The Indian Air Force (IAF) on Friday initiated the procurement of 110 fighter aircraft for its depleted combat force — now languishing at 31 fighter squadrons against a desired strength of 42. When in service, these fighters will fill six squadrons.
The order would be worth between $9-13 billion (Rs 584-844 billion) making it the world’s biggest international fighter buy. Single engine fighters would cost about $80-85 million each, while twin engine fighters would cost closer to $120 million apiece.
A request for information (RFI) posted on the IAF website called for proposals for supplying 110 fighters, of which 75 per cent (82-83 fighters) would be single-seat variants, while the remaining 27-28 would be twin-seat variants.
The RFI requires no more than 15 per cent of the order — or 16-17 fighters — to be supplied in “flyaway” or fully-built stage. The remaining 93-94 aircraft must be built in India by a “strategic partner/Indian production agency (SP/IPA)”.
Vendors have three months to respond to the RFI. That will be followed by a process — which in the past lasted several years — of issuing a formal tender, carrying out technical and flying trials, evaluating costs, reaching a discussion and then negotiating final costs with the winning vendor. Delivery of the 16-17 fighters in flyaway state is to commence 36 months from the contract date, and be completed within 60 months of the contract. Delivery of the fighters built in India must commence 5 years from the contract and be completed no later than 12 years from the signing date.
In an expansive definition of capabilities, the IAF said: “The aircraft are intended as day and night capable, all weather multi-role combat aircraft.” They must be capable of beating enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, striking ground targets, reconnaissance, electronic warfare and air-to-air refuelling. The fighters must be capable of destroying targets far out to sea.
The current RFI supersedes an earlier inquiry the IAF issued in October 2016 for buying and building 100-200 single-engine fighters. The single-engine stipulation had effectively reduced the acquisition to a two-way contest between Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Block 70 and Swedish company, Saab’s, Gripen E.
Now, with twin-engine fighters eligible, several other vendors can participate.
This IAF procurement could crystallise on lines similar to the ultimately unsuccessful attempt — initiated in 2007 and abandoned in 2015 — to procure 126 so-called “medium, multi-role combat aircraft” (MMRCA) for some Rs 420 billion.
Besides, earlier versions of the single-engine F-16 and Gripen E, the MMRCA contest also drew in four twin-engine fighters — Dassault’s Rafale; the Eurofighter Typhoon; Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; and the Russian MiG-35.
“No major new fighters have emerged in the last decade, other than the American F-35 Lightning II, which is unlikely to be on offer. That means, we will broadly see a repeat of the MMRCA contest,” an executive with a major global aerospace firm said.
However, Air Marshal Nirdosh Tyagi, who played a central role in the MMRCA process, differs. “Global vendors are now aware of the stringency of Indian weapons procurement. In the MMRCA tender, vendors promised capabilities that were still under development, not realising that would result in their rejection. This time, vendors are likely to be far more careful,” Tyagi said.
Furthermore, a decade ago, several vendors were still developing the “airborne electronically scanned array” (AESA) radars, which was a key capability the IAF wanted. This time, several vendors have AESA radars integrated onto their fighters.
Another difference from the 2007 MMRCA tender is that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) was to be transferred technology for building most of the fighters in India. In the current tender, private sector companies have been encouraged to build the fighters.
The RFI emphasises the need for significant transfer of technology (ToT) to build the fighters in India. It requires the vendor to “specify scope, depth and range of ToT and key technologies which would be shared with its SP/IPA in India”.
The vendor, along with the Indian SP/IPA, is required to propose a “performance-based logistics” (PBL) package to ensure that 75 per cent of the fighter fleet remains serviceable at all times, with each fighter flying 150 hours every year, for 10 years.
Vendors are also required to indicate approximate costing of the aircraft — all associated costs, a “comprehensive maintenance cost” including PBL costs for 10 years and cost of obsolescence management — to ensure spares and components remain available through the service life of the fighter.
In a stipulation that will not go down well with vendors, they must acquiesce to field evaluation trials on a “no-cost, no-commitment” basis, i.e. at their own cost. Vendors still complain about spending $40-50 million on the MMRCA trials, which ended without the IAF buying a single aircraft.
Instead, all that materialised was the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in a government-to-government arrangement with France, announced by Prime Minister Narendra Modi in Paris on April 10, 2015. In June 2016, the IAF signed in a €7.8 billion contract with Dassault that requires Rafale deliveries to commence in June 2019.
Alongside the current RFI, the navy is pursuing another inquiry, issued on January 25, 2017, for approximately 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters for the three aircraft carriers it will eventually operate. That RFI, too, is silent on whether the navy wants a single-engine or a twin-engine fighter. However, the capabilities demanded biases the selection in favour of a medium-to-heavy, twin-engine fighter.