France’s Dassault Rafale fighter won India’s $10 billion-plus medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest for 126 combat jets because its direct acquisition and life-cycle costs were 22 to 25 percent lower than those of the Eurofighter Typhoon. This verdict came from “a top [Indian] defense ministry source” quoted by The Times of India newspaper in Delhi last Friday. AIN believes that the report is credible. Negotiations on the contract should be completed by October, the source added.
Although Eurofighter Typhoon bid leader EADS Cassidian issued a dignified statement expressing disappointment but respecting the decision, there has been much consternation from British government ministers over the Indian verdict. Prime Minister David Cameron encouraged India to reconsider, and international security minister Gerald Howarth even suggested that Cassidian and BAE Systems would be submitting a revised price offer. Former defense secretary Liam Fox said that BAE should have led the Typhoon bid, rather than EADS. British newspapers talked darkly of undue influence by French lobbyists, and of French government promises to transfer nuclear reprocessing technology to India. But The Times of India source in the Indian defense ministry said that “we went by the book…without any external factors coming into play.”
But some British officials involved in the Typhoon bid have distanced themselves from the ministerial comments, which some might interpret as sour grapes or even disrespectful to India’s right to make its own defense acquisition choices. They believe that Indian officials handling the MMRCA contest have been transparent throughout the process. They are hoping that the Indian defense ministry will debrief the Typhoon team on why the Rafale bid was preferred, although there is no legal obligation for it to do so. The Typhoon camp are fully aware that in a number of previous Indian defense acquisitions, the preferred bidder has failed to secure the final contract–raising the prospect of another twist in the MMRCA saga.
According to the rules established in the original MMRCA solicitation, no trade-off of performance against cost was allowed in the final stage of the evaluation, when the commercial bids were unsealed. No information has leaked on which of the two finalists scored more in the technical evaluation, which was extensive. In a similar technical evaluation done by the Swiss air force in 2008-09, and recently leaked to the Swiss media, the Rafale was the clear winner (see box). In any case, neither finalist in the Indian contest was able to demonstrate the required active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. However, Team Rafale will have shown French commitment and tangible progress toward the introduction of an AESA, which is still not an unequivocal requirement of the four Eurofighter partners.
The cost of the MMRCA could still influence the project’s conclusion. The $10.4 billion that was originally earmarked for the acquisition always seemed unrealistic, especially after four other contenders were eliminated after the technical evaluation.
The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16IN, MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG should all have been less expensive to acquire (and in some cases to operate) than the Rafale or Typhoon. Moreover, a 20-percent decrease in the value of rupee against the U.S. dollar last year alone will affect the eventual cost, which could be $7- to $8 billion greater than first stated.
Before the contract is signed the following points need to be nailed down: the level of technology transfer for the 108 aircraft to be built in India; the coproduction plan; whether and how any government-furnished equipment is to be integrated; the guaranteed mean time between failure rates; and whether to choose an engineering support package or a performance-based logistics package. The life-cycle cost data supplied by the MMRCA contenders covered 6,000 hours of flying over 40 years.
The 18 aircraft to be supplied in flyaway condition comprise 12 single- and six twin-seaters. They should be delivered within 48 months of the contract taking effect, with the complete weapons package. Of note, the MMRCA weapons and stores specification includes anti-radiation and anti-ship missiles, a reconnaissance pod and a buddy refueling pod.
Neither the Rafale nor the Eurofighter has an anti-radiation missile, nor is one planned for either type. The Exocet anti-ship missile has already been integrated on the Rafale. The Typhoon bid included the Saab Rbs15 or the MBDA Marte ER anti-ship missile, neither of which are required by any of the Eurofighter partner nations. No reconnaissance or buddy refueling pod has yet been integrated on the Typhoon. The Thales Areos recce pod has already been fitted to the Rafale, which also already does buddy refueling.
The Indian production will comprise 74 single- and 34 twin-seaters. Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has been designated as the lead production agency for the airframe and engine, and as system integrator. The first deliveries are due four years after contract signing, in a three-phase transfer of production. HAL is expected to produce six aircraft in that first year, 10 in the second and the total of 108 by the seventh year of local production.
The Indian government expects licensed production of engine accessories, avionics, radars, systems, role equipment and tooling. Some or all of this could be undertaken by privately owned Indian defense companies that have been chosen by the successful bidder. The MMRCA package also includes simulators and other training aids, and ground handling and support equipment.
There are significant concerns about how the offset requirement–50 percent of the value of the foreign exchange component of the commercial proposal–will be honored. The new Indian defense procurement policy outlined in 2006 was vague, and subsequent alterations have not provided much clarity. The bidders could buy defense products only from India, or invest in the Indian defense industry.
This rule will have prevented EADS from offering some attractive offsets related to the production of Airbus commercial airliners. Moreover, foreign direct investment in Indian companies is currently limited to 26 percent of equity. An increase in this limit to 49 percent has been mooted specifically to help the MMRCA process, but any such change could delay the contract process.
In any event, the industrial benefits for Indian industry should multiply after the MMRCA enters service. Following the 24-month warranty period, the lifetime support and depot level maintenance must be provided by an Indian partner. “To ensure high aircraft availability, each operating base will have second-line facilities, including servicing of radar and avionics LRUs, electronic warfare equipment and hydraulics. An engine repair section and test bed will need to be set up,” said an Indian air force engineer. There will be three operating bases, each with two squadrons. Depot-level maintenance will benefit from technology transfer including metallic and composite structures, canopy, radome, castings and forgings, landing gear, engine including Fadec, turbine and compressor blades, wheels and brakes, hydraulics and fuel system, including in-flight fueling.
Thales and its Indian partner, Samtel Display Systems (SDS), will be a major beneficiary of the Rafale’s selection. “The MMRCA has provided the opportunity for Thales to grow this into a bigger company. We can build a center of excellence for airborne technologies that can be sold for different platforms,” Puneet Kaura, executive director of SDS, told AIN. This could include infrared search-and-track systems for India’s Sukhoi Su-30 fighters and the fifth-generation fighter aircraft being jointly developed by India and Russia. SDS is already slated to make a significant contribution to the $2 billion-plus Mirage 2000 upgrade that was awarded to Thales last July.