Choosing India’s Make in India fighter

Art: Saurabh Joshi/StratPost

Art: Saurabh Joshi/StratPost

The no-longer silent contest for the non-tender competition to win the privilege to set up an assembly line for fighter aircraft in India is now underway, now that the order for 36 French Rafale fighters has finally been agreed.

The three competitors; Saab, Boeing and Lockheed Martin had held their peace after their bids were disqualified from the Indian Air Force (IAF) tender for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in April 2011, along with the Russian MiG-35. But soon after the withdrawal of the tender following the failure of negotiations between the Indian government and the French Dassault for their Rafale fighter, the three companies began taking their cues from Indian officials to pitch again.

Since then, Boeing has offered to set up a line for the twin-engine F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin has pitched for an F-16 line and Saab has proposed the Gripen E for production in India, in line with the government’s Make in India initiative. The F-16 and Gripen are both single-engined aircraft.

But the absence of a Request For Proposal (RFP) makes bidding a difficult process. There are no demanded numbers, no technical requirements and no Acceptance of Necessity estimating the cost of the exercise. And even though it is the government’s intention to work around the tedious DPP-based tender process, which cost eight years without a result last time, this lack of parameters also makes it difficult for the government to assess the relative merits of each offer.

In theory, the three companies could make structured offers based on, say, a range of aircraft numbers, level of manufacturing capability and cost, which could be compared by the Indian government. But since this is not a tender process and there are no Staff Qualitative Requirements (SQRs), a number of other important considerations also come into play.

Transfer of Technology

This contest between three of the six contenders in the MMRCA will be partly decided by the level of technology each is willing to share with India. An offer of technology transfer will be subject to approval by the Swedish and U.S. governments, respectively.

Saab has already stolen a march on it’s competitors by offering its ‘ITAR-free’ Galium Nitride AESA radar technology, something which even the U.S. hasn’t perfected yet. This is also technology that India would be eager to possess. It is doubtful if the U.S. would be willing to share it’s existing AESA radar technology.

One area where the U.S. could match up to the Swedes would be aircraft engine technology. This is also something India is interested in and there have been discussions on cooperation on development of aircraft engine technology under the bilateral Defense Technology and Trade Initiative (DTTI).

But if the U.S. makes progress on engine technology cooperation contingent to the selection of their own aircraft, instead of being a matter for discussion under DTTI, the U.S. government could also be perceived to be shifting the goalposts on engine technology cooperation. Incidentally, both the Super Hornet and the Gripen are powered by the same GE F414 engine.

Strategic Considerations

The IAF has recently commissioned its first Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) squadron, such as it is. India has also funded the development of the Russian fifth generation PAK-FA fighter, known in India as the FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft) program. Unfortunately, the fate of this program is uncertain since the Russians reduced their initial order size to a mere twelve aircraft. India has also recently concluded negotiations for the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters, off the shelf. But questions remain as to the relevance of the aircraft in terms of their numbers, as well as, the cost of the logistical footprint for a mere 36 aircraft.

It is important to game the situation and prepare for the contingency that none of these acquisitions might work out or be of operational consequence, especially after the MMRCA experience.

With ‘at least one, if not two’ fighter aircraft assembly lines under on the mind of Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar, this decision becomes crucial for India’s strategic considerations. A single fighter line in India could receive orders for over 300 aircraft, over time, especially if they are powered by a single engine.

If the government decides on a single assembly line, the aircraft selected could well become the mainstay of the IAF in the years to come, keeping in mind domestic production, and especially if it’s one of the two single-engine aircraft.

A Swedish aircraft, even incorporating U.S. technology like the engine, may come with fewer strings attached.

On the other hand, it is possible that the government may see benefits in acquiring a U.S. aircraft, but it must keep in mind that a large chunk, if not the majority of the IAF’s fighter fleet could then eventually end up consisting of U.S. aircraft, after the retirement of aircraft currently in service. India is already growing more comfortable with the prospect of stronger military ties with the U.S., with the conclusion of the Logistics Exchange Memorandum of Agreement (LEMOA), recently.

To illustrate, twelve of the 26 countries currently operating the F-16 are members of the Non-Aligned Movement, which consists of 120 member countries. Irrespective of the current relevance of NAM, India’s stature and ambitions with respect to these twelve countries are sui generis. If the IAF were to operate a largely U.S. fighter fleet, there would be an undoubted change in how other countries view India, as well as, how India sees itself.

Such an eventuality should be the result of a deliberate decision and not incidental to the acquisition itself, since it would go some distance to remove any ambivalence about the nature of India’s relationship with the U.S. with respect to other powers.

It should, however, be noted that this is likely less applicable to the F/A-18 Super Hornet than it is to the F-16, since presumably, a proposed purchase of twin-engine fighters would contemplate fewer numbers than single-engine fighters.

Segue to AMCA

An important consideration that should be on the minds of India’s defense acquisition planners is how each offer would translate into the realization of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) development program. While a Make in India fighter would, hopefully, bring a level of technology absorption and manufacturing capability to India, how this absorption, accretion of knowledge and skills, and cooperation would assist in the development of the proposed fighter, should be an important factor in any decision.

Last Operator

One final consideration for the government is the respective vintage of the three aircraft. The first prototypes of the original F-16 and F-18 first flew in 1974. That’s 42 years back. Since then, both aircraft have evolved numerous variants.

The Block-70 ‘Viper’ configuration of the iconic and popular F-16 offered to India doesn’t even exist as a new-build aircraft, yet, but Lockheed Martin is currently upgrading older F-16 variants to this standard. The current production version of the aircraft, the Block 50, was first produced in 1991. Lockheed Martin currently has orders for no more than 15 aircraft, which are expected to be completed by December 2017.

The current F/A-18, larger than its predecessor (F-18) and being offered to India, was first produced in 1997. Boeing has orders for at least 27 aircraft right now – good to keep the line running up to the middle of 2018 at a production rate of two aircraft per month – and expects a requirement for 100 additional aircraft from the U.S. Navy, besides an expected order for 28 aircraft from Kuwait. Boeing expects to be be building the aircraft into 2018 and is optimistic about taking the line into the 2020s.

By contrast, the relatively younger Gripen first flew in 1988. The latest Gripen E variant, ordered by Sweden and Brazil, was unveiled last June and hasn’t even had its first flight yet.

While this is less the case with the Gripen, India would have to decide if it would be comfortable eventually being the last new operator of a fighter aircraft, keeping in mind the potential number of aircraft that could be ordered and the absence of other new customers. IAF chief Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha acknowledged as much last week when he told media, “All these aircraft are very capable and I think the Gripen is the latest in terms of new generation – it’s a newer aircraft compared to the F-16 and F/A-18.”