Choosing an Interim Fighter

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in the market for an interim fighter that doesn’t break the budget. Interim fighter purchases are always tricky. If one is not careful, one is likely to end up with unsuitable aircraft, in limited quantities, that needlessly complicate logistics. The paradox of limited budgets and ever increasing responsibilities haunts the IAF. This piece considers the challenges before the IAF and discusses some procurement options.

What’s the problem?

Of great concern is the fact that the IAF’s fighter fleet is in danger of block obsolesce in the absence of quick procurement decisions. Of even greater concern are rapidly declining force levels. In the medium and long term, there will be LCAs and Su-30s to plug any deficiencies in the IAF’s force structure. The problem is that in the immediate future large numbers of aircraft are due for retirement. The Type 66, Type 77 and Type 96 MiG-21s are now well past their prime. Indeed these types were due to be withdrawn over a decade ago. The MiG-23s too are beginning to get long in the tooth.

Over the next five years the IAF will have to replace about six to eight squadron equivalents of MiG-21s. There are no easy solutions, but this provides an opportunity for some creativity and more importantly it provides an opportunity for a comprehensive review of ones force structures and doctrine. In the last five years the combat strength of the IAF has declined from thirty-nine and a half squadrons to thirty-seven and a half squadrons without any appreciable decline in threats. If anything there are glaring holes in the air defense umbrella.

For the preceding thirty years, the IAF’s qualitative and quantitative superiority provided the bedrock on which India ’s conventional posture rested. The IAF fielded enough fighters, of the right vintage, to properly defend both the eastern and western sectors. Over the last decade a proliferation of fourth generation fighter types in the east have rendered the resident Type-77 squadrons obsolete and the MiG-27’s specialized role is certainly a handicap. One isn’t suggesting that the Bangladesh or Myanmar Air Forces are necessarily hostile, but one must take cognizance of their enhanced capabilities. Nor is one suggesting that conflict with China is imminent. But the PLAAF’s changing profile is shifting the balance (if it hasn’t already).

What solution?

Once the Type-96s and Type-77s retire there will be a huge gap in the IAF’s force structure. Any replacement should be capable of filling both the quantitative gap and bringing IAF capabilities at par with those of potential adversaries. Keeping in mind that the IAF force structure in the long term is likely to see a high-low mix of multi-role Su-30MKIs and LCAs, what the IAF needs in the interim is a fighter that can be bought in large numbers, is versatile and can be integrated into the service at minimal cost.

There are several ways in which one can address this, given budgetary constraints. One of course is to purchase second hand aircraft of a type already in service. The Pakistan Air Force has done this with some degree of success with respect to their Mirage III/5 fleet. The capital outlay for such purchases is relatively modest. However, there are issues of relatively higher life cycle costs and safety, as the PAF itself is finding out. Another option is to replace manned aircraft with Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) in some roles. This is certainly a more cost effective option in terms of both capital and life cycle costs. However, UAV and UCAV technologies are not mature enough yet to dispense completely with manned fighters - particularly where air defense duties are concerned. Over time it is indeed conceivable that the IAF will replace single-role (strike) fighters with UCAVs. The third option is to buy new build aircraft of a type that is already in service. The IAF has already exercised this option in purchasing additional Jaguars from HAL. However, the Jaguar despite its excellent abilities is a bomber and ill suited for other tasks. The IAF could also choose to purchase additional Su-30MKIs. Being a twin-engine fighter, with a complex thrust vectoring mechanism, it is likely to have higher operating costs and is to an extent still work in progress.

What aircraft?

The Ministry of Defence has invited bids from four vendors for 126 aircraft of an interim type. These include Bae/SAAB (Gripen), EADS (Eurofighter), Dassualt (Mirage 2000) and RSK-MiG (MiG-29). All these are contemporary aircraft and multi-role. Even though the Mirage and MiG airframes designs are a generation older, as far as systems are concerned the aircraft are roughly equivalent. From an Indian perspective the following are likely to constitute some important criteria for arriving at a final decision:

  1. Fly-away price
  2. Operating costs
  3. Logistical compatibility
  4. Offsets and transfer of technology

Let us consider these in more detail (in reverse order). In each case where these aircraft have been offered for sale the vendor was willing to consider offsets and transfers of technology, where requested. Most recently, MiG and Bae/SAAB offered to supply fighters to Thailand in return for the supply of chicken. Similarly, Austria considered joining the Eurofighter program in return for industrial offsets and technology transfers. In this respect all the bids might be considered equally competitive.

The Eurofighter and the Gripen are two completely new types and have no commonality with any other type of aircraft already in India service. Although one should note that the Gripen GE F-404 engine is similar to that used in the LCA. In terms of logistics, it is quite clear that both the MiG-29 and the Mirage 2000 can be rapidly integrated into the IAF. They will require minimal investment in maintenance infrastructure and retraining of personnel.

While the cost of flying a single-engine Gripen is likely to be less than that of the twin-engine Eurofighter, it’s actual life cycle costs (especially in Indian conditions) are an unknown. Some information might be inferred from the Swedish Air Force’s experience about the Gripen. The IAF has operated MiG-29s and Mirage 2000s for almost 20 years now. Consequently, there is a sound basis for making a judgment about the operating costs for these types.

The final issue is that of flyway price. Based on cost of aircraft being sold to Germany and Greece (since cancelled), the flyaway cost of a Eurofighter is around Euro 70 million (Rs 400-450 crore each). The remaining three types of aircraft are available for between Rs 150-200 crore, depending degree of customization. Clearly, then, the Eurofighter is not competitive.

We can draw the following conclusions from the above discussion. First, that the Eurofighter is the least competitive of all the types. Second, since the other three types fall in the same price category, any final selection is likely to (or should) be based on operating costs and ease of integration. Introducing the Gripen will require the creation of a support infrastructure that is likely to take funds away from other pressing needs. In purely objective terms, this leaves the MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 as the only credible choices.

MiG or Mirage?

The IAF has a clear preference for the Mirage 2000 for good reasons. The aircraft has been unparalleled in its reliability, cost-effectiveness, versatility and safety. However, the MiG-29 too could be competitive, the added costs of operating the twin-engine type fighters notwithstanding. First, the upgraded versions of the MiG-29 are less maintenance intensive, less fuel hungry and considerably more versatile than the models currently in IAF service. Second, since the Navy too is purchasing MiG-29s, buying a common type could potentially lower procurement, maintenance and operating costs across the services.

But how do the two aircraft stack up against each other? In purely technical terms the Mirage 2000-5 offers some advantages over the Mig-29K (actually a navalized ‘M’ version being built for the Indian Navy). In particular, the Mirage and its systems are less maintenance intensive, implying greater up time and aircraft availability. First, the Mirage has much greater airframe life: 7500 hrs vs. 6000 hrs for the MiG-29K. Second, the RD-33K engine for the MiG-29K is advertised as offering 1,200 hr MTBO (mean time between overhauls). However, based on IAF and Luftwaffe experiences with earlier models of the engine found that most engines require overhaul after 300-700 hours. The Snecma M53 powering the Mirage is of modular construction. This eliminates the need for complete overhaul at specified periods. The twelve modules that make up the engine can be exchanged or replaced during regular engine inspections. Third, the while RD-33 derivative powering the MiG-29 has lower specific fuel consumption (0.77) than the M53 on the Mirage (0.9) in dry mode, two engines on the MiG-29 make it more expensive to fly. Fourth, the Mirage 2000-5 can carry 6,300kg of ordnance compared to 5,500 kg for the MiG-29K. The two aircraft have roughly equivalent performance with respect to range and endurance, but the Mirage is more efficient. Last, and by no means the least, the Mirage 2000 has had a better safety record in Indian service.

Just as in the 1980s, the IAF could choose to split the buy between the two types, but MiG’s financial troubles might yet prove a deterrent. There is of course the important issue of sticking to delivery schedules, but as with manufacturing any complex equipment, delays should be expected – more so since neither the MiG-29s nor Mirage 2000s have been built in quantity in recent times.

Ultimately it is for the IAF and Ministry of Defence to choose which aircraft to buy. There is often a tendency in any competitive bidding processes to over-emphasize the issue of unit cost. One hopes that in procuring an interim fighter, both the IAF and the Ministry will take a more holistic view. Interim solutions should be optimal in both financial and operational terms.


(Rupak Chattopadyay is associated with ORF, New Delhi )

Reprint from ORF Strategic Trends Volume II Issue 48 December 6, 2004