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.
By Mihir Shah
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.)