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India’s $20B ‘Mother Of All Defense Deals’ For 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft Get Entangled In Red Tape?



It is a windfall of defense acquisition proposals for the Indian Armed Forces as the country’s Defense Acquisition Council (DAC) gave its nod for military hardware purchases worth 2.23 trillion rupees (US $26.76 billion). But what was missing from the acceptance of necessity (AoN) for big-ticket purchases like fighter jets and helicopters is the AoN for 114 Medium Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA).

The IAF, grappling with dwindling fighter squadrons and an aging fleet, has been making a case for the MRFA, seen as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal re-incarnated. Despite the IAF pushing hard for it, the Indian government, emphasizing “Made in India,” has not budged about purchasing 114 fighter jets from foreign manufacturers at an estimated US$20 billion.

Showing its commitment to the “Make in India,” the IAF has agreed to 97 additional indigenous Light Combat Aircraft Mk1 from the Indian aerospace maker Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), the AoN for which was granted by the DAC-led by Defense Minister Rajnath Singh on November 30. The government’s nod has also come to purchase 156 home-built Light Combat Helicopters (LCH) ‘Prachanda.’

The IAF is already operating two squadrons of the Tejas Mk1 jets, comprising 20 each of Initial and Final Operational Clearance variants. After approval from the Modi-headed Cabinet Committee on Security, the US$6 billion order for 83 LCA Mk1A variants was placed with HAL in February 2021.

The first lot of the LCA Mk1A jets is slated for delivery to IAF in early 2024, following which these would be inducted into the functional squadron. The HAL has agreed to scale its production lines to deliver 24 LCAs annually.

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The former Vice Chief of IAF Air Marshal Anil Khosla told the EurAsian Times that while the indigenous Tejas are good to make, “there is a requirement for new-generation multi-role aircraft to maintain a balanced force (till the domestic Tejas Mk II and Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft is ready).”

“MRFA aircraft need to be procured (maybe in the next installment of defense spending). These should be procured in phases (maybe two to three squadrons at a time. This would spread the expenditure over some time, and we would get later and better technology and features,” Khosla added.

Tejas
India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi in a Tejas LCA Mk1A jet cockpit. (Twitter)

During his annual press conference, IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari told the Indian media that the force plans to induct six squadrons of MRFA in a phased manner. The program would be progressed under the ‘Make in India’ initiative of DAP-2020. The IAF floated the Request for Information in 2018 and received responses from eight aircraft types. The leading contenders in the fray are Dassault’s Rafale, Boeing’s F-15EX, and Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen.

“ASQRs (Air Staff Qualitative Requirements) have been finalized, and detailed interactions with OEMs (Original Equipment Manufacturers) have taken place. OEM commitments for indigenous content of selected categories and ‘Make in India’ provisions are being sought. (It is) envisaged integrating indigenously developed A-A (air-to-air) and A-G (air-to-ground) weapons on MRFA being manufactured in India,” the IAF chief added.

After the response from the aircraft makers, the IAF has set fresh Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs) and is awaiting a green signal from the government to send a proposal for an AoN. There has been little forward movement on the MRFA deal for over a year. In the meantime, the IAF fighter squadron strength is down to 31 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42. It is looking to retire its Soviet-vintage MiG-21s by 2025, followed by MiG-29s and Jaguars.

LCA Mk-2 Versus MRFA

The IAF has underscored the urgent need for modern fighter platforms at every possible opportunity. And it can be safely said that once the AoN comes from the South Block, which houses the Indian defense ministry, it will take at least 6 to 8 years before the steel birds enter its fleet.

India will need a lot of aircraft to maintain combat parity with the People Liberation Army-Air Force (PLAAF), which remains the IAF’s primary adversary for years to come. However, the IAF still needs to convince the incumbent Indian government that only imported aircraft in such large numbers can meet the need.

Air Marshal Khosla (retired) said that while the IAF’s capabilities have increased, its “war endurance capacity, the strength of fighter and combat support platforms”  need attention. “Overall, the deterrence capability has not kept pace with the existing threat perception. This aspect needs to be addressed urgently,” he adds.

“While building up the capability and capacity, the most important thing to remember is that the required minimum deterrence value is to be maintained at all times (either by domestic production or outside procurement). The lesson from all the recent wars is that self-reliance in defense production is essential,” Air Marshal Khosla summed up.

An official told the EurAsian Times earlier. “F-21, F-15E, Gripen-E, Su-35 could all be contenders. The whole process, up to aircraft delivery, will take 6 to 7 years. By then, Tejas Mk-2 may also be ready for induction. That may be the reason for the government’s indecision.”

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AMCA-INDIA
The Integrated Wind Tunnel (IWT) model of the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA)

The most significant task the IAF has is to convince the government to import fighter aircraft in the presence of LCA Mk-2 and Mk-1A.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi flew the indigenous LCA ‘Tejas’ in a strong signal of faith the government is reposing in the homegrown defense industry. Also, taking a cue from ongoing global conflicts, the government seems to have understood that the only way to achieve an international stature is to have a solid domestic military-industrial complex.

LCA Mk-2 will have enhanced range and endurance. The Mk-2 is 1,350mm longer, featuring canards, and can carry a payload of 6,500 kg compared to the 3,500 kilograms that LCA can have. LCA Mk-2 will be powered by the General Electric F414-INS6 engine (earlier LCA variants used the F404).

The LCA Mk2 is expected to have a maximum speed of 1.8 Mach and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet. Heavy weapons of the SCALP class, Crystal Maze, and Spice-2000 will also be integrated into the Mk-2. The IAF is expected to order over 200 LCA Mk-2 fighters.

The biggest question, however, remains if the ‘Mother of All Defense Deals” is dead or if the government is still taking time to ponder all its options.

  • Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
  • She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com
  • Follow EurAsian Times on Google News

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