MMRCA: mother of all short-lists

MMRCA: mother of all short-lists

Late last week India’s Ministry of Defence announced its much awaited short-list for the multi-billion dollar “mother of all deals” for acquisition of medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).  Those closely following the acquisition process especially the field trials, have not been too surprised by the down-selection of the Rafale from France and the Eurofighter Typhoon from the European consortium. For about a year, the grapevine had it that these two aircraft had emerged favourites.

Nevertheless the announcement has churned up a mini-storm, mostly triggered by both the US contenders being rejected. Critical comments from US commentators can be attributed to sheer disappointment, after all $10 billion is not small change! Sections of the Indian strategic commentariat and corporate media too seemed astonished that India had spurned this opportunity to cement the US strategic partnership. But remarks by some officials also indicated pressure could be mounted on India to somehow allow the US aircraft back into the tender.

Shaping of the Acquisition Some aspects of this acquisition, and not just its dollar value, make it different from earlier ones. 126 modern fighter aircraft with lifetime support and technology transfer are not going to come cheap. In fact India has already spent more than this on the several recent acquisitions to fill long-pending gaps in defence capability.
Compared to earlier aircraft acquisitions by India, the MMRCA deal has taken less time, although most international articles on the deal continue to comment on the long, tortuous process involved.  The initial Request for Information (RFI) for the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) as it was then called was put out in 2001, so the process has taken 10 years. The Request for Proposals (RfP) was expected to be issued in December 2005 but was announced by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in August 2007. In contrast, India took over 20 years before finally purchasing Jaguar strike aircraft, and over 20 years again before finally acquiring Hawk trainers, both from the UK. Clearly India has been more purposeful with the MMCRA.

This is largely because the Indian Air Force (IAF) is faced with a huge assets crunch and has determinedly pushed MoD towards a timely and effective decision. Against sanctioned strength of 39.5 squadrons, each with 18 aircraft, the IAF has seen its strength dwindle to 30 squadrons expected to go further down to 27 during 2012-17 due to attrition of older aircraft, leaving the defence forces badly depleted. The indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) expected to replace the bread-and-butter MiG21, has been long overdue, forcing the IAF to keep dwindling numbers of MiG21s active long past their expiry date through increasingly desperate measures. With no suitable advanced trainers, and fresh pilots going straight from basic training to the demanding MiGs, India has paid a horrendous cost in human life in MiG crashes. The induction of Sukhoi 30 MKIs starting from 200? staved off the immediate crisis and in the face of continued delays in the LCA programme, India ordered an additional 56 Su30s on top of the initial 140 including local production.

The MRCA RfI was floated initially with the idea of filling the gap between the low-end LCAs whenever inducted and the air superiority Su30s. Three developments since then have hugely influenced the MRCA acquisition.

First, the IAF in particular and the defence forces as a whole have embarked on a large-scale modernization. Second, this led the IAF to re-conceptualize its future fleet and scale-up its requirement from an MRCA to an M-MRCA, that is, from a light-weight aircraft to a heavier fighter that could carry more weaponry and undertake both air defence and ground attack roles.  The IAF now saw its future fleet as comprising the LCA, a few Jaguar strike aircraft and multi-role lightweight Mirage 2000s, the heavier Su30 MKIs for air superiority and 4th Generation MMRCAs, complemented by Hawk advanced trainers and a forthcoming new indigenous basic jet trainer. A contract for co-development of a 5th Generation fighter with the Sukhoi bureau completed the picture. This vision and corresponding procurement processes were now driven more by the user service. Third, India was now prepared to flex its economic and political muscle in the international arms bazaar.  India had fashioned an offsets system to ensure that foreign vendors spend 30-50% of order value within India on local production thus boosting domestic industrial capability.

As a result, between the initial RfI and the RfP, the nature of the acquisition had undergone a significant change, in terms of both the type of aircraft and the conditions that the supplier would have to fulfill.

Dropped Bidders Given the shift in the IAF requirement, the lighter more air-to-air contenders could actually have been dropped earlier itself, but perhaps the IAF wanted a closer look at different options.
The F-16’s latest Block 70 version from US defence contractor Lockheed Martin, is an excellent proven platform. Apart from being lightweight, however, it is ultimately a 40 year old plane that has been phased out from the US Air Force and whose assembly line is scheduled to shut down unless the Indian order had revived it. Under similar circumstances, having realized the IAF preference, the Mirage 2000 was withdrawn from the Indian tender by Dassault as early as 2006. The US in contrast pushed for the inclusion of both American contenders in the tender belatedly, in the afterglow of the Indo-US nuclear deal and blossoming strategic partnership, prompting some wags to say “123 = 126”! The Americans did not deem it an important factor that F-16s, albeit of the earlier Block 50/52, were in service with Pakistan since the 1970s. Lockheed Martin, with virtually no industrial or business links in India, would also have found it very difficult to meet the 50% offset requirement. It was either extreme US naivety or arrogance to think that India would salivate and jump to buy anything the US put on the table, or do so out of sheer gratitude.

The JAS-39 Saab Gripen NG from Sweden, made with some collaboration with UK’s BAE Systems, also does not really fit the MMRCA profile. However, the Gripen NG is a contemporary 4th generation aircraft with superb handling characteristics, and is a heavier more powerful version than earlier models. Like other Swedish fighters, it is designed to operate from short runways or even roads, a useful feature in India’s Himalayan airfields. It also uses a variant of the same GE-414 engine that the LCA is now configured with but, with Boeing’s F/A-18 also using this engine, the US may mount pressure against its Swedish rival as it did when it prevented Sweden from selling the Viggen fighter to India in the 1970s because it had a US-made engine that it did not want India to get!

The MiG35 is a lightweight upgraded MiG29 with vector controlled engine that can swivel, a technology pioneered in the British Harrier “jump jet” in service on the INS Viraat aircraft carrier. For the MRCA as originally conceived, the MiG35 gives the best value for money but not perhaps in an M-MRCA tender. The MiG29 itself is part of a package deal for the refurbished Admiral Gorshkov aircraft carrier from Russia and commonality is therefore a plus factor. But there are also problems with the RD-33 engine which is seen as having short life and time between overhauls. The IAF is also probably not inclined to put all its eggs in the Russian basket. Another important negative is the sharp decline in the strength and political support of the Rosoboronexport MiG Corporation in Russian military aviation which has raised serious doubts about its ability to provide lifetime support to the aircraft.

Other US reject    Of the remaining three, the upgraded version of the time-tested and battle-proven F/A-18 from the former aviation major McDonnell Douglas, now taken over by Boeing, is undoubtedly a really serious within the MMRCA envelope but suffers on a few major counts. The F/A-18 Hornet is mainly a carrier-based fighter used for ground attack and has relatively poor aerodynamics out its capabilities as a multi-role fighter. The F/A-18 is also at the end of its developmental cycle and the latest upgrades are among the last. India though expects the MMRCA to be in service for upto 40 years along with periodic upgrades. It is also doubtful if Boeing could supply 126 aircraft within $10 billion.
On the other hand, the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet being offered is such a major upgrade that it has only 25% in common with the basic Hornet. It is the only contender to come in-built with a powerful AESA (electronically scanned array) Radar, one of the conditions of the RfP. The Super Hornet is powered by general Electric GE-414 engines to be used in the LCA thus contributing to commonality as sought by the IAF. Boeing would also have found it quite easy to meet 50% offsets because of its extensive presence in India including through passenger aircraft, sub-contracts for which the new offsets policy permits, ironically largely under pressure from the US and Boeing. This very keenness for offsets on the civilian side raised serious suspicion that the US did not want to share F/A-18 military technology.
The US was keen on the F/A-18 E/F sale to India and before this had not offered it to any other nation although advanced versions have been sold to Australia later. But these high-technology upgrades may themselves have become an impediment in the Indian deal.  US insistence on India signing various defence Agreements to enable technology transfer has already or could in future become an obstacle, with strong IAF resistance to the implicit compulsion to share operational details and give oversight rights to the US. The past unsavoury record of the US with regard to technology denial, some sanctions being lifted only during President Obama’s recent India, has undoubtedly reinforced negative perceptions in India about the relility of the US as a defence supplier.

The finalists Now to the two short-listed aircraft, one of which is going to be part of the IAF fighter fleet for the next few decades. Interestingly, both Dassault’s Rafale from France and the Eurofighter Typhoon share a common past having emerged out of the same European multi-nation programme. The Eurofighter is made by a consortium of BAE Systems from the UK, Alenia Aeronautica of Spain, and the Airbus manufacturer EADS which is itself a consortium of several European companies including the redoubtable Messerschmidt of Germany and the Italian Finnmeccanica, all working through a holding company, Eurofighter GmbH. France opted out of this consortium in the early 90s after it failed in its well-known tendency of seeking to dominate European efforts, in this case demanding that Dassault head the European fighter programme with a French engine. France then built the Rafale around the initial design it had brought for the European fighter.

Both aircraft are true 4th generation fighters although their multi-role capabilities are not widely accepted but may have proved themselves during the field trials. Neither comes with an in-built operations-ready AESA radar although the Eurofighter will have a Captor AESA Radar (CAESAR) by 2012 and the Rafale also plans to introduce the Thales RB-E2AA AESA system soon.
The Rafale has excellent aerodynamics and weapons carrying capacity. It is somewhat cheaper than the exorbitant Eurofighter. It has several commonalities with the Mirage 2000 and these would increase if the India deal goes through. Dassault in particular and French aviation companies in particular have an excellent record and reputation in India as regards technology transfer, maintenance and spares, and technical support. On the minus side are the notorious difficulties of fitting non-French add-ons in armaments, avionics, radar etc and the fact that the Rafale has not managed to secure export orders so far.

The Eurofighter is said to be the frontrunner in the tender. Pilots and knowledgeable aviation commentators describe it as the best contemporary air superiority fighter excluding the USA’s F-22 Raptor which is so far ahead of the field and so expensive that it has become virtually redundant with even the US deciding not to order additional aircraft. However, observers of the Indradhanush joint exercises hold that India’s Su-30 MKIs had outperformed the Eurofighter in purely air-to-air roles. Indeed some are asking why simply increasing numbers of Su-30 MKIs would not be the better, cheaper option. The answer may lie in the fact that recent years have seen the Eurofighter make major upgrades towards multi-role capabilities, weapons and radar systems. Indeed, Eurofighter GmbH even demonstrated a naval variant during Aero India 2011 with capability for take off without catapults from the “ski-jump” decks that India’s future aircraft carriers are expected to have.

Despite its chequered history in the usual messy European collaborations with Anglo-French rivalry, the Eurofighter has emerged as a force to reckon with in military aviation. Over 500 Eurofighters are in active service with the Air Forces of Britain, Germany, Italy and Spain. It has however so far attracted only one major order from Saudi Arabia and is believed to be Japan’s first choice for its forthcoming acquisition. Some smaller countries with less developed industrial base have opted for the American F-15 Eagle or F/A-18.

A plus point for the Eurofighter is some commonality established through the recent induction of 123 BAE Hawk Trainers into the IAF, 69 of which are built in India. This would enhance BAE’s ability to service its offsets obligations. Being manufacturer of the Airbus used widely by airlines in India, EADS too will benefit from the new rules allowing offsets through civilian projects.

The final selection round promises to be very interesting. Those looking for strategic partnerships would note that French appreciation for a Rafale order would reflect in improved diplomatic and commercial relations with a UNSC permanent member with substantial clout in the EU and G8. On the other hand, the strategic dividend from a Eurofighter contract for an aircraft that nobody “owns” is somewhat doubtful. In fact, since the Eurofighter has several US technologies, US permission would have to be obtained for the sale and it remains to be seen if the US chooses to be bloody-minded about the rejection it has suffered.

Conclusion But indications are that such considerations of strategic relations have not been a major factor in decision-making in the MMRCA acquisition. All critical comments from the US have expressed shock that, as well-known strategic expert and  Clinton advisor Ashley Tellis put it “India has settled for a plane, not a relationship.” Hello?! One thought India was indeed buying an aircraft whose performance, role in the IAF and India’s security environment, cost and potential for fulfillment of offset requirements should be the main criteria. Diplomatic dividends should be secondary considerations, other things being equal. And it is also revealing that US Ambassador Roemer and other critics pushing the “strategic partnership” want other criteria and procedures put in the backdrop while simultaneously insisting on transparency and fairness, hinting that these have somehow been missing till now. Will we see US challenges? Interesting times are ahead.

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