Dubai Air Show

India opens fighter tender to all comers

 - December 6, 2006, 12:55 PM

Almost four years ago the Indian parliament’s defense standing committee leveled a number of major criticisms at the nation’s defense procurement process. One of the main recommendations called for the country’s Ministry of Defence to diversify its procurement process through global tenders “to enable the emergence of competitive prices” and to end the practice of buying the majority of the nation’s weaponry from “a single source”– the latter a poorly veiled reference to Russia.

Much to the dismay of Russia’s fighter manufacturers, the Indian MoD seems to have heeded that guidance. In a turn away from past practice, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is now entertaining offers from almost every manufacturer in the world for its next procurement of 126 lightweight fighters. The Lockheed Martin F-16 (possibly in a Block 50++ version), Boeing’s F/A-18E/F, the Saab JAS-39 Gripen and Dassault’s Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 now all compete alongside the aircraft that ordinarily one would expect to be a shoe-in: the Mikoyan MiG-29.

But Russia enters this fray with a number of advantages over the other competitors. Perhaps most significantly, Russia has served as India’s primary arms supplier for decades; therefore, India has organized most of its industrial base and air force maintenance infrastructure to work with Russian-technology and designs. Acquiring a completely new type of aircraft would require some substantial new outlays to create a support structure for them.

Another Russian advantage exists on a personal level. The current general director at the Russian Aircraft Manufacturing Corp. (RSK-MiG) is none other than Aleksei Fedorov, who for many years led the Irkut factory, which produced the IAF’s Su-30MKIs. Fedorov has worked intimately with the Indians ever since he headed the project for Irkut to establish a production line for export versions of the MiG-27ML in 1986 at the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) factory in Nasik, India. Fedorov took a lead role in making the program happen, as he did in creating a unique version of the two-seat Su-27 design, the Su-30MKI, almost a decade later.

However, the other major contenders can claim their own advantages. The Indian tender asks for a significant level of technology transfer. Specifically, India wants the ability to manufacture the aircraft under license and that domestic production offsets a minimum of 30 percent of the procurement cost.

Sweden’s Saab has always played aggressively in this area, and in the past has shown a willingness to link a JAS-39 buy with ancillary deals from the commercial divisions of car maker Volvo, communications giant Ericsson and the other major team members on the aircraft.

In the case of Dassault, India already maintains a number of earlier model Mirage 2000s in its fleet and reportedly likes their performance so far. The IAF has also begun to learn how much money it can save in maintenance and operational costs by reducing the number of different models of aircraft in its fleet. Buying more Mirage 2000s would appear a safe and easy decision to make. A Dassault purchase would also offer the chance to upgrade the IAF’s existing Mirages with newer radars and avionics and raise them all to the Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 standard.

U.S. High-Tech

But the best chance for India to secure some of the ultra-high technology it wants to inject into its industrial base lies with the purchase of a U.S. fighter. One of the items the IAF would like is an active electronically scanning array (AESA) radar set, which can be installed in both the latest model F-16 (Northrop Grumman APG-80) and the F/A-18E/F (Raytheon APG-79). The F-16 may make particularly good sense as a relationship with Lockheed Martin puts India in line for some later involvement in the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter (JSF) program.

However, a U.S. purchase will come with technology transfer strings attached. The U.S. government has become notorious in defense export circles for cutting off supplies of F-16 spares when the countries that operate them displease Washington (for example, Indonesia and Pakistan). U.S. officials who make decisions on technology transfer issues have also shown reluctance to sell the most advanced weaponry, such as the Raytheon AIM-120 advanced medium-range air-to-air missile, to export clients of U.S. fighters.

A Russian or European procurement will likely not involve such risks. Furthermore, the Mirage and the MiG-29 also allow the Indians to engage in some standardization and commonality within their inventory. Fedorov, as the man who developed the Su-30MKI for the IAF, would seem well placed to ensure that new MiG-29s sold to India–and upgrade kits for those already in Indian inventory–will create a common configuration with the Sukhois.

Finally, France’s Thales, the on-board systems supplier for all Dassault aircraft, is experienced at creating one common avionics suite to modernize Mirages with disparate configurations.

Political Issues

India, therefore, has to juggle and decide a number of priorities, and the political issues are not minor by any means. The current U.S. administration has made a point of trying to cement a closer relationship–almost an alliance–with India as part of a larger effort to build bridges with functioning democracies in the region.

U.S. Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told a U.S. Congressional committee in September that the Bush Administration wants to change the nature of relations with India, which over the past several decades has gone through periods of “unproductive estrangement.”

That leaves open the possibility that another U.S. effort to push an American fighter over the goal line, as it did with Poland’s procurement of the F-16, could trump all of the other issues in the Indian procurement–such as technology commonality and transfer, and close personal ties between industry figures.

At 126 aircraft, the Indian requirement represents the largest competition of its kind left in the fighter market today. The stakes couldn’t be higher for the players involved.