The Indian Air Force has cut its new fighter aircraft procurement programme by half

IAF’s mega $20 billion Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) project is under the debate again. On the criticality of depleting number of squadrons and against the lurking threats from the Northern and Western adversaries, the MRFA is under consideration to be placed on fast track under the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’, proposing a shift from strategic partnership model. While as a matter of fact, the number of combat aircraft which is originally marked for the acquisition remains—114. As assessed, there is no plan to reduce the number of aircraft under MRFA.

IAF’s mega $20 billion Multi Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) project is under debate again. Against the fast-depleting squadron of Indian Air Force, the MRFA program which is about acquiring 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft is one such program Indian Armed Forces and Government attach utmost importance to. On the criticality of such serious concern and against the lurking threats from the Northern and Western adversaries, the MRFA is under consideration to be placed on fast track under the ‘Buy Global, Make in India’, proposing a shift from strategic partnership model.  Assessed upon the fact, the number of combat aircraft which was originally marked for the acquisition remains—114. The assessment is based on factual analysis with highly placed experts on the matter. The talk of cutting down the number of aircraft is not a viable option in the emerging scenario where the Indian Air Force has already projected 500 combat jets in near future to be able to maintain  critical air power.

Last year, Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari added the element of ‘make in India’ to the project MRFA emphatically and announced that the ambitious procurement must embrace indigenisation. The competition is intense with world leading OEMs are in fray for the MRFA, including Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F, Dassault’s Rafale, Saab’s Gripen JAS-39 E/F, Russian MiG-35 and SU-35, and the European consortium led Eurofighter Typhoon. Along with them, Boeing is also mulling to offer its upgraded F-15EX which was approved by the US government for India. Beyond the intense competition the quest for 114 fighter jets has seen the tumultuous and torturous journey, calling it a never-ending saga of high ambitions on low trajectory. The quest has been about laying ground for aerospace ecosystems of advanced capabilities within the country which has seen some success in taking LCA Tejas off the ground over the many decades of trials and tribulations. MRFA is based on the idea of expanding such ground, assimilating advanced technologies from the world of aerospace and defence which could be designed and built in India.

The IAF first floated the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender to procure 126 new combat jets from foreign OEMs in 2007. It was proposed to continue building upon the capabilities and keeping the sanctioned strength of combat jets as the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, a planned indigenous replacement for the IAF’s aging fleet, needed more time to be able to fill the gaps.  In 2012, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale emerged as final contenders with Rafale winning the competition for the contract but the program couldn’t take off due to certain clauses over the contractual guarantee and other disagreement with the selected OEM. Finally, in 2015, the project MMRCA was cancelled. Under the circumstances as severe for IAF to maintain the operational capabilities, the Government instead decided to acquire 36 Rafales in fly-by condition from the French entity Dassault’s. This was formalised under the government-to-government deal which is to make procurement much faster and deployable.

In 2018, the government put out a new plan which is rechristened as ‘MMRCA 2.0’, by floating a Request for Information (RFI) for the procurement of 114 MRFA.

Air power and Capability gaps

A look at the geopolitics and global conflicts gives the clear indication that aerial dimension of warfare has established unprecedented superiority. The next generation technological breakthroughs in aerial warfare are already unfolding in sheer magnitude and in the shape of unmanned systems, hypersonic combat aircraft and laser energy weapons. It is almost redefining the concept of modern warfare in air and in space. How does IAF embrace such a shift in terms of evolving threats and capability?

The IAF has currently planned for 83 LCA, 70 HTT-40, two Sqns of AMCA Mk-I and five Sqns of AMCA MK-II. Additionally, the order for LCH and other developments in the helicopter fleet will provide for 400/450 aircraft. In the long term IAF will have the LCA version AMCA and MRFA in its flight line along with 56 C-295 for tactical airlift. Nowhere in the world is such a commitment of 450 aircraft made. This depicts IAF’s plan for capability building.

Last year, in an exclusive interaction with the author, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari spelt out his thoughts on building and acquiring such capabilities, said: “In the long term IAF will have LCA version AMCA and MRFA in its flight line along with 56 C-295 for tactical airlift. Nowhere in the world is such a commitment of 450 aircraft made. This depicts IAF’s plan for capability building.”

But dichotomy remains on bridging the capability gaps in building an advanced aerospace base for such next generation combat jets against the faster acquisition of such airassets amid depleting squadron numbers. How do we address the factors like joint production and tech development with OEMs in India?  So, in depleting squadron number or technology is priority or balance timeline?

But the question is largely not about the policy uptick and the shift of the ‘Strategic Partnership (SP)’ model to ‘Buy Global, Make in India’ category under Defence Acquisition Procedure (DAP) 2020. It is about laying ground for a capability building roadmap and that is about leveraging the project MRFA for substantial technological gains and building systems and subsystems of global standards. India’s aerospace ecosystem is ticking for tech flows across the dimensions for next generation combat jets. It is also about taking a good leap in our manufacturing technology which we have learned over the years for LCA Tejas. Besides the number of aircraft, the focus for IAF remains on the need for next generation tech ready for the future conflicts. The advancement across the spectrum of aerospace is breaking boundaries in areas like stealth, speed, electronic and sensor suite and networked platforms on quantum combat cloud, teaming with unmanned aerial systems with greater firepower. Besides the security dimension, the MRFA project worth $20 billion makes a compelling case for India in terms of the economy of scale when we have the ability to design, develop and produce 5 to 6 generation fighter jets.

At present, Tejas Mk1 FOC version aircrafts are under delivery by HAL. The production of LCA Mk 1A is likely to commence by 2023-2024. The LCA Mk-1A will have better capabilities with indigenous technologies such as AESA Radar, Integrated Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite, Long Range Beyond Visual Range (BVR) missile, Air to Air Refuelling with better maintainability and avionics suite.

Another breakthrough project, AMCA program by Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) and IAF was conducted in Aug 2020, while the Critical Design Review is being looked into. DRDO) along with active support of IAF, is working towards development of Next Generation Technology Demonstrator. Such complex projects need the greater flow and collaboration with the global innovators from the world of aerospace and defence manufacturing.

As IAF Chief VR Chaudhari again pointed out to the author during the interaction last year, remarked: “IAF envisages AMCA to encompass state of the art design and better multi role capability with infusion of 6th Gen technologies. The experience of producing LCA will influence the design of AMCA to suit operational requirements of the future.”

But the most important aspect of MRFA is the possibilities for acquiring and developing elusive jet engine technology. The depth of negotiation lies in addressing such gaps whether under the ‘SP’ model or Buy Global, Make in India. In totality, the need is to address the suitable jet engine for projected 500 fighter aircraft for India’s next generation Advance Medium Combat Aircraft & Tejas Mk-2. What is lacking for India is the elusive jet engine capability. While the DRDO project on military gas turbines has achieved certain Technology Readiness Level (TRL) in producing crucial propulsion systems for unmanned aerial vehicles & weapon platforms along with long range weapon delivery systems, jet engines remain a complex task. As G. Satheesh Reddy, Secretary DDR&D & Chairman explained: “As you are aware, these engines are denied by global OEMs for strategic applications.”  The international outreach in this case will enable India to jointly develop under the open architecture matrix, having full access and rights of the aeroengine.

It is worth noting that China is already upgrading upon J-20 and J-31 aircrafts and working on the new fighter jets with sixth generation capabilities in areas across stealth capability with hypersonic weapons.  China is taking the lead on the aerial dimension of Laser and precision warfare capabilities based on AI.

Clarity is the key to make substantial progress on crucial projects like MRFA. Policy conundrum that blocks the time frame defeats the purpose. The proposed 114 MRFA needs to pass through such trails to build an advanced aerospace industrial base and IAF to cement its formidable position in aerial warfare.

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