Selection of an MRCA for the IAF

After the usual scrutiny and associated delay, the Government of India has finally cleared the proposal by the IAF to procure 126 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) needed to replace the obsolete MiG 21FL and MiG 23 fleet and restore the strength of combat squadrons to the authorised ceiling of 39.5. These aircraft are being phased out progressively on completion of technical life and as there is no certainty of the timeframe in which the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) would be made available in adequate numbers, there is no option for the IAF but to acquire replacements for ageing aircraft from foreign sources to close the gap and prevent unacceptable erosion of operational capability.

The requirement for the IAF is for a 20-tonne class, multi-role, fourth generation combat aircraft or alternatively, a late third generation airframe with fourth generation avionics and weapon systems. The IAF needs a force mix of long and medium range combat aircraft capable of both strike and air defence roles. The SU30 MKI is under induction to undertake long-range tasks in a strategic sense. The proposed MRCA would be expected to perform both roles over own airspace and battle areas in a tactical sense.

The Request for Information (RFI), only a preliminary inquiry, has been sent out to the manufacturers of the four possible contenders. These are the Russian MiG 29 M/M2, the French Mirage 2000-5 Mk2, the Swedish Saab Grippen and the American F16 C/D Block 50/52. Given the elaborate and complex procurement procedures, stringent and multi-layered financial scrutiny, painfully slow decision-making process, the lead time for manufacture and time for training, it may take over a decade for the proposed MRCA to be fully operational in the IAF.

Evolution of Combat Aircraft

The first generation combat jets inherited the concept of a good fighter aircraft based on the Second World War experience.  Designed primarily for the air defence role, the concept of a good fighter aircraft centred around its ability in close combat to get into a position and fire its guns before the enemy aircraft was able to do the same. This capability came through high engine thrust, low weight, high rate of climb, good acceleration, high speed, capability to  sustain high G-loading in manoeuvre, good visibility for the pilot, volume and rate of fire, all combined to provide an edge over the enemy. Success also hinged on the quality of training and piloting skills. However, the nature of aerial combat began to change with the induction of late second generation and third generation combat aircraft that could perform both the strike and air defence roles with equal efficiency. Such aircraft were described as Multi Role Combat Aircraft. Apart from possessing the conventional attributes, these aircraft were designed to have a multi-mode airborne radar, all weather capability and could operate by day and night. For the air defence role the aircraft were armed with high speed, highly manoeuvrable missiles capable of long-range interception in the head-on mode, supported by accurate active guidance system or fire and forget capability. For the strike role, the aircraft was equipped with an accurate navigation and target acquisition system combined with guided  air-to-surface weapons. Called Precision Guided Munitions or PGMs, the range of weapons carried by the aircraft were lethal; but in an air defence role, positive identification of an aerial target continued to remain a weak area. 

Future wars employing fourth and fifth generation combat aircraft will be fought with machines operating in a network centric environment in conjunction with AWACS that would ensure positive identification of enemy aircraft in beyond-visual-range engagement. With low radar cross-section, the aircraft would have advanced multi-mode airborne radar for the strike role, and with help of the latest satellite navigation system, would be able to navigate accurately at low level and high speed to launch ultra smart stand-off weapons with fire and forget capability. The aircraft would be capable of in-flight refuelling and would carry advanced self-protection electronic warfare suites to provide security against detection and engagement by a wide spectrum of ground-based air defence weapon systems. Thus, for the aircraft of the fourth generation and beyond, onboard avionics, quality of the software and capability of weapon systems would perhaps be as important if not more than the platform itself. Another significant development incorporated on the SU30 MKI is thrust vectoring, by means of which the aircraft can carry out manoeuvres hitherto considered outside the realms of possibility. Thrust vectoring per se is not a new concept as it was employed successfully on the British Harrier more than three decades ago. However, the ingenious design on the SU30 MKI gives it unprecedented capability in close combat. Whether an aircraft like the SU30 MKI will ever get into a close combat situation except in peacetime exercises, is a subject for debate. The American F22 and the MiG35 which are under development have this feature as well.

Aircraft Under Consideration

During the Cold War days, selection of a weapon system for the Armed Forces did not pose any dilemma. The Soviet Union had established a virtual monopoly in this regard, rendering the IAF almost totally dependent on it for sourcing combat aircraft. There were a few exceptions such as the British Jaguar and the French Mirage 2000H, both acquired in relatively small numbers against hard currency. The Jaguar deal included licensed manufacture by HAL. In the face of wider options available today and the absence of preferential terms of payment from Russia , the process of selection would be more difficult. A host of factors would have to be taken into account to procure the aircraft that not only meets with the operational needs of the IAF, but also provides the best value for money. All the four aircraft for which RFI has been floated are versatile, top-of-the-line machines and incorporate modern state-of-the-art avionics and can take a wide variety of weapon systems for both short and long range engagement of targets in the air and on the ground.  Prima facie, all four aircraft are well suited to meet with the qualitative requirements of the IAF. There are, however, some distinctive features of each of the aircraft type that need to be noted.

The MiG 29 aircraft is a 30-year-old airframe design developed to replace the MiG 23.  However, over the years, the aircraft has been progressively upgraded. Originally conceived as an interceptor, it subsequently evolved into a multi-role weapons platform. The MiG 29 M/M2, the M2 being the two seat version, is the latest model, derived from the naval variant, the MiG 29K and is still under development. It has a quadruplex electronic fly-by-wire flight control system, a synthetic aperture, multi-mode terrain mapping radar, the latest satellite navigation system, advanced communication systems, data link, and an international standard full-glass cockpit, infrared search and tracking system, helmet mounted target designator, comprehensive EW suites and in-flight refuelling capability. The MiG 29 M is powered by two engines giving it a high degree of reliability. The aircraft can carry a wide range of weapons, for both the air defence and strike roles and can be made compatible with weapons of western origin. Licensed production would not pose any problems in view of the elaborate infrastructure and vast experience available with HAL.

The Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 is built around a 1975 vintage airframe but has fourth generation avionics and weapon systems, and was developed exclusively for the export market as a competitor to the F16. This version is not in service with the French Air Force, which has opted for the fourth generation Rafale, which is still under development. Although a single engine aircraft, the Snecma M 53 engine has a flawless reputation for reliability. French equipment being relatively more expensive, the initial outlay for a Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 fleet would be significantly higher than for any of the other three types under consideration.

The Saab Grippen is a light weight, single engine, multi-role, fourth generation aircraft. Designed in the early eighties and test flown in 1988, the project suffered serious reverses initially owing to crashes during test flights in January 1989 and August 1993. Both these accidents were attributed to a malfunction of the flight control system owing to bugs in the software, a problem that was ultimately resolved successfully. Ten years younger than its competitors, the aircraft was inducted into the Swedish Air Force in 1996 but efforts at export have been less successful than for the other three types under scrutiny, having lost out in the bid for a contract from Finland and  Switzerland . The Grippen is powered by a GE 404-400 Turbofan, an American engine licence manufactured in Sweden . Avionics are a mix of American and indigenous, and the aircraft can take a wide range of weapons of western origin.

Like the MiG 29M, the single engine light weight American fighter aircraft designated as F16 A/B  has evolved from an interceptor into a multi role version designated as F16 C/D. The F16 A/B was developed as a low cost, agile, light weight interceptor and incorporated design features based on the experience with the F4 Phantom in the Vietnam War and entered service with the USAF in 1979. The F16 is half the weight of the preceding combat aircraft such as the F14 Tomcat and F15 Eagle, and was optimised for a lower operational speed of Mach 1.6. It was also the first combat aircraft to be designed with negative stability necessitating a fly-by-wire flight control system. The multi-role F16 C/D Block 50/52 is larger in size than the original A/B models with an increase in wing area, fuselage length and control surface area. So far, more than 4,500  aircraft have been built and are operational in 24 countries including the USA . The F16 has undergone continual development and upgrade, which is represented by a Block Number placed as a suffix. The F16 A/B upgrades have Block Numbers from 1 to 20. Upgrades of F16 C/D have Block Numbers from 25 onwards. For example, the F16 C/D Block 25 was the first model to be armed with the AMRAAM  air-to-air missile. Further developments were represented by Block Numbers 30/32, 40/42 and 50/52. The two numbers in each block indicates the source of the power plant, 50 standing for GE engine and 52 indicating Pratt & Whitney engine. Even though the original design is more than 25 years old, the newer models such as F16 C/D Block 50/52 or Block 60 developed for the UAE and delivered a year ago, would be in service for another 25 to 30 years. India has been offered a customised version, possibly Block 70, which would have all the advanced avionics and weapon systems of a fourth generation aircraft. In spite of the large numbers operated by different Air Forces worldwide, the aircraft has a reasonably good safety record and enjoys a reputation of strong technological and logistic support  by Lockheed.

Other Considerations

It would be evident from the foregoing that all the four types are quite similar in capability and technological attributes. The Mirage 2000-5 Mk2, the MiG 29 M/M2 and the F16 Block 50/52 have essentially third generation airframes with fourth generation avionics and weapons. The Grippen is the smallest of the four in size and has a maximum all up weight of 12.5 tonnes, which is just over 50 per cent of that of the MiG 29 M. It is the only complete fourth generation aircraft amongst these to be in operational service anywhere in the world and is reported to have relatively higher manoeuvrability and is 10 years younger in design. The MiG 29 M/M2 is the only twin engine aircraft amongst the four. The finer aspects of the machines under review, such as handling characteristics and human engineering aspects can be assessed through evaluation flights. However, the final decision would be influenced by a host of other factors such as price, life cycle costs, payment terms, transfer of technology, co-production with access to foreign markets, assurance of long-term product support and political considerations.

The IAF has the infrastructure and is well trained to absorb higher levels of Russian and French technology, having operated third generation aircraft from both sources. The Indian aerospace industry has also accumulated considerable experience in Russian and French technology. On the other hand, there is complete lack of experience of Swedish technology and the exposure to American equipment is limited. Induction of aircraft from Swedish or American sources would involve further diversification and enlargement of the IAF inventory, necessitating the development of fresh production and maintenance infrastructure and reorientation of training of technical personnel. There are other imponderables with American policy, such as transfer of technology and co-production, which would be a prerequisite from the Indian point of view. With regard to price, the Grippen, the F16 and the MiG 29 M would carry a price tag estimated to be between $ 35 and 45 Million, excluding spares and ancillary equipment. The Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 would have a price tag of approximately $ 65 Million, but compared with the MiG 29 M, would have lower life cycle costs.  Of the four, only the F 16 and the Mirage 2000 have been tested in actual combat.

Russia on the Indian Scene

Of the six types of combat aircraft acquired from USSR / Russia , three types have or are being manufactured in India under license. A number of new joint ventures between the aerospace industries of India and Russia are in the offing. These include the development of a fifth generation combat aircraft, Medium Tactical Transport Aircraft, Russian Regional Jets and the AL 55 (I) engine for HJT 36. In the past, Russian product support, especially for the MiG 29 fleet has been inadequate. However, Russia has always stood by India . In the Soviet era, military equipment was supplied against Rupee payment through counter trade and as no foreign currency transaction was involved, the terms were quite favourable to India . In the post-Soviet era, the situation has undergone change. On account of the globalisation of economies of nations, Russia expects payment in hard currency and hence Russian pricing policies do not offer any advantage over western counterparts. Although India and Russia have been strategic partners at the political level, sales to India are driven by compulsions of economy and have no political strings attached. This is evident in the fact that Russia has supplied combat aircraft to China and India concurrently.

The French Aerospace Industry

Over the last five decades, the French aerospace industry has consolidated its position in India though the supply in the sixties of the Ourgaon and the Mystere and later the Mirage 2000H and a large number of light helicopters that were manufactured under licence in India . The French have also dominated the Indian Civil Aviation scene with Airbus and ATR airliners as also engines for Boeing aircraft inducted into the government owned and private airlines. Snecma is also involved in the development of an engine for the ALH in partnership with HAL. The French are fiercely independent in the pursuit of their foreign policy and hence their decisions are expected to be immune to external pressures from within the EU or the USA . Defence sales by France are based purely on commercial considerations. Like Russia , France has also supplied  combat aircraft to both India and Pakistan almost at the same time without any reservation.

Sweden and US Sanctions

So far there has been no aircraft acquired from Sweden for the IAF. As such, the Saab Grippen would add a completely new dimension to the already complex technology mix of the IAF and the Indian aerospace industry. Though Sweden has a reputation for neutrality, the GE 404-400 American engine on the Grippen could prove to be the proverbial ‘Achilles Heel’ as the possibility of an US sanction may include a ban on the supply of the engine and this could undermine any deal with Sweden .

Strategic Partnership with the USA

Offer by the USA for the sale of  F16 to Pakistan and simultaneous offer  to India for the licensed production of the F16 and F18, has sparked off an intense debate on whether India should enter into any long-term relationship with the USA for purchase of critical defence equipment, especially a large fleet of combat aircraft. It is not surprising that opinion on the subject is divided. While the F16 meets with the qualitative requirements of a 20-tonne MRCA that India needs, the F18 with a maximum all up weight of nearly 30 tonnes, is a much larger and heavier aircraft and does not fit into the IAF inventory mix. It is closer to the SU30 MKI of which 190 are already under induction. The American offer to be discussed will, therefore, be limited to the F16. There are some very convincing reasons as to why India should patronise the American aerospace industry. In a uni-polar world, with unchallenged leadership of the most powerful democratic nation, it would be logical for India to shed the legacy of the Cold War era and enlarge the base for sourcing military equipment. Besides, the terms on which weapons are now available from Russia are not as favourable as those in the past. There is, therefore, no justification for limiting the source of acquisition of major   weapon systems to Russia . Besides, while Russian technology has caught up with the west in price, it is yet to do so in respect of quality and sophistication. 

The American offer of Patriot II missile defence system, P3C Orion, TOW anti-tank missiles, Phalanx system for ship defence, Command and Control Systems,  cooperation in the fields of civil nuclear energy, space technology and  F16/ F18 combat aircraft,  is a clear signal of the growing importance and stature of India in the US perspective. In her recent visit to Delhi , Condoleezza Rice stated the new policy framework of the Bush administration, wherein the USA will help India become a major world power in the 21st century. The US does not see any conflict or disagreement with India on any important regional or global issue and believes that a comprehensive relationship between the two nations will be crucial in shaping the international order in the coming years. It is time, therefore, to move away from past prejudices into a new world of cooperation and collaboration. Apart from the dialogue on economic and energy issues, USA intends to seriously consider India ’s defence requirements and explore possibilities of co-production in an effort to establish itself as a reliable source of supply of military hardware, including combat aircraft. India needs to view the emerging equation with the USA in the context of congruent security interests of the two largest democracies. The Indian economy has achieved high growth rates and the country has a respectable status in the global IT industry. Substantial purchases and co-production of high technology defence equipment from the USA would pave the way for the development of a broader strategic and technological relationship, wherein the strengths of the two countries could be synergised to mutual benefit. Acceptance of the offer for licensed production of the F16 could open up the possibility of collaboration in the production of the next generation aircraft.

The perceptible change in the American approach to India must also be seen in the  context of their own economic compulsions. Since the end of the Cold War, the American aerospace industry has suffered on account of a reduction in internal and external demand for military equipment. Orders for the F16 have been completed and the last of the aircraft under production at the factory at Fort Worth would be delivered soon. A contract with Pakistan for the supply of 71 F16 aircraft was terminated some time in the eighties on account of their nuclear weapons programme. Although the advance paid was refunded, Pakistan continued to persist with the effort to obtain the aircraft from the USA . The deal has now been resurrected even though the reasons for which the deal was cancelled in the first place, still obtain and in fact have got worse. Pakistan has not only developed nuclear weapons with the help of some other nations, it has also been engaged in clandestine nuclear proliferation. It is well known that Pakistan has been breeding and supporting terrorism and is said to have been indirectly involved in the September 11 attacks on the World Trade Centre and other targets in the USA . Pakistan continues under military rule with no effort towards restoration of democracy. Yet the Bush administration has authorised the sale of F16 aircraft as without immediate further indents for the F16, the production lines would have to close down, resulting in a massive loss of jobs in Texas , something that the Bush administration can ill afford at this juncture. Even in 1992, under somewhat similar circumstances, the US government while trying to build bridges with China , authorised the sale of 150 F16 aircraft to Taiwan to bail out the industry.

It should thus be obvious that even for the USA , economic compulsions can sometimes override political imperatives. India could, therefore, give the American offer serious consideration and formulate agreements so as to ensure powerful mutual economic interdependence that in turn would influence political decisions favourably. India ought not to overplay the issues of balance of power and arms race in the region as it is India`s responsibility to maintain balance of power with potential enemies and should not expect any other arms peddling nation to exercise self restraint for this purpose. Secondly, India did not raise a diplomatic row when France or Russia delivered combat aircraft to hostile nations in the neighbourhood.  However, to get a balanced view, it would also be necessary to consider the arguments against any major deal with the USA , especially for a large fleet of combat aircraft.

Indo-US relations in the post independence era have constantly suffered on account of India`s policy of nonalignment, strong Indo Soviet ties and perpetual hostility in Indo-Pak relations. These proved to be major impediments in any effort at building a relationship with the USA based on mutual trust, confidence and respect. Indo-US relations, therefore, constantly hovered at the periphery of the Cold War up to the end eighties. Just as Indo-US relations took an upturn with the end of the Cold War, sanctions were imposed in the wake of the nuclear test in May 1998.  Apart from the implications for the Indian economy, sanctions had a deleterious impact on the ongoing projects in the Indian aerospace industry, specifically the LCA programme. Although the military industrial complex has a vice-like grip on the American economy, the decision to sell military equipment has so far been largely governed by policy imperatives rather than commercial considerations. Even though the aerospace industry is in private hands, the government exercises stringent control over sales outside the country. Also, the American government has a track record of dumping customers or imposing arm twisting sanctions to impose its will in the event of changing political equations. Recent examples are the grounding of the F5 fleet sold to Chile and the F14 Tomcat fleet to Iran . The US Government is also very selective in approving buyers and does so only when they, in some or the other, serve the US national interest. Undoubtedly, the USA would extract its pound of flesh for favours done to India under the new policy framework.

The USA will undoubtedly continue to be the dominant military and economic power in the foreseeable future. Conflict or divergence of views at the political level should only be expected while dealing with a country like India with a flourishing multi-party democracy and coalition governments. Differences with the USA on policy issues could impinge on the defence related or technological partnership between the two nations to the serious detriment to India`s security interests. Recent pronouncements by Ms Rice notwithstanding, policies of the American government are labile to the extent that they are liable to change with the change of either the president or the party in power. The American policy establishment is inclined to view the world through the prism of arrogance born out of their superpower status, and is also known to be steered by powerful lobbies with vested interests working behind the scene or by the personal whims of the president and his confidantes. Viewed in the context of historically troubled Indo-US relations, the aggressive foreign policy posture of the USA witnessed helplessly in the recent past by the world community and the inability of the President of the United States to provide long term guarantees in defence supplies or immunity to sanctions, prospects of a long term stable and meaningful ties between the defence related aerospace industries of India and the USA appear difficult.


India needs a fleet of 126 MRCA to safeguard her security interests. As the Indian aerospace industry does not as yet have the technological strength to meet this requirement on its own, the nation has no option but to turn to the international market, where, unlike in the past, a much wider choice is now available. Undoubtedly, India must procure the best machine, but in so doing, sight of the long-term perspective must not be lost. Aircraft majors around the world see India as a lucrative and expanding market and will compete for the contract that could make a crucial impact in their own struggle for survival in the fiercely competitive world of the global aerospace industry.

However, the decision makers in the Indian establishment must penetrate the gloss and read the fine print carefully. Apart from the technological attributes, versatility and operational capability of the machine, they need to bear in mind a number of other important factors such as assurance of long-term logistic support, problems of integration with the IAF inventory, technological gains for the Indian aerospace industry, sanctions and denial regimes, financial implications and the nuances of the political dimension. In the final analysis, the process of selection of the MRCA for the IAF will not only be a techno-military dilemma but a challenging politico-economic exercise as well.

This article first appeared in the Indian Defence Review Volume 20-1, Jan- Mar 05 and has been reproduced here with the permission of the editor.