In 1961, the Indian Air Force decided to purchase the Mig-21 fighter aircraft after the Soviet Union offered India full transfer of technology and license for local assembly. In 1964, it became the first supersonic aircraft in Indian aircraft inventory which entered service in 1963. The Mig-21 was used in all subsequent wars against Pakistan with great success. However, by 1988, IAF had hundreds of Mig-21s in service and many were at the end of their service life. The Indigenous fighter, HAL Tejas, was to be the primary fighter meant to replace the Mig-21s from 2006 onwards. Things did not go according to plan after the fall of the Soviet Union and the Indian nuclear tests in 1998. The fall of the Soviet Union ensured the Mig-21s no longer had the necessary spares. This further decreased the service life of existing Mig-21s. The nuclear tests earned India sanctions that impeded the progress of the LCA. So, this increased the pressure on the IAF to find replacements quickly to make up for the loss in falling squadron strength against Pakistan. Thus, the requirement for a Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft(MMRCA) was born.
IAF announced plans of inducting 126 Mirage-2000 like fighters in 2001. After it was confirmed that the LCA will be late and that the Jaguars and Mig-27s need to be replaced in another decade, the IAF may exercise the option of going for 64 more aircraft to make up the for the dwindling numbers. IAF also announced that the new aircraft must be multirole and should have a good strike capability. In light of falling squadron strength IAF announced Dassault Mirage-2000 as the main contender for the deal. However, delays ensured this deal from materializing.
IAF issued a new RFP in 2007. The RFP was answered by EADS, Dassault, Lockheed Martin, Mikoyan and SAAB for the Eurofighter Typhoon, Mirage-2000, F-16, Mig-35 and Gripen respectively. Due to further delays in execution of the deal, Dassault announced that the Mirage-2000 assembly lines will be closed and withdrawn from the competition. The Mirage-2000 was replaced by Dassault’s newest fighter, Rafale. The withdrawal of Mirage-2000, the favorite to win the deal, increased the chances of the other competitors. The subsequent addition of the Rafale changed the game because in 2008 Boeing answered IAF‘s RFP with the F-18E/F Super Hornet along with an AESA radar. Lockheed Martin upped the ante by providing the F-35 in the future if the F-16 was chosen. After that Dassault, EADS, Mikoyan and SAAB began the mad rush to develop the AESA in time for the Indian Air Force competition. This ensured that the IAF will have the best in technology no matter who wins the deal.
The Government of India and the IAF have specifically stated that the MMRCA deal must also take into consideration the future of aerospace in India and have stipulated terms for Transfer of Technology, indigenous production and offset rules. 18 fighters will be delivered by the manufacturer and the rest will be produced in India with production to continue till 2020. The Offset clause stipulates a 50% return in investment which the winner must adhere to at all costs. This could be through joint ventures in R&D or by setting up production lines with public or private companies. All competitors have signed various deals with companies like TATA, L&T and HAL to show to the government that they are capable of adhering to rules. Transfer of technology is a fairly important part of the deal. A 100% ToT is not feasible or expected because of the high level of critical technologies being provided. Radar and engine ToT is highly unlikely from some competitors like Boeing, SAAB and LM while Dassault, EADS and Mikoyan have no issues with 100% ToT. However, it is yet to be seen if any of the competitors can follow through on the ToT.
The 6 competing fighters are easily the most advanced 4+ Generation fighters flying to date. So, lets see how each of them measure up to Indian expectations as all fighters are expected to fit IAF‘s operational requirements. The 6 fighters are:
Eurofighter Typhoon (EF-2000)
EADS has been making the right noises to woo India with the Typhoon. Germany announced India could be a development partner along with access to critical technologies. EADS has taken steps to ensure they can follow through on the Offset clause and provide high levels of ToT including single crystal blades used in engines. India may even be allowed to produce aircraft for export and maintain them if all goes well. The EF-2000 is a great fighter and has done very well in DACT and other air exercises with foreign nations including India. So, EF’s mettle to fight in the sky in not untested. Add the claimed ability to supercruise and we have a real beast. The engine, EJ-200 is in competition with GE F414 for the Tejas upgrade program. So, the EJ-200 may increase commonality with the Tejas. However, the cost of procuring this beast at $140Million a piece is exorbitant compared to other competitors and has put a damper to its advantages.
Dassault withdrew a great aircraft(Mirage-2000) and replaced it with an even greater aircraft. Rafale is a battle tested aircraft and has proven itself in Afghanistan by supporting NATO forces against insurgents. Dassault’s unique avionics makes it a forerunner in the technology front. The RBE-2 AESA radar and SPECTRA EW suite are very advanced and may even push the deal in the favor of Rafale as they are forthcoming with ToT. Dassault also said it was possible to develop UAVs in India to satisfy the Offset clause. New engine upgrades and a possible JV for the Kaveri engine with the M-88 core will only decrease the logistics footprint of the aircraft with other Indian air assets like the LCA and the future MCA. Rafale has the makings of a winner.
Mikoyan specifically tailor made the Mig-35 for the Indian MMRCA deal. It is a modified Mig-29 with a larger fuselage and bigger wings. This has increased its payload capacity and the range. MiG-35 comes with the option of fitting a TVC engine to increase its maneuverability. Mikoyan has also incorporated a strike capability and has tested the aircraft with a working AESA radar made by Phazatron. Phazatron has also added a weather mapping mode in the radar suited to Indian requirements and is missing in the other competitors. Mikoyan has also stated that that their radar has already been modified to suit Indian requirements and that includes a 130km tracking range for a 3m^2 RCS. Mig-35, with its affinity to the Mig-29 means India will have to spend lesser on the infrastructure and logistics compared to other competitors. Mikoyan will be setting up spares and overhaul factories and has already signed contracts to allow HAL to assemble RD-33 engines for the MiG-29, which can be extended for the MiG-35 once chosen. Russia is the best source for ToT and the best supplier during sanctions. That makes MiG-35 the cheapest and the safest bet among all the competitors.
F-18E/F Super Hornet
This is easily the best battletested fighter in the MRCA competition along with the F-16, not to mention one of the oldest and time tested products. The Super Hornet carries the most advanced radar array and the best sensor fusion technology that we can buy. The situational awareness and the vast array of weapons increases its lethality in taking out enemy installations from stand alone distances. The geopolitical benefits are large and provides us with the opportunity to cozy up to the only superpower on Earth. The drawbacks include regular inspections due to a EUM treaty along with the threat of sanctions of critical supplies. Super Hornet due to its older design will not see service for long and questions the ability of Boeing to upgrade and develop newer technologies in the future.
F-16IN Fighting Falcon:
The F-16IN is a modified F-16 Block 60 aircraft and provides the best Lockheed Martin has to offer. It will have Conformal Fuel tanks, an advanced radar and one of the most advanced engines in the world. LM also offered India with a F-35 option in the future as a replacement to the F-16. This will be the best F-16 version ever and will unfortunately be the last too. So, any future upgrade plan is questionable at best. However, the aircraft fits the requirements and the geopolitical benefits are many.
SAAB made a great plane that is cheap to maintain and operate. It is capable of short take offs and landings on roads which increases its operational effectiveness. The AESA radar is in development and provides a new feature called Swashplate array which allows the radar a greater search angle than the other competitors. The Gripen version on offer is the Gripen NG which has increased empty weight and range than the standard Gripen. It will be powered by the F-414 engine and will increase commonality with the Tejas if F-414 wins the Tejas engine competition. However, Gripen NG is similar to Tejas Mk2 and it’s procurement will conflict with the Tejas program due to its similar capabilities and timeline of introduction. Sweden also provides no geopolitical advantage.
All the fighters fit IAF requirements and every one of them is good in their own right. The winner of the deal will have exclusive access to the Indian market for the next 40 years and will provide a business opportunity of over $50Billion through the MMRCA program itself let alone the business that will come from the offset clause. France, Russia and the US provide great geopolitical advantages and will help further Indian goals. The fighters are undergoing extensive trials and has become a game of wait and watch by analysts all over the world, especially across the border. No matter who wins, it will provide India a whole new capability in air warfare and will play a significant part in India’s ambitions of being a Great Power. No matter who wins, India wins.