Win – Win Situation For All by Sushil
The much awaited ‘Mother of all Deals’, the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) enters the final phase. According to Air Chief Marshal PV Naik, Chief of the Air Staff, the contract for supplying 126 MMRCA fighters to the IAF will be signed soon. All leading global combat aircraft manufacturers await the outcome of the deal with bated breath. For the first time there was an overwhelming global response and the deal has remained the most speculative topic of discussions for nearly a decade, or more. India’s emerging position in the world strongly steered by a consistent nine per cent economic growth, places India at a pedestal where high-end technologies are willingly offered for the asking by hitherto reluctant sources. Several global players are running head over heels to participate in the modernisation plans of India’s defence forces. In the prevailing environment, it is a foregone conclusion that the IAF would settle for nothing less than the top-end technology-intensive multi-role combat aircraft. Undoubtedly, the MMRCA promises to be the mainstay for the ‘future’ IAF and has the potential to emerge as a game changer.
The additional benefit that the deal promises to the indigenous aviation industry is the transfer of top-end frontline technology that would be relevant for at least the next three decades and beyond. Besides the performance and cost, crucial issues like access to technology, technology transfer, life-cycle support through reliable spares and maintenance, product support, etc. will be decisive factors in finalising the deal. Thus, if it is called the ‘mother of all deals’, it is not just for its commercial facet, but for the enriching accompaniments which will benefit the indigenous defence industrial complex, on a long term perspective. Reportedly, the first 18 aircraft will be acquired directly from the manufacturer and the remaining fighters will be built under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangaluru under the provision of transfer of technology (TOT).
This multi-billion dollar deal will be the biggest ever since the 1990s, in which global fighters, namely Lockheed Martin's F-16 Super Viper, Eurofighter's Typhoon, Russian United Aircraft Corporation's Mikoyan MiG-35, France's Dassault Aviation's Rafale, Swedish SAAB's Gripen and Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet have participated. Out of these contenders, Russia’s Mikoyan and France’s Dassault have been the regular suppliers of aircraft to the IAF. The Dassault Aviation’s Rafale, the Eurofighter’s Typhoon and the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet are all twin-engine fighters and reportedly very expensive. The MiG-35 is also a twin-engine aircraft, however its price not known.
Indian Navy Perspective
How does the MMRCA deal impinge upon the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC) programme for the Indian Navy (IN)? This is the big question which needs serious consideration of the decision makers at this crucial juncture. According to Admiral ArunPrakash, former CNS, “The easiest option would be to make IAC-2 a replica of IAC-1. This would imply that the second carrier’s air group would consist of the MiG-29K and perhaps LCA (Navy), with an option to operate the F-35(B) Lightning II, at a later date, if it is available.” He further adds, “Interestingly, the on-going competition for selection of the IAF multi-role combat aircraft appears to have thrown up four potential candidates for the IN too. Of these, the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and the Dassault Aviation’s Rafale both have naval versions that operate in the catapult assisted take-off but arrested landing mode. If the IAF does select one of these candidates there might be some pressure for the Indian Navy to consider the same aircraft for IAC-2”. If the Fleet Air Arm of the IN was to be given teeth in true sense that it deserves, there would be no gain in adopting a replica of IAC 1 for IAC 2. In fact it may well prove to be a regressive step and the IN would only be chasing technologies.
According to Air Marshal (Retd) Philip Rajkumar, who set up the National Flight Test Centre and was subsequently the Director, Aeronautics Development Authority (ADA), the naval LCA (Navy) programme is a very interesting one because it is for the first time that India was attempting to develop a carrier-borne fighter. He, however, cautions that the challenges in flight testing and introducing the aircraft into service will be many, namely the modification of the fly-by-wire flight control system's Control Law to cater for the ski jump take-off and arrested landing on the deck, setting up the Shore Based Test Facility and its validation before the commencement of the naval LCA's flight tests. The biggest managerial challenge will be the human resource problem because qualified personnel, who provide the all-important continuity to the test programme in the future, are hard to come by.
Besides the above challenges, there will be complex issues confronting the LCA (Navy) project relating to twin-engine, high agility at supersonic speed, multi-role capability, wing folding mechanism of composite material, strengthening of under carriage for deck operations, arrester engine/gear, Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, etc. Indigenous development of all these essential capabilities would take decades of toil and sweat by ADA and HAL, and will be riddled with unacceptable delays and uncertainties at the end. As it is, the Indian Navy is at a cross road to find a way ahead in finalising the design for IAC 2 which impinges upon the concept of operations, whether it should be Short Take Off But Arrested Recovery (STOBAR) or Catapult Assisted Take Off But Arrested Recovery (CATOBAR) for IAC 2 and IAC 3. Without going into much technicality, emerging trends suggest STOBAR offers sound operating concept for the IAC programme for IN. India can learn the right lessons from the formation of a consortium by AleniaAeronautica, BAE Systems and EADS as Eurofighter GmbH to produce state-of-the-art weapon systems and platforms through a joint venture arrangement. While such a joint venture would catalyse induction of new technology into the IAF, it would set back indigenous efforts and the move towards self-reliance. Pundits for induction of new technology may counter this argument by stating that the strategy of relying on home grown technologies is riddled with severe penalties of time and cost overruns. Nonetheless, access to technology, transfer of technology and the life cycle support would be the main attributes of MMRCA deal. So why not gainfully utilise such provisions of the deal for optimising the operating concept and design for future IAC programme?
Choice of aircraft available plays a pre-dominant role in finalisation of an aircraft carrier design. It is also said that the carrier design should be ‘future proof’ to enable operation of future aircraft when the carrier enters the commissioned service. In this context, the competing options in the MMRCA deal are Boeing F/A 18E/F Super Hornet, France’s Dassault Aviation’s Rafale and Eurofighter’s Typhoon, if the long term naval perspective were to be added to the deal. While Boeing F/A 18E/F and Dassault’sRafale are proven carrier borne multi role fighter aircraft, Eurofighter in recent times have offered the naval variant of Typhoon fighter aircraft. During the recently concluded Aero India 2011 at Bangalore, Eurofighter have not only exhibited the potential of naval version of Typhoon but have also reportedly expressed willingness to transfer of technology and joint development with HAL. It is, therefore, only logical that the provisions in the Defence Procurement Procedure of ‘Buy and Make Indian’ are utilised to acquire such a fighter for the IAF that also has a naval variant.
The need therefore is for a holistic view in the selection process of MMRCA which should serve the long term national interests by ensuring commonality of inventory of the multi role combat aircraft and standardisation of its infrastructure and support facilities both for IAF and IN, over a time horizon of at least three to four decades. Selection of MiG 29K for operating from INS Vikramaditya was precisely based on the similar consideration, though there was no other option available at that time of finalising that deal. Another important aspect that needs consideration is that the IAF does not have any known plan for future acquisition of MiG series of aircraft, except the upgrades of MiG 27s and MiG 29s. Hence, over a period of time, the infrastructure and support facilities for this category of aircraft would dwindle. Perhaps as a fall back option IN has already floated a global Request for Information (RFI) for multi-role fighter aircraft to operate from IAC. The mother of all deals thus can be a win-win situation for both IAF and IN, as also the entire nation. Besides the qualitative quantum jump to IAF, this deal has the potential of not just rejuvenating the IAC programme in real terms, but it even offers multiple options for multi role carrier borne fighters for IN. If this linkage is viewed holistically it would substantially facilitate matching the aircraft and the carrier design at the initial stages itself, thus providing much needed impetus and continuity to the prestigious indigenous aircraft carrier construction programme.
Rear Admiral Sushil Ramsay (Retd) is Senior Editorial Adviser, SP Guide Publications, New Delhi
Courtesy: SP's Naval Forces, February 2011
This article may be read in conjunction with the following article:
MMRCA: Indian MoD shortlists two
Acquisition of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft