Making a splash at the Aero India show in Bangalore. Broadsword has learned that the European fighters have taken pole position in the MMRCA competition
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 10th Feb 11
It was a no-holds-barred duel at Aero India 2011 for a $10-billion (Rs 45,500 crore) prize. Turn by turn, four of the world’s most advanced fighter aircraft roared into the sky, keenly aware of the watching eyes of Indian ministry of defence (MoD) officials who would decide which of them was best suited for the Indian Air Force’s order of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
Their performances mirrored each fighter’s fortunes in the MMRCA race. In multiple interviews with MoD officials, IAF pilots and vendor representatives, Business Standard has learned exactly where the MMRCA race currently stands. None of the contenders have been officially eliminated in the IAF’s flight evaluation report, but the heavy liabilities that some are carrying have already reduced this contest to an all-European race.
The clearest performance was that of the Russian MiG-35, which has not shown up at all at Aero India 2011. After multiple problems during the flight evaluation trials, it is regarded by the IAF as little more than an upgraded MiG-29. The Russian fighter is effectively out of the race.
Only marginally less dismal was the Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper, which travelled to Bangalore but did not participate in the inaugural aerobatics shoot-out.
Defence minister A K Antony insisted today that political considerations would play no part in the MMRCA selection, but his officials were less diplomatic. “The F-16 is in the race only in name; the US will not be allowed to supply the same aircraft to both India and Pakistan,” said a senior MoD official. “Besides, the F-16 has come to the end of its development cycle. There is no scope for improving it further.”
Lockheed Martin seems to know its India campaign is blighted. Over the past two months, company officials and even the Pentagon, the US defence headquarters, have shifted the focus to the F-35, the fifth generation stealth fighter that Lockheed Martin is developing. But while the Pentagon’s acquisition chief, Ashton Carter, has signalled American willingness to include India in the F-35 programme, the Indian MoD is not persuaded.
On getting a fifth generation fighter from the US, Antony replied, “Already we are engaged with Russia to produce a fifth generation fighter…. No other country has offered us these technologies in the past. We are way ahead now [in the partnership with Russia]. There is no question of going back.”
The other American contender, the F/A-18 Super Hornet, regaled spectators with a superb display of combat manoeuvring, Showcasing its history as a combat fighter, the F/A-18 was the only contender that flew with missiles fitted under its wings, which is avoided in aerobatics because of the resulting drag. But though the Super Hornet was the tightest turner, its aerobatics were conducted at slow speeds. That sluggishness is also true of its campaign in India.
“We scored the F/A-18 poorly during flight evaluation,” says an IAF officer who was closely involved.
That leaves the three European contenders: the Eurofighter (from a four-country consortium), the Dasault Rafale (from france) and the Saab Gripen (Sweden). Each of them put up a superb display of high-speed aerobatics, performing loops, barrel rolls, and spells of inverted flying that clearly pushed the boundaries of the aircrafts’ flight envelopes.
The Gripen showed enormous agility in its vertical handling, something that would allow it to climb above the enemy fighter in a dogfight, to an advantageous killing position. At the end of his display, the Gripen’s pilot displayed how little runway the fighter needs to land, stopping dead in barely 900 ft.
But IAF officers point out two key drawbacks to the Gripen’s campaign: “The Gripen’s AESA radar is the least developed of all the MMRCA contenders; and, being a single-engine fighter, it carries significantly less weaponry than the big twin-engine contenders.”
The twin-engine advantage was immediately evident when the Rafale and the Eurofighter took to the skies, lashing the spectators with a blast of sound. There was little to choose between both those aircraft, their High-G (sharp turn); High-Alpha (slow flying) aerobatics leaving the spectators clapping.
“The MMRCA contest is now between the Eurofighter and the Rafale,” says an IAF officer associated with the flight evaluation. “It will boil down to price. But if the MoD accepts a smaller fighter, with a radar that has some way to go, the economically-priced Gripen could be the dark horse that wins.