If no other vendor appears before July 6, IAF will find itself conducting what experts disparage as MMRCA 2.0
By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 29th June 18
French aerospace vendor Dassault says it will offer the Rafale in a global tender floated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) on April 6, inviting vendor interest for supplying 110 fighter aircraft.
Dassault’s representative in India, Posina Venkata Rao, confirmed to Business Standard on Wednesday that the Rafale would be fielded in the contest.
That sets the stage for a re-run of the failed “medium multi-role combat aircraft” (MMRCA) procurement that the IAF conceived in 2000, officially tendered in 2007 and eventually abandoned in 2015.
With Airbus Defence and Space confirming on Tuesday that Eurofighter GmbH would offer the Typhoon fighter to India the IAF will have to choose from the same six vendors that participated in the aborted MMRCA tender.
The other four contenders in that procurement – Swedish company, Saab, Russia Aircraft Corporation (RAC), and US vendors Lockheed Martin and Boeing have already signalled their eagerness to participate in the new tender.
If no other fighter manufacturer makes a surprise appearance before July 6, the date by which vendors must respond to an IAF request for information (RFI), the IAF will find itself conducting what aerospace industry experts disparage as MMRCA 2.0.
Aviation analysts wonder how the IAF will go about flight-testing six aircraft, when it had already announced in 2011, at the conclusion of the MMRCA testing process, that only two – the Rafale and Typhoon – met its requirements. The F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, F-16 Super Viper, Gripen C/D and MiG-35 were all rejected as inadequate.
After selecting the Rafale, negotiations broke down over its price and “Make in India” terms. Eventually, the government bought 36 Rafales, in fly-away condition, to alleviate the IAF’s dire shortfall of fighter aircraft.
“Clearly, the IAF will have to scale down performance expectations this time. Else it might be left with the same choices that it found unacceptable in the MMRCA tender”, says one aviation expert.
Of the six vendors in MMRCA 2.0, Boeing is offering the same aircraft, the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, which it intends to build in India with Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and Mahindra. Like Dassault, Boeing will leverage its offer with another simultaneous tender for 57 carrier-borne fighters for the Indian Navy (IN).
Lockheed Martin has offered the F-16 Block 70, a cosmetic improvement over the F-16 Super Viper it offered the last time. It has tied up with the Tata Group to shift the F-16 production line to India, provided it wins the contract. However, IAF pilots see the Block 70 as little better than the Super Viper, and remain wary of buying an aircraft so closely associated with the Pakistan Air Force.
RAC plans to offer the same MiG-35 as it did for the MMRCA contest, with no indication yet about whom it will partner to build the fighter in India. While it remains a dark horse in this race, analysts point out that both the IAF and IN already fly the MiG-29 – the baseline fighter for the MiG-35.
Only Saab is offering a significantly improved fighter, the new Gripen E. In contrast to the Gripen C/D that Saab offered in the MMRCA contest, the Gripen E has a more powerful General Electric F-414 engine, newer avionics, more payload and greater range. If it meets the IAF’s performance requirements, this single-engine aircraft (like the F-16, but without that fighter’s drawbacks) will have the advantage of being priced more cheaply than the larger, twin-engine F-18, MiG-35, Typhoon and Rafale.
Industry estimates are that single engine fighters would cost about $80-85 million each, while twin-engine fighters would be priced closer to $120 million apiece. Given the Defence Procurement Procedure’s emphasis on cost, that could be a winning advantage for a single-engine fighter that meets the IAF’s performance requirements.
The RFI of April 6 called for vendor proposals for supplying 110 fighters, of which 75 per cent (82-83 fighters) would be single-seat aircrafts, while the remaining 27-28 fighters would be twin-seat variants.
The emphasis was on “Make in India”, with no more than 15 per cent of the order – or 16-17 fighters – to be supplied fully built. The RFI specified that a “Strategic Partner/ Indian Production Agency” must build the remaining 93-94 aircraft in India.
That leaves the door open for both private firms and HAL to be the Indian partner.
Delivery of the 16-17 ready built fighters must begin within 36 months, and be completed within 60 months of the contract. The fighters built in India must start being delivered 5 years from the contract and delivery completed 12 years from the signing date.
In the RFI, the IAF has stated it wants a “day and night capable, all weather, multi-role combat aircraft.” It must outperform enemy aircraft in air-to-air combat, strike ground targets, and do reconnaissance, electronic warfare and air-to-air refuelling. It must also be capable of maritime strike, i.e. destroying targets far out to sea.
Based on the RFI responses, the IAF will issue vendors a formal tender. That will be followed by a process – which in the past has lasted years – of technical and flying trials, cost evaluation and then price negotiation with the winning vendor.