill is always easier than throwing 1 uphill. So for obvious reasons a aerodynamically superior jet with better maneuverability has better chances of survival.

  26. Good analysis but I'm still perplexed why India discounted the ready availability of US AESA radars (the AN/APG-79 is a mature AESA that's already being upgraded with new T/R modules) and GE's F414 EPE upgrades (which would have benefited the IAF's Tejas II as well) in favor of the EF(-2000) and Rafale prototype AESAs and marginally better aerodynamics.

  27. I'm shocked, just shocked by the"unexpected"MMRCA downselect;-)
    1. The MMRCA was to replace single engined french Mirage 2000s.
    2. IAF is already planning its medium-heavy twin engined inventory with SU30MKI + PAKFA combo.
    3. A highly agile WVR fighter with low RCS, latest generation short range missiles (IRIS-T), AESA, and lowest cost for purchase and maintenance… is kicked out of the MMRCA, just ridiculous!
    4. This all pisses me of, I'm officially out of the LiveFist blog, hasta la vista bitches!

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