French Air Force Dassault Rafale B during Operation Serval in Mali 2013. The Indian Air Force will still get 36 out of the 126 Rafales it hoped for (Wikipedia/Capt Jason Smith)

 

After the cancellation of India's MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) fighter contest - is it back to square one for the Indian Air Force? TIM ROBINSON comments.

Over a decade after the first Requests for Information were sent out, India’s $12bn MMRCA fighter contest is now officially dead. The ‘must-win’ prize of a requirement for 126 fighters that was bitterly contested with Rafale scooping the prize in 2012 is now axed. France’s Dassault, however, does not go home empty handed for its troubles, having secured an order for 36 directly from India’s Prime Minister, who seems to have short-circuited the Indian Ministry of Defence and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) bureaucracy – to at least get some combat aircraft into service.


Evolving threats

Chinese J-10 fighter. IAF is facing evolving threats as countries such as China modernise their defence forces (Flickr mxiong)

However, this does still leave a shortfall of 90 aircraft and this may get more acute in the future for India’s air force, which faces an aging fleet and its two main regional competitors, China and Pakistan, both modernising their front-line capabilities. In particular, the qualitative margin that India enjoyed over China is (like other nations) being eroded as the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) induct J-10s, J-11s and, conceivably in the future, J-20 stealth fighters. While India has a partnering agreement with Russia on its PAK-FA stealth fighter — that project too seems to have hit snags — with IAF expressing concerns about the quality of Sukhoi’s fighter.

Time for round two?


India is partnering with Russia on Sukhoi's T-50 PAK-FA stealth fighter but there are concerns about its quality (Wikipedia/Alex Beltyukov)

Fighter manufacturers around the world, therefore, will be watching New Delhi’s next move with great interest. Will there be a MMRCA II? (tag-line: ‘This time it's personal’). Will the ‘Make it in India’ stipulations that proved the sticking point in the Rafale negotiations return? Will India open the contest again to all-comers? Time is now ticking fast. As a comparison to the extended MMRCA negotiations – Egypt, which signed for 24 Rafales only in February, took delivery of the first three straight off the production line in July. The latest information suggests that there will indeed by a 'MMRCA II' of sorts for 90 aircraft - with a global tender for the fighters to be produced locally in India.

Not getting any younger


The clock is ticking for the IAF to replace its aging aircraft, such as these MiG 29s. (Indian Air Force)

One thing seems obvious. If there really is a desperate air power strategic gap in front-line fighters that India is facing – it cannot afford to wait another decade or so for a re-run of the original tortured MMRCA competition. The decision New Delhi faces, also echo similar military procurement challenges in other countries about buying foreign equipment 'off the shelf' versus supporting and nurturing their own aerospace industries. In short, while the ‘Make it in India’ campaign may be laudable – the IAF can either have new fighters in service quickly or it can have local production of Western/Russian designs – but it seems unlikely it can have both simultaneously. 

 



20 August 2015