Published in Business Standard
26th February 2008
By the 6th of March, six global aircraft majors --- Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Dassault, Eurofighter GmbH, Gripen International and RAC-MiG --- must submit offers for selling India 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). Worth an estimated $11 billion, this could be one of the biggest arms sales ever. For Indian defence planning, it would be the most expensive folly ever.
In acquiring yet another type of fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force (IAF) will compound an existing problem of interoperability. There are major differences between Russian block equipment (the MiG series, and the Sukhoi-30MKI) and Western bloc equipment (the Mirage-2000 and the Jaguar). As a result, each IAF airbase is geared to support a certain type of aircraft; other types cannot just fly in and operate from there without major logistic preparations.
Consider an imaginary war with Pakistan. If India were launching a ground offensive, say around Lahore, the IAF would support that thrust with as many combat aircraft as possible. It would need to bomb Pakistani airbases to prevent the Pakistan Air Force from taking off; it would strike Pakistani ground forces and the infrastructure that supports them; it would also perform other missions like photoreconnaissance. Since the airbases around Lahore have just a small number of aircraft, fighters based in Rajasthan, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh and the eastern sector will need to be re-located to Punjab, just before the battle begins.
That is where the problem begins. A Mirage 2000 cannot easily relocate from its permanent base in Gwalior to an airbase in, say, Pathankote. The Pathankote airbase supports Mig-series aircraft; its maintenance personnel, spare parts inventory, stocks of bombs and rockets and operational practices are geared towards MiGs. Today, if a Mirage 2000 were to land in Pathankote, it would require an entire support team from Gwalior to make it take off again. In wartime, relocating a squadron of Mirage-2000s would be a major logistical exercise and a clear signal to Pakistan of an impending attack.
This problem is already set to worsen when India’s Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), called the Tejas, enters service with the IAF. Purchasing a new MMRCA will invite a full-blown logistic nightmare.
Besides the need for inter-base operability, there is another good reason to abandon the MMRCA purchase: today’s IAF simply cannot exploit the capabilities of the aircraft it is setting out to buy. The technological excellence of a modern MMRCA, like the Eurofighter or the Rafale, does not lie in its airframe, engines, or its flying performance. Instead, its advantages lie in avionics, and in its net-centric capability, which means that the aircraft and its pilot are seamlessly integrated into an electronic battlefield management system. This system receives inputs --- in real time --- from a comprehensive network of radars, airborne warning systems and satellites; and it displays these inputs in the form of a battlefield picture. The controllers then allocate targets to Indian fire units, which could be fighter aircraft, cruise missiles, ballistic missiles or even army rocket batteries. Air forces like the American, British and French can electronically assign a target to an airborne fighter and automatically upload a digital map of the target area.
India is far from such a network. Our radars operate in small clumps, our data links are not in place, and our airspace management network is inferior even to Pakistan’s. Many of our key systems work on incompatible protocols. An economically resurgent India can afford to buy the MMRCA. But doing so would be like a farmer with a bumper crop busting his money on a BMW with a city navigation system and great FM stereo. He wouldn’t use most of the high-tech systems.
So what is India’s smarter alternative? The path is illuminated by an earlier IAF procurement, the carefully structured Sukhoi-30MKI fighter. Instead of accepting a ready-built Russian aircraft for fancy prices, the IAF creatively married Sukhoi’s airframe and engine excellence, with an advanced avionics package made from Israeli and French components. The Sukhoi-30MKI’s avionics were tailor-made for IAF requirements; India did not pay fancy prices for capabilities that would never be used. The Sukhoi experience was further refined when the IAF went about upgrading the MiG series fighters; advanced avionics will extend their service lives at minimal cost.
India must stick with a medium fighter that it already flies. The IAF has long pressed for increasing the size of its Mirage 2000 fleet (currently 52 aircraft), a fighter that its pilots hold in high regard. An advanced variant of the Mirage 2000 was one of the options in the MMRCA purchase until Paris replaced it with the newer, more expensive Rafale fighter, informing New Delhi that the Mirage 2000 production line was being wound up. An opportunity lies here for India; Paris would most likely grab the chance to sell India the Mirage 2000 production line, and benefit from production royalties and the opportunity to involve French avionics companies like Thales and Thomson CSF in developing an aviation package customised for India. France realises that American and Russian marketing clout in New Delhi leaves it with little chance of selling the Rafale.
Today, no official or politician is willing to tell the Indian public the unpalatable truth that the IAF is not technologically geared to operate highly networked fighter aircraft. Instead, it is more convenient to make grandiose declarations about providing the military with the world’s best equipment and then stonewalling the purchase with layers of procedures. Opting for a near-state-of-the-art, made-in-India Mirage 2000 variant requires not just a fine understanding of defence planning but also the courage to make and publicly defend a subjective military decision. Neither quality has been in evidence in the MoD so far.