The Indian Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MMRCA) program is one of the largest defense procurement programs in the world. The program has been mired in delays and cost overruns for over a decade. The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in desperate need of new fighter aircraft, but the MMRCA program has not yet been able to deliver. The program is a major setback for the Indian government and the IAF, and it is a reminder of the challenges of major defense procurement programs.
Indian air force has hundreds of Soviet origin aircraft serving along side their western counterparts. After the collapse of Soviet Union, maintaining this fleet had become quite difficult as spares were costly and difficult to obtain. On the other hand, due to the Soviet policy of exporting widely downgraded aircraft, thus they were stuck with old fighters. They were also nearing the end of their service lives and thanks to limited upgrade potential, IAF had 100s of jets ready to be retired.
IAF had nearly 100 strong fleets of the Flogger family, Jaguars, MiG-21, around 50 Mirage 2000s and 60 or so MiG-29s in the 1990s. MiG-29 was the primary air defense fighter of the IAF, whereas the multirole Mirage 2000 was used both for air defense and strike. Jaguars were employed for maritime and land strike whereas Floggers, other than air defense were used for close air support and strike. Bulk of the Indian fleet was formed by the MiG-21, a point defense interceptor which had proven its mettle during the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict. Some lesser known types like the MiG-25RB Foxbat were used only for photorecon along side the old and faithful Canberras. Surviving Hawker Hunters were used only for training instead of frontline operations.
Some respite was provided by the induction of Su-30MKI in early 2000s, it will turn out to be the future backbone of IAF. Indian Su-30MKI fleet was 200 strong at the time this article was being written and atleast 72 more were in the order book. A variant of the MiG-21 , the MiG-21 Bison, an upgraded variant of the MiG-21 Bis was also entering service. This new variant of the now legendary fighter sported several improvements like a new radar, ECM suite, new canopy, new HMS, an uprated engine to make it good enough for modern air combat. The biggest problem on the other hand were the older MiG-21s, Floggers and Jaguars which were supposed to be retired pretty soon. The domestic replacement for the MiG-21, named as the Tejas, was no where near entering service in the early 2000s, making its first flight on 4th of Jan 2001. The domestic Medium Combat Aircraft, wasn’t expected by 2020 either, thus the IAF put forward a requirement for 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft, this is where the deal got its acronym of MMRCA deal.
Official, RFI was issued to 4 aircraft manufacturers in late 2004, ie Dassault for its Mirage 2000, Mikoyan for its MiG-29OVT, Lockheed Martin for its F-16 Block 50/52 and the Saab for its Gripen. Due to the delays, which have been part and parcel of Indian procurement procedure , the manufacturers participated in the competition with different aircraft, while 2 other contenders were added. Dassault now offered its 4.5th gen Rafale while the Russians offered the MiG-35, a descendant of the MiG-29M which featured extensive re-designs for improving its performance. EADS on the other hand offered the Typhoon, while Boeing joined the competition with its Super Hornet. Lets have a look at the individual bids.
1) F/A-18 E/F
The Super Hornet was the premier carrier borne fighter serving on USN super carriers for years, while some other operators used it purely for land based operations. Based on the original Hornet, Super Hornet was larger, with uprated GE F-414 turbofans allowing it to increase its range and payload, while increased internal volume also allowed new avionics and the APG-79 AESA radar. Indians were pretty excited with this aircraft as it was carrier capable and India was about to induct a new STOBAR carrier (due to delays, it took another decade for INS Vikramaditya to enter service), a domestic carrier design was being prepared, to replace the STOVL carriers Vikrant and Viraat. American responses during the 1971 conflict and sanctions due to nuclear tests meant that this aircraft wasn’t a fore runner in the competition due to the lack of trust on the Americans. The Indians were skeptical if the manufacturer would provide spares during a conflict which was against American interest. Over the years, the proposal was slightly changed and the Advanced Super Hornet concept was offered instead of the legacy Super Hornet, but as it turned out, the Super Hornet wasn’t shortlisted.
2) F-16 E/F
Lockheed Martin initially offered the Block 50/52+ aircraft in the MMRCA, but this was changed to the F-16IN Super Viper, a derivative of the F-16 Block 60 used by the UAEAF, the best variant of F-16 in service world wide. Powered by the GE F-110 engine and APG-80 AESA radar acting as its main sensor, it was superior to the Block 50/52 operated by the primary adversary of IAF ie PAF. Lockheed had also offered a potential entry into the F-35 programme, offering the 5th gen fighter as a future replacement for the Super Viper fleet had India selected it. Again, like its American counterpart, this aircraft was nearing the end of its upgrade absorbing capability thanks to its design which was now around 40yrs old. Another aspect which is said to have affected the decision was that PAF was well versed with the jet, especially its maneuvering capability and hence it didnt offer a leap in capability over the primary adversary.
F-16IN Super Viper
Mikoyan design bureau, replaced the MiG-29OVT with the MiG-35, sporting the Zhuk AE AESA radar, RD-33MK engines and a new IRST. India had been operating the original MiG-29B for decades then. They were impressed with its maneuverability and now the 35 offered what the 29B lacked in, ie advanced avionics. In the hind sight, Indians knew that the Mikoyan bureau was just a shadow of its former self, it didn’t have any major orders and the Russian MoD had to bail it out several times. Sourcing spares was a major challenge and a costly affair too. MiG-35 wasn’t ready for production and as per recent reports, the production facilities of Mikoyan were busy producing MiG-29K for both the Indian and Russian navies and won’t be producing MiG-35 for some time to come.This meant that they won’t be able to deliver jets on time if the deal was signed. Another factor was that the Fulcrum family was designed to be point defense fighters and hence had a smaller payload & range compared to other fighters in the competition.
4) Gripen NG
SAAB has a history of designing several delta wing fighters which were pretty advanced for the time frame they were designed in. Gripen was supposed to get a major rework in its new variant which is being called as the Gripen NG, military designation is Gripen E/F. It was supposed to get the newer F414 engine which powers the Super Hornet, along with new data links and Raven AESA radar. Its impressive weapon’s arsenal would include the Meteor BVRAAM, Paveway series of guided munitions and the RBS-15 AShM. Interestingly, SAAB offered to jointly develop a carrier based variant for the future Indian carriers if selected in the MMRCA, infact they submitted their proposal with a full fledged CG image of Gripen operating off the future INS Vikrant. They also offered help in designing the Tejas LCA which was very similar to the Gripen, had the same engine and was facing heavy delays. Gripen deal although pretty lucrative but was seen as a direct threat to the Tejas programme by many analysts, this could have reduced the chances of this fighter’s selection in the competition.
Sea Gripen on INS Vikrant ( Photo Credits-Livefist)
5) Eurofighter Typhoon
It certainly was one of the most potent fighters in the competition, and was one of the 3 Euro-canards participating in the programme. It was a mean dogfighter using its high thrust to weight ratio to turn tides against any capable adversary. Reportedly, it had defeated the coveted F-22 close in even though it lacked the TVC which the former had. Its Pirate IRST, being the first of QWIP equipped IRSTs is said to have detected the F-22’s heat signature at quite a distance, rendering its stealth useless. Armed with a wide array of weapons it could also act as a bomb truck. This jet had its issues too, Captor AESA radar wasn’t ready for service, and the Tranche system adopted for addition of capabilities in a step wise manner meant that its A-G capabilities would not be in service for some time. The Typhoon programme had partners, and the components were produced by the partners, which meant a tedious procedure of signing deals with all of them and depending on many countries for keeping the aircraft active. EADS had originally offered India partnership in the programme if selected and an India specific version built for its airforce including TVC for its engines. They also offered the Sea Typhoon, which could have served onboard Indian and British carriers of the future. The British went for the F-35B and the proposal was dropped. This jet wasnt cheap and was one of the costliest in the competition.
Proposed Naval Typhoon with TVC in Indian navy camo ( Photo Credits-Livefist)
This jet was what the French got from Dassault after the manufacturer decided to walk out of the Typhoon programme. It was named as the omnirole fighter, designed to do a host of jobs, from a potent dogfighter to being a bomb truck. The French navy also wanted a carrier borne variant and hence Rafale-M was serving aboard the French carrier. Its RBE2 AESA would enter service at a later date, but it was ready for carrying out all of its roles. Its combat debut over Libya, strengthened its case in the MMRCA deal. This fighter was offered as a replacement for the Mirage 2000, with which India was genuinely impressed during the Kargil conflict and a long history of operating Dassault jets, right from the Ouragan, to Mystere, to the present day Mirage 2000, meant India had to deal with a manufacturer they had worked with for decades. This fighter however suffered from low TWR, which was rectified with a new version of its M88 engine. The carrier borne variant being ready, was also offered, with STOBAR qualifications if needed.
The fighters were competing for what was now being called as the Mother of all Deals, as it was supposed to cost India in excess of $12 Billion. India would sign the deal for 126 aircraft, off which 18 were to be produced by the manufacturer and delivered within 36 months of the deal being signed, whereas the balance were to be produced by HAL in India locally. There were options for another 63 jets, which if converted into firm orders would increase the number of jets to 189, roughly enough for 9 squadrons. Few aircraft would be eliminated after the trials, and the remaining ones will be shortlisted. The lowest bidder among them would be marked as L1 and selected for procurement. The trials would include hot weather trials in Rajasthan, Cold and high altitude trials in Leh and weapons trials over the Pokhran range, remaining trials would be conducted in Banglore. The L1 bidder would start negotiations with the Indian MoD for finalizing all aspects of the deal, before the deal was actually signed. It would be the second aspect of the deal, ie production in India which would essentially doom the deal by sending the negotiations into a deadlock. The deal would never get out of the deadlock and will be cancelled.
The winner of the competition was supposed to be selected after exhaustive trials, the information available about the trials and its results is very scarce, and very few aspects are known. This is logically correct as those aircraft are serving or will serve frontline airforces of many nations and it would have been bad to reveal the pros and cons of each of the aircraft. This could be used by potential adversaries to gain an upper hand, and hence most of the stuff remains classified. The trials were conducted in 2009 and we will discuss the tidbits we know in this section. First of all, it was reported that 4 out of the 6 contenders failed to complete the trials in Leh. The airforce base at Leh is at an altitude of over 10,000ft and the trials there were supposed to include landing, engine shut down, engine restart and take off from the base. Although 2 of the 6 fighters cleared the trials, only type off the 2 known is the Gripen D. While only the Super Hornet is the only type known to have failed during the engine start up. On the other hand, MiG-35D failed to achieve minimum parameters set for its AESA radar ie Zhuk-AE. It is also speculated that Rafale also failed the high altitudes trials due to its older variant of Snecma M88 engine, hence Indians found it under powered. It might have been selected as the new engine would enter service by the time Rafale would enter Indian service if selected. On the other hand F-16 Block 60 is said to be the other jet which did well in the trials at Leh, as it was designed for desert regions and the UAEAF pilots were impressed with its performance during regular operations by their airforce.
All in all, these fighters were tested on a total of 643 parameters by the Indian MoD, which claimed that there was no political constraints involved in the trials, nor were the trying to scuttle one jet for the another. Several sources claimed that the Typhoon was leading other jets in the trials on the basis of points scored. The tentative ranking of these jets after the trials are
The MiG-35 prototype used during the trials (Photo Credits – Max Bryansky)
On 27th of April 2011, it was announced that Typhoon and Rafale were shortlisted for the mother of all deals, whereas both the American bids, along with Gripen and MiG-35 were eliminated. After another year, ie on 31st of Jan 2012, Rafale was designated as the L1 bidder and was officially selected for negotiations with MoD for the final deal. Americans felt dejected, as both of their designs were the only ones to offer operational AESA radars instead of under development ones for the 3 Euro-canards and under trials for the Russian jet. India also reportedly didn’t consider the follow on F-35 sales with the F-16 bid, while the new engine under development for the F/A-18 Advanced Super Hornet was deemed not mature during the shortlisting process. MiG-35 was knocked out due to its poor performance, especially in avionics while it is said that Indians weren’t happy with the after sales services from Mikoyan. Gripen, 3rd in competition, was a good contender but selection of 2 meant that it was not shortlisted and the chance of sure shot L1 was taken away, as it was cheaper to fly than the other 2 Euro-canards. Some rumors also claimed that Rafale was also rejected due to bad TWR as I had stated before, but was bought back. Another aspect, was the no country had bought Rafale till date except France and Indian selection raised many eyebrows.
A pic released after the shortlisting of the 2 Euro-Canards (Photo Credits-Livefist)
The decision sure was a mess, but the bright side was, that Rafale was a capable jet fighter, with a naval variant in service and the tag of combat proven hung along side its several achievements. Its AESA would enter service soon, and CFTs could also be fitted to increase its range for strike or recce missions. The aircraft, capability wise was fully operational and up to the job offered to it. It was designed with an open architecture, allowing its operators to plug in avionics suite of its choice without major modifications, essentially allowing the plug and play ideology. This capability was proven when the French upgraded older variants of Rafale ie F1 and F2 to F3 without much fuss, also the AESA radar was designed to snap onto the mounts for older one, allowing easy swap.
Negotiations began soon after the final selection, at first everything was going smoothly. Indian Ministry of Defense cleared the purchase of 63 more jets, essentially confirming the 63 on option and taking the final number to 189 jets, worth around $18 Billion. Dassault on other end upped the ante by changing the variant to Rafale F3R which was better than the F3 standard initially offered, it had the following upgrades compared to the F3 variant.
- Adoption of Meteor and GBU-16,
- Thales Talios pod,
- Final integration of Hammer series of weapons,
- Expansion of Link 16 functionalities ,
- Improved Spectra defense suite,
- Adoption of IFF Mode 5 standard,
- Introduction of the Automatic Ground Collision Avoidance System (AGCAS),
- Refinements in Reco NG pod.
There were also negotiations for syncing Russian weapons like the Kh-31PD on the Rafale, as the jet allowed easy addition, Russia and France were ready to sync the weapon as and when manufacturing started. Everything seemed well on the surface, but the negotiations had taken the turn towards the deadlock when Dassault didn’t accept the responsibility clause, which stated that Dassault was responsible for 106+63 jets to be made in India. Logically it should have been HAL which was supposed to shoulder the responsibility, but it was given to Dassault. Thus Dassault partnered with Reliance, an Indian group of industries to make Rafale in India. This was a violation of the MMRCA deal which made HAL the primary partner in India. There were also problems regarding the transfer of technology associated with the jet fighter. These aspects, extended the negotiations indefinitely. Every few months, an assurance was given that the deal would be signed in the next few months, and when the month of signing came, it was further extended. With the delays, rose the cost, it was quoted to cost around $21 Billion. The once impressive deal was now becoming a piece of bad publicity for Indian procurement procedure. The deal was also becoming a white elephant, with costs looming well over the originally intended costs.
The Political Push
The Indian democracy held its general elections in 2014, which was a historic win for a political party, it formed the government under the domestically famous Narendra Modi, who took oath as the Prime Minister on May 26th, 2014. In came a new cabinet with the new prime minister, initially the portfolio of defense was handed over to finance minister, later, Manohar Parrikar was called in to take up the portfolio as full time defense minister. He worked hard to make up for what was being called as the lost decade, under his predecessor. He had studied the deal in depth and came to a honest conclusion that it wasn’t going to go through. He, after discussing with the PM, decided that a political move was needed to get the jets badly needed by the Indian air force. It was decided that the PM would request the French president for a deal of 36 Rafale jets to be procured under government to government route instead of the MMRCA deal. These jets would be procured off the shelf and produced on French production lines. Thus the MMRCA deal was bypassed and the deal for 36 Rafale jets was cleared by MoD and the French president. Negotiations would then begin for finalizing the cost of this new deal which would have no connection with the MMRCA deal. Negotiations were started for this new deal, and the French offered 25% reduction in costs, which was agreed upon by the Indians. The deal for these 36 jets was finally signed in September of 2016.
Indian prime minister Narendra Modi along side the French president Francois Hollande, during the former’s French visit.
The Indian Defense Minister had pronounced MMRCA dead in interviews conducted by the Indian media, he went on to comment that the procurement of such strategic assets should never have involved a tender but strict government to government procurement should have been done. He then gave a controversial statement, stating that “he saved the cost of 90 jets by buying only 36” , the most common explanation given is that India will be buying only 36 Rafale, instead of the planned 189. This however is not what I, the writer personally agree with, as the DM’s statement might have been morphed or cut short to show something else. I personally think, that by buying just the 36, he has saved the cost of the remaining from the present year’s budget, which will be used for other projects. The remaining jets would be procured under the present government’s flag ship “Make in India” policy, where Dassault would team up with an Indian partner to produce the jets in India. This would allow the Indian MoD to save the cost to be spent on the HAL production facility and only pay for the jets and armament as and when procured. It is being said that the remaining jets required by IAF would be produced in India just like the production of Su-30MKI, whose initial batch was 36 and now as per speculations more than 300 are on order, with a 200 strong fleet under operations.
One thing is for sure, Rafale which was long considered better than its EADS counterpart, won’t have just 1 export customer as Egypt and Qatar have also ordered the jet and Rafale went from no-show to back in business within 4 months. Interestingly with 84 jets in the order book and 12 jets on option for Qatar, the French are speeding up Rafale lines to deliver the jets. These deals would mean that Dassault would have a good future and would keep developing advanced fighter jets for the future.
I am going to write follow on article for additional information on the subject.
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