India’s quest for fighter could cost losers dearly

Singapore Air Show » 2006
December 1, 2006, 9:00 AM

The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) tender is beginning to resemble a free-for-all that shows no signs of abating and will continue for several years. What makes this tender an unusual one, however, is that the type of radar and onboard systems which will be included in the deal, the co-production arrangements to provide work for local Indian industry and geopolitical considerations are going to carry far more weight in the decision process than the actual choice of the aircraft itself.

When it is finally released, one the most important technical requirements that is expected to figure in the tender’s official request for proposals (RFP)–now delayed until as late as June–is the requirement that any fighter participating in the competition be equipped with an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar. “We are ninety-five percent or better confident that having an AESA onboard is going to be a make-or-break condition of bidding on this program–it is the price of admission,” said one Western industry representative familiar with the program.

This creates a complicated scenario for some of the companies bidding, and has precipitated strange and previously unheard-of combinations of aircraft and radar suppliers.

Normally, integrating a new radar onto an airframe for the sake of just one customer is prohibitively expensive because of the nonrecurring costs, but the prospect of the unusually large sale of 126 aircraft to India–larger than any other export sale in more than 17 years–creates enough economies of scale that this issue is moot.

The good news is that the deal is so big there is a bonanza of a prize waiting for whichever firm is able to win the competition. The bad news is that the traditional features of Indian aircraft sales are an anathema to most of the firms vying for the tender. Those familiar with Indian defense procurements describe them as an arduous five-years-or-more process that involve mountains of handwritten paperwork, fighting uphill battles against a stultifying bureaucracy, excessive regulations that tie companies in knots, labyrinthine cost and financial accounting requirements and all manner of other obstacles that seem designed to prevent a procurement from ever being successfully completed.

In the past, the major suppliers of weapons to India have been Russian defense enterprises, and a myriad of shadowy linkages between Russian and Indian middleman have normally been the mechanism by which these headaches are resolved, but this tack will not work if the Indians wish to retain the participation of most of the major Western firms on this tender.

The Line-Up

Provided the process can be made more user-friendly, there are several major players maneuvering for position in this competition.

Lockheed Martin’s venerable F-16 is the most popular aircraft in the region, but as of today only one model of the aircraft is equipped with an AESA, the Northrop Grumman (NG) AN/APG-80 that was developed for the F-16E/F Block 60. If Lockheed Martin were to sell some variant of the Block 60 to the IAF they would have to pay the United Arab Emirates (UAE) an approximate 7 percent per aircraft royalty, as the desert kingdom funded the development of this configuration and has resale commission rights. Another solution would be for Northrop Grumman to retrofit the AN/APG-80 to the F-16C/D Block 50, making it a “Block 50 double plus” variant, but this involves costs and engineering problems that are not tackled lightly–most notably adding a liquid-cooling system.

The other U.S. competitor is the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which the Chicago-based planemaker is working hard to promote since there are no export customers yet for the new E/F configuration. “India is the largest fighter deal since the beginning of the 1990s,” said Boeing Asia/Pacific regional vice president Mark Kronenberg here at Changi. “It’s got everybody’s attention.”

The Super Hornet is equipped with the Raytheon AN/APG-79, which is currently undergoing some of its final operational testing. Raytheon representatives explained that the APG-79 model is the embodiment of all of the technologies and design concepts developed for their bid on the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program. Currently, Raytheon is contracted to build a total of 232 units, which also provides the economies of scale necessary to be a competitive bidder.

Several years ago the Saab JAS-39 Gripen was considered the odds-on favorite for the Indian tender, and was at one time the only Western competitor in the race. Gripen International officials told Aviation International News that they were briefed here at Changi this week by the visiting chief of the IAF as to the requirements of the soon-to-be-issued tender. Gripen representatives would not comment as to the details, except to say that–based on the chief’s comments–“the Gripen and the [IAF Sukhoi-made] Su-30MKI would be a nice combination for India.” Ericsson, which supplies most of the electronics for the JAS-39, is bidding the Not Only a Radar (or NORA), which is supposed to contain some 1,000 transmit/receive (T/R) modules.

One of the real wild cards in the race is Dassault. A delegation accompanying French President Jacques Chirac on a three-day state visit to India this week included Dassault CEO Charles Edelstenne, who intimated what had been widely anticipated for some months now: that his firm would be following up its withdrawal of the Mirage 2000-5 from consideration in the M-MRCA tender with the offer of proposing the Rafale in its place.

“We explained that keeping the Mirage 2000 production line waiting [for five more years] would be too costly, but the Indian authorities obviously are not certain about this yet,” he told the French financial daily Les Echos. He told local Indian and international media that he is in New Delhi to “clarify the situation.” Although Edelstenne made no formal offer for an aircraft in place of the Mirage he did say that “we are waiting for the tender to be issued and to see whether we can bid with some other aircraft,” which could only be the Rafale.

The Russian Legacy

The biggest contender of all, however, may still be RSK-MiG in Russia. Over the last several decades, Russia has been India’s reliable and most consistent arms provider. India received massive technical assistance from Russia–including setting up a series production line at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) plant in Nasik. The IAF was one of the first foreign customers to receive export versions of the MiG-29 fighter in the 1980s.

Most notable among all of Russia’s cooperative programs with India has been the Su-30MKI that was designed and manufactured for New Delhi in the second half of the 1990s. Former Irkut general director Aleksei Fedorov masterminded this development and he is now the general director of RSK-MiG which is now offering India the MiG-35.

The MiG-35 is to be an ambitious leap. It takes the MiG-29 and redesigns its structure, giving the aircraft an all-new digital internal infrastructure, and engines with a thrust-vector control package similar to that of the Su-30MKI. Press releases and public statements on the MiG-35 have also stated that the Russians will not be outdone and will offer an AESA. The question is whose AESA, since none of the Russian radar design bureaus plan to have a model ready in the time frame that the Indian RFP is anticipated to dictate.

The dark horse candidate in this case is the Israel Aircraft Industries (IAI) Elta EL/M-2052. IAI is showing this radar for the first time at Changi and although its spokesman will not confirm that the company is bidding with MiG on the Indian tender, it does state that the MiG-29/35 is one of the more near-term possibilities. The model seen here at the airshow is set up for a liquid-cooling system like most other AESAs, but IAI engineers claim that a version of this radar for the MiG-29 would be a smaller array, small enough that it could use an air-cooling system. Liquid-cooling systems can be a maintenance headache, so this is not a small accomplishment on the Israeli’s part.

Technology versus Politics

Technology is not the only issue involved. Politically, the current administration in Washington wants to cement closer relations with India. At the same time, the U.S. Air Force would like to have HAL and other Indian firms in the business of operating and supporting U.S.-made aircraft. Having a huge F-16 base in India would allow Lockheed Martin to outsource much of its F-16 after-sales support and free up its engineering workforce to focus on the F-35 JSF.

But can India really afford to turn its back on its long-time friend Russia without so much as a by-your-leave? Additionally, the costs of adding a modern, U.S.-made aircraft into the Indian logistics and maintenance system (which is well-equipped to handle the Mirage and MiG-29 fighters that are currently operated in the IAF) would be a huge, on-going expense. India’s military and political leaders would have to weigh the political and technological benefits against these considerable costs.

One predicted version of events has the Indians upping their buy from 126 to 200 fighters and then buying 100 MiG-29s to keep in good stead with the Russians, plus 100 F-16s or some other Western aircraft in order to provide their industry with a new infusion of technology. This solves a number of political problems for the Indians, and would also give the IAF one of the most powerful fighter forces in the region.

The problem with this “deciding not to decide” option is that it means another 74 aircraft must be purchased, which is not a small sum. Officially, none of the Western firms vying for this contract have been told that the finances for this tender have been increased to allow for this 60-plus percent increase in the buy, so for the moment the contract still appears to be a winner-take-all 126 aircraft deal.

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