Random Thoughts

Ten and The Search for MRCAs

The Indian government with its usual incompetent procrastination has delayed the purchase choice of multi-role combat aircraft. The bureaucratic boondoggles and bribery scandals as in the Bofors, coffin, Barak and Scorpene debacles are two causes. The other main reason is that India was and is still foolishly and desperately hoping for an acceptable 123 agreement with the US and a deal with the NSG after a humiliating bill signed by President Bush from the House-Senate conferees. The purchase decision has been held hostage by America with prolonged Indo-Us civilian nuclear pact to India's detriment. Delay has resulted in the production line of the latest version of the Mirage 2000 closing, thus purchasing from France would be limited to the more expensive Rafale (60 million dollars for one).

The Swedish Gripen is smaller and lighter with a smaller combat radius. Eurofighter Typhoon, like the US Raptor has super-cruise ability without use of afterburners but delivery would take nearly a decade. US Super-Hornet is not as fast, has limited range but has avionics like AESA and the phased array radar. One advantage is that the US is phasing it out and thus India could purchase the manufacturing rights. This would eliminate the fear of US sanctions or denying supplies as with the Tarapur nuclear plant. The F-16 is smaller, lighter and cheaper but Pakistan uses it, so it shouldn't even be considered. The Russian Mig-35 is cheaper at about 50 million dollars and has a bigger payload and combat radius with thrust vectoring but its avionics are not as sophisticated as the others. The real choice is between the Rafale, Super-Hornet and the Mig-35.

The real problem is that the US has sold and is selling Pakistan old and updated versions of the F-16, with Pakistan sharing the technology with China. China has just announced that its J-10, the 4.5th generation aircraft which it will share with Pakistan at less than 30 million dollars each, is superior to the F-16. This makes the Indian LCA Tejas obsolete before its full scale production. This is why the IAF is most reluctant to buy it in significant quantities. The Tejas is not the state of the art for richer countries like Arab oil producers, Singapore and countries with modern air-forces like Malaysia, Thailand and Indonesia. No NATO country would buy it as they are committed to the US, France or joint European aircraft and the CIS countries will go for Russian aircraft. With China able to sell a cheap 4.5 generation aircraft, the only market for Tejas are African countries with limited budgets and demand.

As I have repeated endlessly, India needs to enter a joint development project with an advanced country. The US and Europe (Germany, Italy, Spain, UK) are not likely candidates as they already have their captive audiences like NATO members, rich oil producers, Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and Singapore. Israel is constrained by US pressure and had to abandon its own jet Lavi and stop co-operation with China. Thus France and Russia are the only two countries as partners for a possible jointly funded advance aircraft development. India should pursue this and buy the Super-Hornet from the US with complete technology transfer and rights of production or opt for the Rafale or Mig-35 with licensing. The speed of deliveries would be an important factor, though India has bought time by upgrading its Jaguars, Mirage 2000s, Mig-29s and Mig-21s and speeding up its acquisition of Su-30 MKIs.

MRCAs are capable of fighter-interceptor, ground attack and some bombing roles. India is a status quo nation state with no outward aggressive intentions. It current defense perimeter includes potentially hostile states like Pakistan, Bangladesh and China and control of sea lanes in the Indian ocean from the Straits of Hormuz to those of Malacca. It can achieve that with its own string of pearls strategy by adequate air and naval bases along its jutting peninsula in the Indian ocean. Air cover of Pakistan and Bangladesh does not need large combat radius aircraft and no currently available MRCAs would cover a huge country like China, which can only be stalemated by appropriate range ballistic missiles. This would tilt the choice in favor of medium range MRCAs with due consideration for speed, performance, avionics, armament, price and above all transfer of technology, timing of delivery and reliability of supply of spares. They could as fighter interceptors, deny airspace to carrier based hostile aircraft in the Indian ocean.

The advent of the 4.5th generation Chinese J-10 and Pakistan's access to it, dictates that India's purchase should be equivalent or superior to the J-10 and it should take necessary steps to fund the joint development of a fifth generation MRCA and not to be caught napping by developing a fourth generation LCA with inordinate delays and no market for it. Indigenous production gives India independence and a cost advantage, but lack of technology trumps these pros. As the failures of Trishul, Dhanush, Arjun and Kaveri prove, India has not yet reached the level of Stalin's Russia. It is not due to lack of funding, as many projects have exceeded their budgets. If it is not due to lack of national talent, as the success of Indian engineers abroad suggests, it must be due to the bureaucratic mismanagement, corruption and nepotism and lack of planning and foresight, which are the hallmarks of the country's leadership and prevalent milieu. 


More by :  Gaurang Bhatt, MD

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