Military Aviation Supermarket14/01/2009
Military Aviation Supermarket
Aviation buffs and business analysts, especially of the India poised variety, were all agog at the Aero India show in Bangalore earlier this month. At last, the air show at Yelahanka air field, for long a cheap no-frills display of a few earlier models, had static and flying displays of many of the latest technologies especially in military aviation hardware. Many analysts even went so far as to compare the show with the famous annual state-of-art event in Farnborough in the UK.
Clearly the big boys of international military aviation were vying for slices of the huge pie that India was offering up. And business circles were pointing to the enormous draw of the huge Indian market as another sign that India had arrived on the world stage.
Indian military acquisitions over the next five years are slated to be in the order of US$ 30 billion (Rs.1.62 lakh crores)!! India’s shopping list includes artillery howitzers, tanks, various types of helicopters, long-range maritime reconnaissance aircraft, long-range transport aircraft and so on. India’s external acquisitions in 2007 are once again expected to be larger than that of China (although China’s total defence expenditure is considerably larger than India’s), as indeed they were in 2004 and 2005 when India spent US$ 11bn on acquisitions from abroad compared to US$ 5bn by China. Part of the reason for this buying spree is the inordinate delays in defence acquisitions going back over at least a decade if not twenty years till a point when national security preparedness has become seriously impaired and urgent acquisitions have become essential. But an equally important reason, as we shall discuss further, is the grave weakness in and undermining of India’s self-reliance in defence technology.
Of immediate and prominent attention at the Bangalore air show was India’s imminent order for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) estimated to be worth about US$ 6.5bn (Rs.35,000 crores), one of the largest orders of recent times in the global defence aviation market. The mainstay of the Indian Air Force, its fleet of venerable MiG-21 fighters, has been dangerously degraded. IAF squadron strength has dropped from 40 down to 30 with numerous MiG-21s either crashing or simply being phased out at the end of their operational life. Replacement of the MiG-21 fleet has been a decade-old IAF requirement getting more urgent by the day. With induction of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) nowhere on the horizon, augmentation of IAF fleet strength on a priority basis through external acquisitions has become imperative.
On offer are a range of front-rank fighters, some well proven with formidable reputations and some more contemporary with later-generation features, with international defence majors in sharp rivalry backed by respective governments with a strategic thrust.
Notable in Aero India 2007 was the enormous US presence, in contrast to its almost total absence from the Indian defence scene for over four decades. Company executives and US Embassy officials made no secret of the fact that they expected the Indian military market to open up for strategic purchases from the US in the wake of the Indo-US defence agreement and especially the nuclear deal.
On the table for the MRCA deal are the veteran Lockheed Martin F-16 Falcon and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet. Both aircraft are of over two decade vintage, even though they remain competitive fighting machines in most environments. Readers may remember that the US first sold earlier versions of the F-16 to Pakistan almost 20 years ago and have only recently resumed sales to that country after being blocked for many years by the US Congress. Lockheed has offered co-production of the F-16s to India partly because its own assembly line for the F-16 is due to close down soon. Indeed, the Indian acquisition has been so long delayed that the offer of the French Mirage 2000 has been withdrawn because its assembly line is being shut down by Dassault in France!
For one section of India, the offer of US military hardware is a great opportunity, not only for acquiring what they perceive as world-leading technology but also for cementing bhai-bhai relations through such buy-buy deals. Press reports in India, mostly based on corporate hand-outs, poor knowledge and speculation, were mainly in the ga-ga mould hailing the likely induction of “latest American technology”. The US companies’ PR machinery played to this gallery, even roping in current corporate favourite Ratan Tata to co-pilot the US fighters!
But all this cannot paper over the fact, explained in detail in an article in these columns last year, that the US fighters do not really fit IAF requirements. Whereas the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a heavier strike aircraft primarily designed for carrier-based operations rather than a true multi-role fighter with strong interception capabilities, either aircraft would add a new species to an Indian Air Force that is increasingly resembling a menagerie, with too many different and disparate types of aircraft hampering efficiency and increasing costs. The F-16 is itself an obsolescent aircraft seen in the context of the next 20-30 years which is the operational horizon envisaged by the IAF. While Boeing has said it would consider license production of the F/A-18 Hornet only for an order of roughly twice the size, co-production of the F-16 is likely to be mostly assembly, with India being dependent for crucial components and spares on the US companies and the vagaries of political decision-making in Washington.
Of the other fighters on offer, the French Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon, like the F/A-18 Hornet, are both heavy aircraft with cost in the US$ 50-70 million range whereas the Swedish Saab-Scania JAS 35 Gripen and the Russian MiG 35 are lighter multi-role fighters in the US$ 30-40 million range. The Gripen is being pushed by Saab with some justification as “the only multi-role combat aircraft in full operational service” whereas Russia’s MiG 35 is yet to be inducted even into the Russian Air Force. However, Saab’s claim that the Gripen would provide the “perfect force mix to complement the IAF’s Sukhoi 30 fleet” can perhaps be matched if not bettered by the MiG 35.
For all the hype in the Indian media surrounding the US planes, for aviation buffs and aviation industry personnel, and even for pilots including American pilots of the F-16s and Super Hornets, the cynosure of all eyes at the Aero-India show were the Russian Sukhoi 30 MKI and the MiG 35 which was making its maiden appearance. Both aircraft made spectacular displays of their advanced performance at high and low speeds as well as high and low altitudes, made possible by their superb thrust-vectoring engines which can swivel to give the aircraft unprecedented maneuverability including “hover” capability.
There is little doubt that Russia is pushing very hard to bag the IAF order for its MiG 35. The fighter made its maiden international flying appearance at the Bangalore air show whereas only prototypes had been displayed in such events elsewhere in the world. Russia is understandably loathe to lose its traditional Indian military market especially to the US. Russia has made several overtures to secure the MRCA contract, including a mouth-watering deal for joint Russo-Indian development of a fifth-generation stealth-technology fighter aircraft and blocking the sale to Pakistan of Chinese JF-17 fighters using Russian engines. Indeed, some circles were even predicting that the MiG 35 deal would be signed during the visit of President Putin and then Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov to India during the Republic Day celebrations.
Nevertheless, there are other good reasons why the MiG 35 would be a good fit in the IAF.
The MiG 35 design is based on its successful and highly-rated MiG 29M fighters, 65 of which are already in service with the IAF and several more aircraft of the maritime version are due to enter service in the Indian Navy on board the Admiral Gorshkov carrier. The MiG 35 also uses an uprated version of the RD-33 engine, whose Series 3 version also powers the MiG 29 and the MK version powers the naval variant. This commonality of engine type would give the IAF a huge boost in terms of operational efficiency, maintenance and spares. Icing on the cake is that the Mikoyan Group and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited have already signed a co-production agreement for the RD-33 engine which would be made in HAL’s Koraput plant.
With such synergies on offer, it is not surprising that some inside sources have it that the size of the order is even being reconsidered, with an increase likely from 126 to 200, the balance being made up by additional MiG 29s.
It is only to be hoped that prime minister Manmohan Singh’s recent remark that decisions on such high-ticket military acquisitions would also be influenced by strategic considerations is a reflection of recognition of such real synergies rather than the chimera of improved Indo-US relations being chased through the nuclear deal!
INDIAN WEAKNESS AND FAILURE
Perhaps the aspect of Aero India 2007 least noticed or least commented upon in the Indian media was the dismal display of Indian aviation achievements.
The Intermediate Jet Trainer or IJT being developed by HAL crashed during the Bangalore show itself. India’s Dhruv Advanced Light Helicopter, being touted as available for export on the world stage and currently being marketed in Chile, crashed at Yelahanka during dress rehearsals.
The LCA was on display at Bangalore but everybody knew that its induction into the IAF has, yet again, been put off and is unlikely before 2010. Everyone also knows that it is the delay in development of the LCA, and indeed its relatively low-performance characteristics which may have been acceptable in the 1980s but not for 2020, that has necessitated the present MRCA requirement. LCA induction has been postponed from the original 1995 to 2010, and sure of being further put off, while its development cost has escalated from the initially projected Rs.560 crore to over Rs.10,000 crores. The Kaveri engine is on the verge of being abandoned, its development cost having gone up from Rs.382 crores to Rs.2800 crore.
Aero India 2007 was therefore simply not a showcase for Indian aviation industry but only a supermarket for foreign companies to display and sell their wares to goggle-eyed Indian buyers.
There were 300 Indian companies at Bangalore out of a total of 500 but they were mostly manufacturers of supplementary equipment or sub-contractors. India now has an offset clause for large defence purchases of over Rs.300 crore value under which the seller is obliged to procure or sub-contract 30 percent of the total order value to Indian firms. Indian companies are looking forward to about US$ 2.2 billion worth of work for the MRCA deal but all in the nature of low-end sub-contract work. While HAL in India makes a few hundred doors for Airbus, the European consortium has opened a full-fledged assembly line in China.
Clearly, for all the much vaunted Indian S&T manpower and capability, the Indian aviation R&D and manufacturing industry is languishing at the low end of the value chain. The story is sadly not different from other areas of science and technology.
Persons who led Indian defence research institutions, made huge and perhaps inflated reputations there and who now hold exalted positions in the Republic, should take note. Institutions and programmes following these examples are in dire need of complete overhaul. India’s technological future, and its national security, is in peril if they are not.