In a re-run of the scrapped MMRCA race, the same six companies with the same aircraft will compete for the same order from the same customer

New Delhi: Tragedy and farce hang like spectres over the Indian Air Force’s efforts to procure fighter jets.

The first ended in tragedy, and a deadline of sorts for a second, or third, attempt ends Friday, with six foreign vendors’ responses to a 73-page Request for Information (RFI).

In the re-run of the scrapped MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) race, the same six companies with the same six aircraft would be intending to compete for the same order from the same customer. Only, this time the customer, Indian Air Force, has pared down the numbers from 126 to 110.

“…Doing the same thing over again and expecting different results used to be a definition of lunacy,” former navy chief and aviator, Admiral Arun Prakash (retired) tweeted recently in response to a discussion on the RFI. “It would be a great shame if logic, economics and jointness do not persuade IAF and IN (Indian Air Force and Indian Navy) to select the same aircraft. MoD (Ministry of Defence) should consider issuing a fiat.”

Admiral Prakash was highlighting the fact that the navy was also looking to procure 57 deck-based fighter jets. Though the requirement of carrier-borne jets is demanding of a maritime capability, he has argued in favour of looking at synergies among the platforms of the different services.

Competing Jets

Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet Block III, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 70, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale F3R, Eurofighter Typhoon, Saab’s Gripen E and Russian United Aircraft Corporation’s MiG-35 will be vying for a IAF contract conservatively estimated at $18 billion over 12 years. Four of these six companies are also in contention for the navy order.

In the time that the last tender was scrapped (2015) and now, the aircraft have been made more modern in a military aviation equivalent of software upgrades on smartphones. In that time, the Modi administration contracted 36 Rafales from France in a befuddling government-to-government order.

Befuddling because the IAF had projected a requirement for 126 (six squadrons) of the aircraft. Its projection was based on the government’s operational directive to be prepared for a two-front war. The directive has remained unchanged since 2009.

Between 2015 and now, the IAF was also asked to consider buying 114 single-engine fighters through a competitive process. That was scrapped, again, in April and the current RFI was issued. This one, like the MMRCA contest initiated in 2007, does not specify the number of engines that the winning aircraft should have.

Consequently, among the six competitors are two single-engine fighters (the F-16 and the Gripen) and four twin-engined ones.

There is one big difference, though, with the scrapped 2007 tender: the foreign vendors are now required to tie-up with an Indian ‘strategic partner’ that may be a private sector entity. The last MMRCA race had specified the defence public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd as the ‘lead integrator’.

After extensive flight evaluation trials, the IAF down-selected the Eurofighter Typhoon and the Rafale. The Rafale was announced as the winner because it was relatively cheaper. But the two aircraft were the most expensive to begin with.

Next Stage

Now, the IAF has said it wants to buy 82 single-seat fighters and 28 twin-seaters. Most (75 per cent) of the aircraft will have to be made in India. This would mean that the global majors will have to set up assembly lines in the country.

The RFI responses is only the first stage in a long-drawn procurement process. After examining the responses, the defence establishment will draft the Request for Proposals (RFP) — the actual global tender. The RFP will lay down in detail the technical parameters the IAF wants for its next fighter jet. It is unlikely that they will be very different from the parameters that led to them choosing the Rafale, 36 of which have been contracted.

After trials and evaluations, the government will select the aircraft with the cost factor likely to override many of the other considerations. A contract negotiation committee will finally determine the value of the order. It was at this stage that the last MMRCA contract came unstuck.

Here is a look at the aircraft and what their makers have to offer:

1. Dassault Rafale F3R

The French believe that they have both history and the present loaded in favour of their twin-engine jet. They are currently servicing an IAF order for 36 fighter jets contracted for $8 billion (about Rs 59,000 crore) in 2016. The cost includes air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles, training of Indian crew and building of two ground-based facilities in India). Dassault also has a maritime version of the Rafale. And Paris always reminds New Delhi that it did not impose a sanctions regime after the 1998 nuclear tests. Besides, Dassault’s Mirage 2000 fighter jets are in service with the IAF and are being upgraded through a separate contract.

2. Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III

The Super Hornet is the mainstay of the world’s second largest air force — the US Navy. In April this year, around the time the Indian Air Force RFI was issued, it broke its branding as a navy-only aircraft. The Kuwait Air Force contracted 22 Super Hornets that month. In the 1970s and the 1980s, when the Pentagon asked for proposals from US companies for a new generation fighter jet for the USAF, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin competed with the F/A-18 and the F-16 Fighting Falcon. The USAF settled for the F-16. But the US Navy was asked to induct the F/A-18. Carrier-based fighter jets have tougher undercarriages for hard landings and are capable of catapult-assisted take-offs from short runways and for arrested landings.

3. Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon/Super Viper Block 70

The F-16 has flown more sorties than any other fighter jet in the world. There are also more Fighting Falcons flying in the world today than any other aircraft. The single-engine jet has also seen more air-to-ground action than any other. Lockheed Martin has also offered to move its assembly line at Fort Worth, Texas, to India to meet the ‘Make in India’ requirement. Downside: an older variant of the F-16 is the main fighter of the Pakistan Air Force.

4. United Aircraft Corporation MiG 35

About a decade back, when the MMRCA global tender for 126 aircraft was issued, Russia wowed the audience at the Aero India exhibition in Bengaluru by flying the twin-engined plane from Moscow in three-and-a-half hours flat. Then, during the airshow, the Russian pilot flew nose upwards, slid-down in mid-air, nose still pointed upwards and performed the ‘Cobra’ pose. The plane ‘yawed’ and turned on its axis before it came in to land. Despite that and Russia’s strategic heft in the Indian military, the Russian plane was not the IAF’s choice. New Delhi is unsure of Russian supplies of spares. The Indian Navy is currently grappling with maintenance of the MiG 29K fleet that it bought for embarking on the INS Vikramaditya (formerly the Gorshkov) carrier.

5. SAAB Gripen E

The Swedish firm has made an offer to help co-develop India’s home-made Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. It has pointed out that it has substantial investments in not only the aeronautical sector but also in other military arrangements with India (Carl Gustaf rocket launchers for the army). It also says that the Gripen E with a single US-origin engine and other US-origin avionics is a substantial improvement on the Gripen C/D that bid for the first MMRCA race. Because it is a single-engine aircraft, it is likely to be cheaper than at least four others in the competition. But there are things Swedish in Indian military history since the 1980s that have not found much favour in New Delhi.

6. Eurofighter Typhoon

The Eurofighter Typhoon, made by a consortium of European companies headed by EADS, was the only other aircraft apart from the Rafale that met the technical requirements of the IAF. It lost because the Rafale was said to be cheaper and the rules in the global tender did not allow for negotiations with the runner-up. Should the European Consortium quote a cheaper price, the Indian Air Force will have to deal with diversifying its inventory. But EADS says it exports to more countries than the Rafale. Germany led the campaign for the Typhoon in India the last time. The UK hosted Indian evaluators for the ground-attack trials.