5 minute readIndia’s undeclared fighter contest

Boeing's Chairman Jim McNerney in New Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday | Photo: PIB, Government of India

Boeing’s Chairman Jim McNerney in New Delhi with Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Thursday | Photo: Press Information Bureau

Don’t look now, but there’s a quiet contest starting to sell fighter aircraft to India.

Boeing’s Chairman Jim McNerney had this to say as an example of cooperation between India and the US in New Delhi on Friday:

There will be a fighter campaign in this country over the next couple of years. Our approach is going to take a current state of the art fighter and bid. And if the quantities that is a significant number of fighters, our bid will include a proposal to make the plane here.

The head of Saab Aeronautics, Lennart Sindahl was quoted last week by DefenceIQ as saying:

We’re looking into India again…They have for the moment decided for a direct buy of 36 Rafales and the former ‘commercial’ tender [MMRCA, for 126] is cancelled. However, they need a large amount of additional aircraft – several squadrons, in fact.

All of this began after the cancellation of the eight-year-old Indian Air Force (IAF) tender competition for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) after Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced a request for 36 Rafale aircraft from the French government during his visit to Paris in April.

More MMRCA aircraft

But even a signed order for 36 Rafale aircraft will be a drop in the requirement of the IAF for fighters, keeping in mind obsolescence and the scheduled retirement of its existing fleet. The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha made that clear earlier this month:

We are looking forward to building up our combat fleet – fighter aircraft to 42 squadrons by the end of the 14th plan – by 2027. And I think it’s possible – it’s viable – there are a lot of options available with us and discussions are already on. The honorable Raksha Mantri, the PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) – everybody is very keen to find a quick solution to build up our force levels – specially the ones that have already retired and the ones that are going to retire in the next ten to 12 years.

Mandatory Indigenization/Make In India

As the air chief or the air force we would like to have more of these (Rafale aircraft) but it has to be viable in terms of cost, in terms of transfer of technology and the Make in India policy that the government is trying to implement. See if those terms and conditions are good, I’m sure we may be able to get more.

Not necessarily Rafale

I will not be able to give you any number but definitely we would like to have the MMRCA variety of aircraft – at least about six squadrons to my mind. But let’s see, there are may be some other alternatives (besides Rafale) as well…In terms of getting more of these (Rafale) aircraft – it’s desirable to have more of these aircraft or similar aircraft.

I may wish to have Rafale but there are (other) equally good aircraft, so if the deal is good and the government decides that we need to have six of similar squadrons, the demand is there, the wish is there, but it depends on how good the deal works out. There are alternatives available so I cannot say I only want Rafale. I just want the capability of Rafale-class of aircraft – the MMRCA. So I’m sure the government will have a look at it and based on the urgency and type of contract that is signed with Dassault Aviation, further decision may be taken by the government on this. I cannot predict what will be the decision.

Second line of LCA-type aircraft

In fact, additional fighters under consideration could also be surrogates for the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Tejas, as well, and not just additional MMRCAs:

There is a long term plan and a number of thrust lines have been determined – I would not like to give out those – but definitely the thrust is on indigenization or indigenous capability like the Tejas aircraft and of course maybe set up another line for the replacement of the aircraft that will be retiring in the next ten years, because Tejas alone may not be able to meet all the requirements of the Indian Air Force in terms of numbers and in terms of the roles the air force has to play.

Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar said in April:

Rafale cannot replace MiG 21 which are being phased out in the next six to ten years. A replacement could be the LCA Tejas or another – I’ll not call it low end – but a single engine lighter aircraft. Tejas is a good aircraft but it has its limitations.

The post-MMRCA narrative unfolding since April is one in which the Modi government has quietly reached out to at least three of the MMRCA six foreign OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) to invite interest in building fighter aircraft in India in what would be government-to-government deals outside of the Defense Procurement Procedure (DPP) tender process. The Swedish Saab JAS-39 Gripen, Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16, Eurofighter, Dassault Rafale and the Russian MiG-35 were competing in the MMRCA tender, at the end of which the French Rafale was declared L1.

But foreign OEMs also privately say that this invitation could only be taken seriously once there is clarity on the fate of the negotiations for the 36 Rafale aircraft and if the terms therein would allow India to look for more of these aircraft or not.

For context, over the next 15-18 years the IAF would be looking to lose a strength of at least 14 fighter squadrons or close to 300 aircraft. The MMRCA tender for 126 aircraft was estimated to have cost India USD 15 billion, by conservative estimates.

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