The government appointed Gen Rawat as CDS on December 31 to bring in convergence among the three services and restructure military commands to effectively deal with future security challenges

Gen Rawat, talking to a group of journalists, said a new approach of staggered procurement of major military platforms like 110 fighter jets is being firmed up to address the problem of obsolescence.

“You should not go in for large numbers. Staggered acquisitions are important because when small orders are placed, it gives us time to take care of their downtime and also allow modernisation of the three services simultaneously,” he said. The IAF is planning to acquire 110 new fighter jets.

A new policy of staggered procurement of major military platforms including for 114 fighter jets for the Indian Air Force will be adopted to address the problem of obsolescence and encourage the domestic defence industry, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat said on Monday.

He said going for mega deals at one go may make the platforms redundant after a period of time as technology is advancing at a rapid pace.

When asked whether the government will follow the new model of staggered procurement for IAF''s proposal to buy 114 aircraft, Gen Rawat said, "Yes. It will be under the new framework."

The chief of defence staff said government is adopting the new approach to encourage the domestic defence industry as total reliance on import will not serve the Make in India initiative.

" I think we should go for staggered approach of placing orders for big-ticket purchases. If we are buying 100 aircraft, then it should be in four packages of 25 aircraft each," he said.

"That is why we ordered only 36 Rafale aircraft," Gen Rawat said without clarifying whether the government will go for procuring more Rafale jets from France.

“It is important to hand-hold the domestic industry. Upgrades can come like Mark 1, 2 or 3,” he said. The Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) have already begin work on Tejas Mk-2.

Rebooting The Deal

The 110 aircraft deal represents a reboot of India’s failed Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) acquisition for 126 advanced fighters. This epic competition climaxed at the Aero India show in Bangalore in February 2011, with SAAB, Lockheed Martin, Boeing, Dassault, and Eurofighter putting on a major marketing push.

Ultimately Dassault’s Rafale won, but the deal collapsed in 2015. Among other issues, a main sticking point was apparently the terms of local production. The deal was to see 18 aircraft delivered in a flyaway condition, and the balance produced by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) locally.

Dassault is understood to have balked at a stipulation that it would be held responsible for the production quality of HAL produced jets. HAL's reputation as an aerospace integrator hardly evokes any confidence among foreign defence contractors, as HAL is widely known for their shoddy and lackadaisical work culture. Dassault, understandably was reluctant to give assurances on quality commitments relying entirely upon HAL.

Subsequently, in 2016, prime minister Narendra Modi went on to buy 36 Rafales directly, with the first Indian examples set to arrive this year.

After a flirtation with a single-engined fighter requirement, India elected to broaden the new competition to twin-engined fighters, resulting in a return by the same cast of contenders as with MMRCA. The RFI calls for roughly 80 single-seat and 30 twin-seat jets, with “15% aircraft in a flyaway state and the remaining 85% aircraft will have to be made in India by a strategic partner/Indian production agency.”

As with the original MMRCA deal, European contenders again include the Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon (with BAE Systems as the campaign lead), and the SAAB Gripen E/F.

American contenders again included the Boeing F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet and a variant of the Lockheed Martin F-16V optimised for India. Lockheed recast its offering as the ‘F-21’ – borrowing the designation given to Israel Aerospace Industries Kfirs’ operated by the US Navy and Marine Corps as aggressors in the 1980s and 1990s.

The RAC MiG-35 and the Sukhoi Su-35 are also, again, seen as a potential contender.

As with the original MMRCA deal, contractors have trumpeted plans to help India become a major fighter production hub.

“The F-21 addresses the Indian air force’s unique requirements, and integrates India into the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem with the world’s pre-eminent defence company,” said Lockheed at this year’s Aero India. “Lockheed Martin and TATA Advanced Systems would produce the F-21 in India, for India.”

Other contenders have been coy about their partners, although Boeing said that it held discussions with HAL and Mahindra Defence Systems at Aero India. The Boeing fighter is also in contention with the Rafale for a separate 57 aircraft deal to provide carrier-capable fighters for India’s navy.

Boeing has now suddenly dived into the fray, they are contemplating pitching the F-15EX for the long-running fighter jet procurement - a contest in which its Boeing's F/A-18E/F is already competing. The airframer confirms that it has requested US government clearance to offer the twin-engined type for an Indian air force requirement for 110 fighters.

Boeing’s move would see it offer the latest EX variant of the long-running F-15. Enhancements over previous iterations include a active electronically scanned array radar and improved payload. 

The potential entry of the F-15 into the contest is the latest twist in yet another convoluted Indian procurement exercise. After the collapse of its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) fighter acquisition in 2015, New Delhi rebooted the requirement, initially as an acquisition of a single-engined type, which was later broadened to include twin-engined aircraft.

Make In India Component

Swedish aerospace major SAAB has already offered technology transfer to its Indian partner for making its fighter Gripen if it wins the Indian Air Force (IAF) order to supply 114 jets. Technology transfer will also enable SAAB to make India its production base for exporting aerospace components to countries where it has operations or customers.

The partners are developing comprehensive plans to set up a new 'factory of the future' to manufacture Super Hornet locally. The program is expected to work with several Indian suppliers to grow a thriving defence aerospace base, which could accelerate other programs. The facility will create a world-class, highly-trained aerospace workforce.

After CDS observations on its plan to acquire 110 fighter jets in a staggered manner, the competition is bound to pick up speed. Interest and marketing activity are also bound to increase. This will take place against a backdrop of obsolescence in India’s frontline fighter force the original MMRCA was meant to address.

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