by Barshan Karmakar

As of 28th January, 2021's defence bulletins a piece of grand news came in the form of a surprise. It is that the U.S. Government has given clearance to the Boeing Aerospace Company to offer India its new variant of an F-15EX fighter jet for the MMRCA 2.0 contract of the Indian Air Force, by which it is seeking to purchase 114 new fighter jets to strengthen the fighter fleet. This deal stands to be the largest defence deal in the world touching a cost of 18 Billion $. Following the retirement of the MiG 27s in 2019 December, a need for the requirement of new multi-role attack aircraft to the Indian Air Force was witnessed. So, here let us analyse and look into understanding what this new F-15EX fighter consists of with comparison to the French Dassault Rafale, keeping about the various points of analysis.

The F-15EX is multiple missiles carrying aircraft having the highest capacity to carry 22 Air-to-Air Missiles within its payloads. With similarity to the Dassault Rafale, it is also a dual-engine aircraft, but in terms of their roles they do differ; with F-15 being a Heavy-weight aircraft and Rafale being a Medium-Weight aircraft. This F-15EX is termed to have the best and the fastest Mission Computers of the World which can process 87 Billion instructions per second to get access to real-time battlefield information that helps to increase the pilot’s effectiveness. It will have upgraded AESA radar, electronic warfare suite, and situational awareness features as well. 

As much of the specifications of this new F-15EX has not yet been disclosed. 

But, still, some basic specifications are;

• Dual Engine- F-100 PW/229
• Dry thrust- 79 knots (158 km)
• Afterburner- 129 knots (258 km)
• Speed in High Altitude- 2.5 Mach
• Speed in Low Altitude- 1.2 Mach
• Supercruise- N/A 
• Rate of Climb- 254 mps
• Service Ceiling- 60,000 feet
• Thrust/Weight Ratio- 0.93
• Combat Radius- 1,270 km
• Maximum payload- 13,380 kg

The F-15EX has 15 hardpoints altogether in comparison to the Rafale which lags only in 1 hardpoint. In terms of its armaments, it will be able to carry both long and short range Air-to-Air Missiles with a mixture of 16-18 air-to-air weapons, but it does not have a good combat radius. But on the other hand, the F-15 is an unbeaten aircraft with a successful combat record in the history of military aviation.

On the same hand, Dassault Rafale is also a part of this MMRCA 2.0 contract, which seems to have a high chance to fulfil the requirement of 114 aircrafts. The French Ministry of Defence has pitched for including the new F4 standard of Dassault Rafale, the production for which has begun in 2019 and is supposed to be inducted in the French Air Force between 2027-30. This version of Dassault Rafale will be a 4.5 generation fighter, which will contain advanced Electronic Warning Systems, AESA Radars, Multi-sensor data fusion technology, and several other technologies that will make the aircraft suitable for perfect use in the future. Just like the F-15EX no data and specifications relating to this aircraft have been disclosed till now, but some of the basic specification standards have been discussed. In comparison to the Rafale F3R, it will have 8 technical changes in total. Such as there will be an upgrade in the connectivity of data link communications, its capacity will be made more secured to enable the feature of jamming any radar signals and detect any moving objects on the ground. There will be changes in the Front Sector Optronics systems too. Concerning MMRCA, as F-15Ex is a heavy aircraft, its maintenance cost would also be high, which the Indian Air Force will not be in favour of. 

Some of the basic specifications of the Dassault Rafale F4 are;

• Dual Engine- SNECMA M-88
• Dry thrust- 50.4 knots (100.8 kms)
• Afterburner- 75 knots (150 kms)
• Speed in high altitude- 1.8 mach
• Speed in low altitude- 1.1 mach
• Supercruise- 1.3 mach
• Rate of Climb- 304.8 mps
• Service ceiling- 50,000 feet
• Thrust/Weight Ratio- 0.98*
• Combat Radius- 1,850 km
• Ferry Range- 3,900 km
• Maximum payload- 9,500 kg

*Any aircraft having higher thrust to weight ratio will make it more manoeuvrable and flexible

So, the chances for selection of either of these 2 aircrafts in the MMRCA 2.0 tender goes through a difference of understandings and facts. All these aircrafts placed in this tender have similar standards alike the Multi-role Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter of the Indian Air Force, which after going through an upgrade may exceed the capability of the currently used Su-30MKI jets. As there are currently almost 272 Su-30MKI fighters in the Indian Air Force and following the upgrade of this aircraft it will be able to match the standards of F-15EX fighters and will continue to remain in service for the next 15 years.

As this F-15EX is a comparatively new platform for the Indian Air Force, which had in the past or present, is using a majority chunk of British, French, and Soviet-era Aircrafts for a considerable amount of time. There is no commonality in terms of the technical matters and the entire production line has to be started from the ‘Zero’ or base level which will take a long time indeed. Also, the operational cost of these aircraft will be higher compared to FA-18 E/Fs. The FA-18E/Fs are cost-effective because the engine used is of General Electrics' F414-400 which is similar to that of TEJAS MK-2 and AMCA MK-1, whose operating cost will be less and can be a better option for the Indian Air Force. The price plays a major factor in the MMRCA 2.0 tender, where the Ministry of Defence, Government of India is looking to negotiate for a cheaper price.

Keeping to the targets proposed under the Make in India initiative, Technology Transfer holds an important position for facility development in India ranging from purchasing to the manufacturing of aircraft to be done in India. Both France's Dassault Aviation and Boeing Aerospace Company are in favour of going through negotiations with the Government of India regarding Technology sharing. But there comes a problem in such a case where the clause of transferring technology will depend upon the approval and future possibility based on the status of bilateral ties. As the United States does not have a stable record on technology transfer, which in the future can leave an impact upon bi-lateral ties, as if both India and the US can have different interests, it can pose problems in manufacturing of the aircraft.

Due to the recent procurement of 36 Dassault Rafales which are in the process of getting delivered to the Indian Air Force, the entire infrastructural development task has been done, starting from procurement of armaments for the aircraft, to imparting technical training to Indian ground staffs and fighter pilots at France. Also accommodating these new Rafales would be easy for the inventory that has been created under the deal of these 36 Rafales. It would be better if Indian Air Force favours the procurement of Rafale F4 fighters to fill the vacancy of 114 fighter aircraft because all the expenditures have been made before with provided to the fact that France would make the Rafale fighters on Indian based specifications. The French government noted on the procurement of Rafale fighters on the condition, if Indian Air Force made a deal to purchase more than 100 aircraft, then technology transfer could be easily ensured. As per a justification from Dassault Aviation, if India decides to purchase more Rafales, it will serve the goal of the Make in India Initiative and will be beneficiary because the Indian Government will not be required to pay for any further charges to acquire India-specific upgrades.

Thus, in the case of any defence purchases, a strategic relation influenced by political interferences does play an important role. To rely upon strategic deals with the US; it might seem necessary for India to purchase any such equipment from the US. This very factor was quite evidently witnessed during the purchase of the Mirage-2000 Aircraft from France in the late 1980s, at the same time when India was having close strategic ties with the Soviet Union. There was pressure from the Soviets to buy MiG-29 Fulcrums following which the Indian Air Force had to place an order for MiG-29s and later Dassault Mirage-2000s in fewer numbers. 

So, any decision on procurement of a new batch of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft is one that tests the time and requirement of the administration, audits, defence capabilities, and the resources which are being used. Finally to get such a task accomplished all our basic standards need to be checked and approved so that the selection of any aircraft can serve the purpose of our defence forces on a long-term basis.

Barshan Karmakar tracks military and aerospace issues closely. Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of IDN