|By Gulshan Luthra||January 2017|
New Delhi. The Indian Air Force (IAF) urgently needs to finalize acquisition of 200 to 250 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs), preferably twin-engine due to the bird-infested skies in the region.
Outgoing Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha mentioned the figures at his farewell press conference on December 28, pointing out also that the number of Rafale aircraft being acquired from France, 36, was too small, and that IAF needed to fully equip its sanctioned strength of 42 combat jet squadrons.
Air Chief Marshal Raha’s statement indicates the beginning of a second round of MMRCA competition, single or twin-engine, but for a larger number of aircraft than in the 2007 RFP.
In an interaction with this writer on the sidelines of the conference, he observed that the number required was actually about 400 – as calculated by the India Strategic team and published in the December edition – but that IAF was unlikely to get approval for that many combat jets due to budget constraints. “We will be happy to get 200 to 250 Medium aircraft.”
Notably, IAF has about 700 aircraft in existing 33 squadrons, and 11 of them, comprising Mig 21s and Mig 27s are alread due for replacement.
IAF is losing two squadrons every year due to obsolescence for the last several years, and despite upgrades and induction of most of the 272 Su 30 MKIs ordered from Russia, the combat air power is much less than desired both in numbers and modern capabilities. Both the factors have to be kept in mind while planning for replacements, which should actually have happened in the previous decade.
The Air Chief had told this writer in an earlier interaction on the occasion of the Air Force Day in October that IAF wanted only MMRCA capability-plus aircraft due to the technological innovations since 2007 when the tender for 126 (plus 63 options) was floated. They can be single engine, but the preference would be for twin-engine machines.
In the fray are new variants of US Lockheed Martin F 16 Falcon and Swedish Gripen (both single engine) and US Boeing F/A 18 Super Hornet and French Rafale. Make in India is the key condition, and according to Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, price and technology transfer would determine the choice. The Ministry of Defence (MoD) was considering single engine jets already, he had said while releasing Brig Gurmeet Kanwal’s book, The New Arthshastra, on November 10 at a function here.
The Minister also said that the Government was aware of the long-pending requirements of the armed forces and had taken action to clear quite a few of them. The procedural bottlenecks were also being addressed.
Single engine aircraft are much cheaper than those with twin engines. As a thumb rule, about 25 percent of the cost of an aircraft is that of its engine/s although there can be many variables relating to onboard technologies. Then, an aircraft which has already been produced in numbers, should be much cheaper than a newly produced one as the development costs have t be recovered over many years.
All these four companies have offered to set up factories in India, and there are indications that Russia, which had offered its Mig 35 in the MMRCA competition might join the competition. In fact, an updated version this twin-engine jet, is likely to be unveiled end-January in Moscow.
There is no word yet from Eurofighter which had made to the finals but then lost to Rafale in aborted competition. Air Chief Marshal Raha had stated that the global manufacturers had made ‘unsolicited’ offers and Eurofighter could do the same. It would be up to the Government to do the selection.
Notably, IAF is also looking at 123 Tejas, which has been described as Mig 21 ++ even after it is equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, a tender for which has been floated. But the timeline for its acquisition is also 10 years from now, from development to manufacture, testing, certification and supplies in required numbers and getting operational.
Mr T Suvarna Raju, Chairman and Managing Director of HAL which is making the aircraft, is hopeful of speeding the process. A plug will be added to the basic LCA to make it MCA Mk 1, and that will house the AESA, a crucial fast air and ground environment scanning equipment which can locate and discern multiple hostile targets and help the pilots home onto them for attack. An RfP has recently been sent to Israeli ELTA, Airbus, Saab and posibly some other companiess.
ELTA however is already supplying many of the onboard electronics.
Understandably, all the foreign majors have offered to help develop not only the LCA but possibly also India’s nextgen Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Air Force officials say indigenous development and production is a must to ensure secure and steady supplies. But so are the timelines; development cannot go on and on.