India’s MMRCA Fighter Competition
06-Aug-2008 12:35 EDT
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IAF: Jaguar, Mirage 2000
SU-30K, MiG-27, MiG-21BiS
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“It’s the biggest fighter aircraft deal since the early 1990s,” said Boeing’s Mark Kronenberg
, who runs the company’s Asia/Pacific business. DID has offered ongoing coverage of India’s planned multi-billion dollar jet fighter buy
, from its early days as a contest between Dassault, Saab, and MiG for a 126 plane order to the entry of American competitors and even EADS’ Eurofighter. What began as a lightweight fighter competition to replace India’s shrinking MiG-21 interceptor fleet appears to have bifurcated into two categories now, and two expense tiers.
That trend got a sharp boost in March 2006, when Press Trust of India (PTI) reported a surprise pullout by the CEO of Dassault on the eve of the RFP. The Mirage 2000v5 will no longer be fielded for the India deal, even though India already flies 40 Mirage 2000Ds, and its senior officials have touted standardization as a plus factor
. So, what’s going on?
In a word, lots. The participants changed, India’s view of its own needs is changing, and the nature of the order may be changing as well – but with the release of the official $10 billion RFP, the competition can begin at last. DID offers an in-depth look at the MRCA/MMRCA competition’s changes, the RFP, and the competitors; and also offers an updated timeline regarding competitive moves since this article was published in March 2006.
The RFP responses were submitted in April 2008. So far, 3 of the 6 invited bidders have submitted their correspondng industrial offset proposals, which are coming due…
India’s MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft): Changes
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The original intent of India’s fighter purchase was to replace hundreds of non-upgraded MiG-21s that India will be forced to retire, with a complementary force of 126 aircraft that would fit between India’s high end Su-30MKIs and its low-end Tejas LCA lightweight fighter. While plans to develop a “fifth generation fighter” in conjunction with Russia
have received a lot of press, they are uncertain at best, address a different requirement, and offer no solution to the immediate problem of shrinking squadron numbers as existing aircraft are forced into retirement.
India is a large country, with coverage needs over a wide area (see map of airbases in “Order of Battle”
) and on several fronts. One of which is Pakistan, whose JF-17 joint fighter program with China
has India’s attention. The IAF currently has 30-32 squadrons worth of serviceable aircraft, depending on which report one reads. This is well below their target of 39 1/2. About 21 squadrons currently fly MiG-21s of one vintage or another, and overalll squadron strength is projected to plunge to 27 during the 2012-2017 period.
Lightweight multi-role fighters that could make up for declining aircraft numbers with broader and better capabilities would appear to fit that need, and India’s initial shortlist followed that template. The Mirage 2000
were already in service with India in this role, and the JAS-39 Gripen
offered a 4th generation aircraft whose costs and profile place it firmly in the lightweight fighter category. These aircraft served as a hedge against the potential failure of the Tejas lightweight Combat Aircraft
project, and also offered a more immediate solution to plussing up numbers as existing MiG-21s and MiG-23s/MiG-27s were forced into retirement.
Since those early days, sharply improved relations with the USA have introduced a pair of American planes into the competition, and India’s view of its own needs is changing. Official sources told Jane’s in February 2006
that RFPs would be issued to France’s Dassault (Mirage 2000-5 and Rafale
), BAE/Saab (JAS-39 Gripen
), EADS/BAE (Eurofighter Typhoon
), The American firms Lockheed (F-16
Block 70) and Boeing (F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet
), and Russia’s Rosonboronexport (MiG-29OVT
with thrust vectoring, aka. MiG-35). That proved to be the case.
India’s requirements are also changing. For instance, both Jane’s Defence Weekly
and Defense Industry Daily
have covered India’s wish to ‘significantly’ augment their strike capability and range to deal with out-of-area contingencies. This has delayed the MRCA RFP. Another contributor to these delays has been the need to refine and clarify the new industrial offset rules
introduced in 2005, amidst lobbying by American defense firms
MMRCA: The RFP, Please…
IAF MiG-29, top view
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India’s defense procurement process is definitely a game for the patient, and this was no exception. The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) RFP caps a process that began in 2001, when the IAF sent out its request for information (RFI) for 126 jets. After delays lasting almost 2 years beyond the planned December 2005 issue date, India’s Ministry of Defence finally announced a formal Request for Proposal on Aug 28/07.
The RFP announcement estimated the program at 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), at a cost of Rs. 42,000 crores (about $10.24 billion as of the RFP date, or about $81.3 million per fighter). The 211-page document includes clauses for initial purchase, transfer of technology, licensed production, and life-time maintenance support for the aircraft. Under the terms of purchase, the first 18 aircraft will come in a ‘fly away’ condition, while the remaining 108 will be manufactured under Transfer of Technology. Some reports add an option for an additional 64 aircraft on the same terms, bringing the total to 190 aircraft; DID is attempting to confirm this.
The vendors now have 6 months to submit their proposals. Selection will involve an exhaustive evaluation process as detailed in the Defence Procurement Procedures (DPP) 2006. First, submitted proposals will be technically evaluated by a professional team to check for compliance with IAF’s operational requirements and other RFP conditions. Extensive field trials would be carried out to evaluate the performance. Finally, the commercial proposal of the vendors, short-listed after technical and field evaluations, would be examined and compared. The defence ministry’s Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) would then hold discussions with the vendors before identifying the manufacturer whose bid is the best, and submit its report to the defence minister, who would forward it to the finance minister. After the file returns to the defence ministry, it goes for final approval to the cabinet committee on security (CCS).
The entire selection process is likely to take at least 2 1/2 years, followed by lengthy price negotiations, and probably including delays along the way. Most observers believe that delivery of any aircraft before 2013 is unlikely.
The vendor who finally wins the competition would also be required to undertake 50% offset obligations in India, a boost from the usual 30% under India’s recently revised procurement rules for purchases over $70 million. India is looking for a large boost to its aerospace and defense electronics industries from this effort, and the RFP release adds that “Foreign vendors would be provided great flexibility in effecting tie up with Indian partners for this purpose.” It also says that:
“The aircraft are likely to be in service for over 40 years. Great care has been taken to ensure that only determinable factors, which do not lend themselves to any subjectivity, are included in the commercial selection model. The selection would be transparent and fair….
It may be recalled that the Defence Minister Shri A K Antony while chairing the Defence Acquisition Council Meeting on June 29, 2007 had outlined three guiding principles for this procurement scheme.
First, the operational requirements of IAF should be fully met. Second, the selection process should be competitive, fair and transparent, so that best value for money is realized. Lastly, Indian defence industries should get an opportunity to grow to global scales.”
These days, even American competitions are increasingly finding themselves beset by quasi-legal challenges of evaluation methods, and even of their chosen criteria. Witness the hold-ups created for the CSAR-X helicopter competition, Joint Cargo Aircraft, ITES-2 I.T. contract, et. al. Indian competitions have featured these sorts of post-contract obstacles even more consistently, with the addition of bureaucratic delays and corruption charges thrown into the mix. Time will tell if the objectives of the MoD’s RFP are met, or if a process of waiting almost 6 years for an RFP, and then years more for a winner, is only the beginning of the process.
Even as India’s existing fighter fleet continues to wear out, and China and Pakistan’s fleets continue to grow.
The Competitors: Analysis
F-16F “Desert Falcon”
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Recent changes in India’s needs and the contest participants are changing the relative rankings of the contenders. Geopolitical considerations are also intruding, as most of these choices have the potential to improve relations with an important potential ally. As noted above, standardization arguments will also carry weight. India’s Air Force currently operates 26 different types
of aircraft, and India is not eager to add to its support headaches.
Rather than predict, DID will simply summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the listed competitors. These aircraft also group into two very different categories: single engine lightweight fighters in the $25-40 million flyaway range (F-16 Falcon, JAS-39 Gripen, MiG-35, Mirage 2000-5); and larger dual-engine mid-range fighters in the $55-70 million flyaway range (Eurofighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Rafale).
F-16 Fighting Falcon (Lockheed, USA)
. Presumably, Lockheed’s “Block 70” offering would be an upgraded version of the F-16E Block 60 “Desert Falcon”
currently serving with the UAE. Strengths include the widest multi-role capability among lightweight fighters; its AN/APG-80 AESA radar
; the addition of integrated IRST capability
; the widest choice of proven avionics and weapon systems; a long record of proven service so all issues are known; and widespread compatibility with potential allies in Asia and the Middle East who also fly F-16s. The combination of an AESA radar on a less expensive platform is also good news for cruise missile defense efforts, if that’s considered a priority.
Even so, the Indian Air Force has never seemed very interested in the F-16. Weaknesses include the fact that Pakistan also flies F-16s; the fact it’s a new aircraft type so the entire support infrastructure would have to be developed; and the difficulty Lockheed would have complying with industrial offset provisions given their lack of penetration in India. The MMRCA RFP’s delays may have helped Lockheed Martin by allowing them ample time to find arrangements with Indian firms, and there are reports that the USA is pushing this option because of the reassurance factor. While an F-16 E/F Block 60+ would have a number of important advantages over Pakistan F-16 A/Bs and even its new Block 50/52 aircraft, the common underlying aircraft type would probably take some of the edge off of the deal from Pakistan’s point of view.
JAS-39s in South Africa
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JAS-39 Gripen (Saab, Sweden; marketed by Britain’s BAE)
. The Gripen is a true 4th+ generation lightweight fighter and significantly more capable than category competitors like the F-16 and Mirage 2000, though the MiG-35 may give it a run for the money. Other strengths include a wide choice of integrated weapons and pods; reasonable purchase cost; the fact that it has also been designed for exceptional cost of ownership; and the ability operate from roads instead of runways if necessary.
The JAS-39’s drawbacks include its short range; the fact it’s a new aircraft type for the IAF; and a low volume of international orders to date
that raises questions about the platform’s ability to modernize over the next 30-40 years.
As an interesting side note, the JAS-39 A-D models’ use of a modified GE F404 engine indicates that it could be modifiable to use India’s Kaveri engine
. After all, the Tejas LCA will also use F404 engines until Kaveri is ready as a substitute, if indeed it ever is. The next-generation Gripen Demo model Saab is now offering prospective customers uses the GE F414G engine as its base, however, and is likely to need a higher level of engine performance than the existing Kaveri project can deliver. Gripen Demo also begins to address the aircraft’s range limitations, and would include an AESA radar among its other enhancements.
With respect to industrial offsets, Saab usually handles industrial offsets via its automotive group, which could represent either a difficulty or a market opportunity for the company. The Gripen’s acceptance carries no spin-off geopolitical benefits, however, and that last weakness may prove to be the plane’s most critical hindrance in this competition.
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, aka. MiG-35
(Rosonboronexport, Russia). This modified MiG-29 includes improved radar and avionics that give it multi-role capability, extra fuel in a new aircraft “spine,” and thrust-vectoring engines a la India’s SU-30MKIs. Strengths include compatibility with the existing and future MiG-29 fleet
, and its ability to carry advanced Russian missiles already in service like the revolutionary AA-11/R-73 Archer
and longer range AA-12/R-77 “AMRAAMski.”
The presence of MiG-29 infrastructure and a new plant for license-building RD-33 Series III engines in India also makes compliance with industrial offset requirements easier.
The MiG-29’s biggest weaknesses were short range, engines that produce telltale smoke (very bad in air combat) and lack of true multi-role capability; the MiG-35 largely fixes these issues, and may even add an AESA radar of its own if Phazotron-NIIR can have its new Zhuk-MAE ready in time. Technology sharing and co-production are also considered to be strengths; as one Indian officer put it
: “Russians have their problems of delayed projects and unreliable spare supply but they give access to everything, unlike the Americans.” He’s referring to the IAF’s not-so-great experience with India’s existing MiG-29s, which have had maintenance problems in addition to their other deficits.
Remaining weaknesses in the MiG-35 bid include difficulties India is having with Russian firms over the refit of its new carrier, and over its orders for SU-30MKIs. There is also legitimate speculation about the future viability of the MiG-29 family platform, which has been eclipsed in many ways by the SU-30. Although Algeria’s $1.8 billion order
has helped, some industry observers have forecast that without a win in India, the platform may have a difficult future ahead of it.
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Mirage 2000-5 (Dassault)
. Withdrawn. Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia points out that the history of global fighter purchases shows strong clustering at the lower-price end
of the market; shutting down Mirage 2000 production would shut Dassault out of that niche. A Mirage 2000 entry would have had strengths that included compatibility with Mirage 2000s already in service, which performed very well in the 1999 Kargil skirmishes. An infrastructure already exists for industrial offsets, and its low end price could be raised along with its capabilities by adding equipment developed in the Rafale program.
The Mirage 2000’s potential performance similarity to the Tejas LCA project was both its weakness and its strength. One the one hand, that would have made it a good insurance policy if confidence in the Tejas fell. On the other hand, it may not have been seen as adding enough to the force mix if confidence in the Tejas program is high.
Tejas LCA (HAL et. al., India)
. A lightweight, indigenously-developed fighter aircraft expected to enter service around 2010. Currently in testing using GE’s F404 engine, while the accompanying Kaveri jet engine project
remains in the R&D stage and has been forced to find foreign design help. The Tejas is not an MRCA competitor – but its development plans, the confidence in its success, its ability to stay under $25 million, the potential for a naval variant, et. al. will have a behind-the-curtains influence on every MRCA decision. See DID’s in-depth coverage of the Tejas LCA program