The Indian Air Force (IAF) is cutting down its largest fighter jet procurement program by half and has indicated the likelihood of a change in the procurement model to one which is more acceptable to foreign suppliers for compliance to Make in India requirements in view of the reduced numbers.
It is learnt from highly placed sources that the estimated $20 Billion Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) procurement program for 114 foreign jets is being shrunk to acquisition of 57 jets through a global competition.
The original proposal to make these jets in India under the ambitious Strategic Partnership (SP) Model is set to be dumped and the shrunken program is likely to be rebooted under the Buy Global (Make in India) category of the Defence Acquisition Procedure 2020, sources elaborated. All the 57 fighters will be made in India with transfer of technology from the foreign OEM to an Indian company.
The cutback is mainly on account of the Government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) policy directive to minimize Defence imports and build up a domestic Defence Industrial complex instead to meet military requirements. A renewed drive is afoot to commit most of the capital budget for Defence modernization to domestic sources. Even the Indian Navy requirement for imported deck-borne fighters was reduced from 57 to 26. The cutback on the MRFA and the Navy fighters is both an opportunity and challenge for domestic industry to make up the numbers.
The timeline for issuance of a global tender for acquisition of 57 jets is end-2022, it is learnt. The IAF had approached the global market with an RFI for 114 fighters in 2018. Responses were received by Air Headquarters on behalf of Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s F-15EX and F/A-18 Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, SAAB’s Gripen, the European consortium’s Eurofighter, Sukhois S-35 and MiG’s MiG-35.
India’s record at procurement of a foreign fighter through global competition is tortuous. The MRFA’s predecessor, the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program for 126 fighters, was aborted after a decade-long procurement process threw up Dassault’s Rafale as the winner but failed to secure a contractual agreement. In 2016, India went in for a direct purchase of 36 Rafale fighters as an emergency procurement in a Government-to-Government deal with France.
A foreign fighter is critical to the IAF’s plan to peg its numbers to about 35 squadrons over the next 15 years. A proven foreign combat jet is also meant to ensure interim reliability and assurance till the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft variants and the futuristic Fifth Generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) mature and stabilize. The authorized fighter strength for the IAF is 42 squadrons, which IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari acknowledged will not be realized in the foreseeable future.
The IAF’s anxiety to ensure minimum force levels is also on account of the impending retirement of its legacy jets comprising the Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and the Jaguars fleets over the next decade. The residual squadrons of the MiG-21 will also be out by 2024.
Two new Rafale squadrons are operational. Delivery of 83 TEJAS MK-1A fighters will commence in 2024. The TEJAS M2-2 and AMCA are expected in a decade in a best-case scenario. The MRFA was envisaged to mitigate the gap of fighter squadrons and combat capability. But the IAF, which was hoping for six fall back MRFA squadrons, will now have to work around three.
Industry sources expressed the view that reduced numbers in a global tender make it more difficult to meet stringent Make in India and transfer of technology requirements profitably. “A cutback in numbers by half makes it more challenging to execute a complex tender like this one. Numbers provide viability, cost-effectiveness and affordability,” an observer reasoned.
The other big concern is that the SP model – a key reform to kickstart the emergence of a private sector Defence Industrial complex by reserving one big procurement per category as a one-time measure – has failed to take off. The Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH) program – the first under the SP Model – has been dumped. There’s little progress in the Project 75 (I) submarine program, and now the re-categorisation of the MRFA is a body blow. This initiative is likely to head back to the drawing board, insiders reckon.
The recategorization of the MRFA means that the tender would be awarded to a foreign OEM, which would deliver the Make in India element through an Indian partner of its choice. Under the SP Model, an Indian company would have been the prime, with the option to choose a technical collaborator from among a pool of foreign OEMs shortlisted by the Ministry of Defence.