Given the spate of announcements regarding fresh procurements for a range of defence equipment by India's defence services, the long pending request for proposal (RFP) for the Indian Air Force's (IAF) 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) order has now come strongly into the spotlight. The IAF had projected its requirement for these aircraft as far back as 2001. Six years later, with scores of fighter aircraft crashes and pilot deaths behind it, the service is still waiting for the RFP to be issued.
The high drama attending the recently concluded Aero India 2007 show, at Air Force Station Yelahanka, Bangalore, has also served to bring the issue into the public domain. It was indeed a unique experience for this country to find all the big guns of the global arms market making their anxiety about bagging the IAF contract so obvious.
A discerning observer would have been amused by the incredible variety of arms and systems that were now available for India's asking. Nothing, it seemed, was taboo any more - for a 'pariah' nation that not so far back in time was struggling under sanctions imposed by these very same Western countries. Companies, and countries, tripped over themselves on a daily basis offering the very best of the goodies that they possibly could - AWACS, Patriot missiles, AEGIS, Eurofighter, AESA radar - nothing was sacrosanct anymore. All available, if only India should say yes.
Underpinning all the offers, however, was one overriding anxiety - the IAFs MRCA contract. The tender, possibly the most sought after in the global arms market today, is now set to become alive as the ministry of defence goes about preparing the RFP.
Soon after the air show concluded, a media report, quoting sources, said that the ministry of defence was hastening to put the finishing touches to offset clauses in the RFP and that the revised RFP would be ready by March 31 this year, as promised by the defence minister. The revised RFP would be expected to emphasise lifecycle costs, air refueling capability as well as the aircraft's long-range characteristics.
The contract itself is expected to be worth at least $11 billion over its lifetime.
A steady depletion …
The IAF's demand for new fighters, to replace gradually eroding force levels, is not only one of long standing - a matter that would have merited concern in its own right - but the fact that the force has lost a large number of fighter pilots over the years has also added an urgency as well as an emotive tinge to the issue.
The MRCA also acquired an added edge with the US Government decision to sell 36 new F-16C/Ds to Pakistan. This fresh batch will add to the 40 F-16s originally supplied to Pakistan - 32 of which are still flying. For the first time, these new F-16s will also be equipped with beyond-visual-range (BVR) missiles.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) has already phased out about half a dozen of its MiG series of combat squadrons in the past couple of years - the latest phase out being one of an MiG-23MF squadron in the second week of March this year. Consequently, the present strength of the IAF fighter squadrons is now down to about 30, down from 39, which was declared as a minimum requirement a couple of years ago by the then chief of air staff. A much smaller country, Pakistan, fields about 18 fighter squadrons, or about two thirds of what India has. Given China's vastly expanded, and upgraded, capabilities on the other side of our frontiers, this is a tricky situation for the air force.
According to some estimates, the current ratio for fighter aircraft vis-à-vis Pakistan favours India by 1:2.17. If the Indian Air Force's aged MiG fleet is discounted, the ratio comes down to 1:1.79. The crunch lies in the fact that the induction of 40 new F-16s by Pakistan will further reduce the ratio to 1:1.15. If you factor in China, which fields similar Su-30s (the MKK version) as the IAF, you can guess the predicament that the IAF finds itself in.
…but also an accretion
"While there is a lag in the procurements vis-à-vis the phasing out, it is not alarming," says air chief marshal SP Tyagi. "The proposed compression of the delivery schedule of HAL-built Su-30MKI aircraft will help check the depletion. We also plan to procure additional squadrons of fighter aircraft. We are upgrading our older fleets to effectively utilise them over their remaining service life."
The IAF has received Government sanction for an additional 40 Su-30MKI aircraft, over and above the numbers originally ordered for these aircraft, last year. Though no dates have been announced for their arrival it would appear that they would be put on a fast track delivery mode.
Delivery of the HAL assembled MKI versions will also be speeded up, with some reports suggesting that the numbers produced would be increased from eight per annum to 12. The number of MiG-21 BiS squadrons (upgraded versions) will be increased, while deliveries of the upgraded Darin II Jaguar ground attack jets by HAL have begun.
Induction of force multipliers like laser-guided and other precision guided munitions, standoff weapons, better radars and longer-range unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has also been speeded up.
The IAF is already operating six Il-78 Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRAs), which extend the range and staying power of the SU-30MKIs, Mirage 2000s, Jaguars and MiG-29s. The pending induction of three Israeli Phalcon AWACs, mounted on Uzbek supplied IL-76 aircraft, starting later this year, are the other force multipliers.
Critically, as far as the MiG-21 'Flying Coffin' controversy goes, the IAF would appear to have licked the problem. It reported no MiG-21 crashes for 2006 and now boasts of the lowest accident rates, at par with the best maintained air forces in the world.
In the running
A request for information (RFI) was sent out for four jets in 2004 - the Lockheed Martin's F-16, the MiG-29OVT, the Dassault Mirage 2000-5 and the SAAB JAS-39 Gripen. The list subsequently expanded and now includes Boeing's F/A-18 Hornet and the four-nation Eurofighter Typhoon. Dassault's Rafale is a likely contender in place of the Mirage 2000-5, while the MiG-29 OVT has been replaced by the re-designated MiG-35.
The Europeans and the Russians have a presence of long standing in the country. If the Russians are banking on their long-standing relationship with the Indian armed forces, and the manifest capabilities of the MiG-35, to help them land the MRCA contract, then their long standing rivals, the US companies, are pinning their hopes on a freshly developed coziness in the relationship between the two countries to see them through. The US administration and companies have made their intentions to enter the strategically and commercially important Indian market very clear.
So, the face off for the MRCA contract is now between West European, Russian and the US companies - and by extension, the nations backing them. Converting, what at best had always been a two-pony race between European and Russian manufacturers, into a three way face off, with US companies now stepping in as the spoilers, could also be considered as a singular achievement for the Indian defence planners.
If arms deals provide technologically advanced nations the wherewithal to arm-twist client nations in times of crisis, the forthcoming Indian contract is making them sweat. Contracts as big as the IAF tender not only spell big money for companies but also translate into a lot of jobs for national economies and so it is not surprising that nations are throwing their weight behind 'national' companies. The arm-twisting can happen now - by India.
By the time they sign on the dotted line, it is likely that these countries, and companies, would have given away enough to preempt any arm-twisting in the future. This would, of course, depend on the integrity and commitment of our defence planners. So far, as the game is playing itself out, the signs are good - but then, as they say, there is always many a slip between the lip and the cup.
If the MRCA order should be issued now the new planes are expected to arrive only by 2010. A order starved MiG RAC, however, promises a shorter delivery schedule, for there are no backlogs for it to clear - it has no orders other than the 18 odd MiG-29K for the Indian Navy. It also says that the MiG-35 is ready for series production.
The cost estimates range from $6-11 billion (Rs265-485 billion) over the life of the contract.
More than the money, it may be the strategic value of the contract - with India emerging as a likely super power - that competing nations may actually be hankering after.