Response to Ashley J Tellis’ Assessment Of The MMRCA Down-select- (By Mihir Shah)

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    Mar 13, 2010
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    Livefist: COLUMN: A Response to Ashley J Tellis’ Assessment Of The MMRCA Down-select
    Dr. Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace,has written a commentary forFORCE 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
    analysisitself 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
    Much of this is in direct contradiction to what he
    wrote in a comprehensive report

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