The Indian Air Force (IAF) earlier this month completed Phase 6 of the eight-phase process of acquiring some 220 medium multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA) and related product/training hardware worth an estimated US$15 billion when it submitted its comprehensive technical evaluation report of the six M-MRCA contenders to India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD). All that is now left to be done is completion of the price evaluation report—inclusive of the direct/indirect industrial offsets offers proposed by the manufacturers of all six M-MRCA contenders—by a joint team comprising members from the IAF, the MoD and the Union Ministry of Finance, following which the Cabinet Committee on National Security (CCNS) and the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) will make the formal selection of the winner by this September. While the initial contract will be for procuring 126 M-MRCAs, there will definitely be a follow-on contract inked by 2016 for procuring an additional 94 M-MRCAs. This would mean that all 220 M-MRCAs will be delivered between the 2013-2024 period, and would remain in service till 2050 at least.
Contrary to popular belief, the IAF’s technical evaluations committee (TEC) has not devised any kind of pecking order for the various M-MRCA contenders. Instead, based on the universal practice of impartially analysing the merits and demerits of each offer—characteristic of a competitive bidding process—the TEC has concluded that only two of the six contenders—Boeing Defense & Aerospace Group’s tandem-seat F/A-18IN Super Hornet and Dassault Aviation’s tandem-seat Rafale B—come closest to meeting or exceeding the IAF’s operational requirements. These are followed by single-engined F-16IN from Lockheed Martin, Eurofighter GmBH’s EF-2000, and the JAS-39 Gripen IN from Saab Aircraft BV. The MiG-35 from Russia’s United Aircraft Corp was never a serious contender as it exists only on paper till this day. So what were the parameters that have tilted the balance in favour of the F/A-18IN and Rafale? And what will be the parameters that will play the decisive roles in favour of the winning bid?
The answers to these questions lie in the the 211-page global Request for Proposal (RFP) for the procurement of an initial 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) was floated for the Indian Air Force (IAF) on August 28, 2007. A careful reading of the RFP’s introductory section itself reveals what exactly the IAF desires from an operational perspective. The key criteria listed in the section mandated that:
1) The M-MRCA on offer has to be a fully functional and mature system, with all its listed capabilities already in operational service and not requiring any further fine-tuning or R & D work.
2) The M-MRCA on offer has to deliver a payload capacity that is much greater than that of the envisaged Tejas Mk2 MRCA, but no more than what the Su-30MKI is already certified to carry.
3) The M-MRCA on offer has to come equipped with an infra-red search-and-track system optimised for air superiority operations, as well as a fully certified active phased-array multi-mode radar (AESA-MMR) capable of waging all-weather and network-centric knowledge-based air-to-air and air-to-surface warfare, and must come armed with standoff precision-guided munitions for both land-attack and maritime strike. But most importantly, the AESA-MMR must have a ground moving target indication-cum-tracking (GMTI/T) mode simultaneously interlaced with the airspace track-while-scan (TWS) mode.
4) The M-MRCA on offer must have sufficient future growth capability to ensure that during its envisaged 40-year service life, it can be subjected to at least two major upgrade programmes aimed at enhancing the aircraft’s operational performance parameters.
5) For ensuring total operational sovereignty over the M-MRCA on offer, the aircraft must be accompanied by a through-life product support package that includes the establishment of all four levels of maintenance within India through the creation of a dedicated IAF base repair depot, plus through private sector/public sector product support joint ventures in which the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) of foreign origin (for the airframe, avionics, instrumentation, engine and accessories) and its Indian counterpart will be the principal business stakeholders, this being in consonance with the MoD’s direct industrial offsets guidelines (amounting to 50% of the total contract value) that are laid down by the MoD’s Defence Procurement Policy.
6) The M-MRCA on offer must be accompanied by the availability and delivery of fully certified training aids that should include the following:
A) Full-flight (or full-motion) simulator (FFS), which recreates sounds, motion, visual scenes, instrument presentations and all other systems in order to create a realistic flight training environment. The pilot will be able to train for landing, takeoff, weapons delivery, night flight, formation flight and cockpit familiarisation in normal, adverse and emergency situations. The handling characteristics of the FFS represent actual aircraft characteristics based on available flight data and input from experienced pilots.
B) Flight training device (FTD), which can be used to off-load some of the training tasks from the FFS. The FTD is a fixed-base trainer that typically does not include a visual system, but uses the same flight management and control systems as a FFS, making it the ideal for instrument familiarisation and other standard flight operations.
C) Cockpit procedures trainer (CPT), which assists pilots in learning the layout of the cockpit, the location of switches, lights, circuit breakers, instruments, and other functions. The CPT increases efficiency in the FFS and the actual aircraft by having the aircrew already familiarised with their surroundings.
D) Part-task trainer (PTT), which is a training device that is designed to train a member of the aircrew or maintenance staff on a particular task associated with the aircraft. PTTs exist for a range of tasks including: avionics systems, systems familiarisation, weapons delivery, aerial refuelling, and a variety of complex tasks specific to a particular aircraft.
E) Integrated procedures trainer (IPT), which can be used for mission rehearsals or to teach and practice any in-flight or on-ground procedures in a crew cockpit environment. It is a high-fidelity, low-cost training solution based on the same software used on the FFS. The IPT uses touch-screen monitors to display the cockpit and captures pilot inputs. The pilots can thus maintain their qualification on certain tasks without having to fly the FFS or the real aircraft. In addition to procedures training, especially for cockpit emergencies, the addition of a visual and tactical environment can give pilots the ability to practice the mission before operational deployment using the mission rehearsal station. This unit can be set-up and dismantled in one or two hours and handled and transported easily without the use of special tools or equipment.
F) Computer-based training tools required for all four levels of maintenance.
F) Computer-based training tools required for all four levels of maintenance.
7) Lastly, the M-MRCA on offer has to be delivered—through both off-the-shelf purchases as well as through in-country licenced-assembly—at a rate of no less than 20 aircraft per annum so that the IAF’s objective of fielding 42 combat squadrons is realised by 2022.
From the above, some distinct inferences can be drawn. Firstly, the IAF’s mandatory ruling about a readily available M-MRCA equipped with a fully functional AESA-MMR at the time of contract award serves to indicate that only the F/A-18IN Super Hornet, F-16IN Super Viper and the Rafale B can be considered as serious contenders out of the original list of six. Secondly, although not stated in writing, the IAF’s recent articulation of envisaged ‘Super’ Su-30MKI mid-life upgrade programme and its insistence on acquiring an AESA-MMR-equipped, twin-engined tandem-seat Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) are all indicative of the IAF’s as-yet unstated preference for procuring tandem-seat, twin-engined, AESA-MMR-equipped M-MRCAs that will be notches above the envisaged single-engined/single-seat Tejas Mk2 MRCA and will, at the same time, complement the awesome air dominance capabilities to be offered by the ‘Super’ Su-30MKI. Consequently, out goes the F-16IN Super Viper, leaving only the F/A-18IN Super Hornet and Rafale B in the fray. Which consequently brings us to the final faceoff and choosing the best option from both operational and military-industrial perspectives through a higher decision-making process which--given the scale of the deal--would also build strategic partnerships of the kind that must remain valid till at least 2050, if not beyond that.
If we are to believe that history has a tendency of repeating itself, then the final results of the IAF’s on-going M-MRCA faceoff will most likely be a repeat of what happened in South Korea on April 19, 2002 (when Seoul selected Boeing’s F-15K over the Rafale) and in Singapore on September 6, 2005 (when the Rafale was rejected in favour of the F-15SG). But let us rewind a little and go back to the face-to-face showdown between the F/A-18IN Super Hornet and Rafale during the Aero India exhibition in Bengaluru last February. On the eve of the expo—on February 8—Boeing seemingly drove the final nail on the Rafale’s coffin by unveilling for the very first time its super-ace trump card—the ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ option for the IAF, which will be available from 2013. If the IAF were to exercise this option, then the F/A-18IN would come equipped with an enclosed weapons pod that is intended to significantly lower the aircraft’s radar cross section, a large (11-inch by 19-inch) one-piece, touch-screen panoramic active-matrix liquid-crystal display, or PAMLCD (to improve the fused presentation of the integrated sensor suite), twin conformal fuel tanks straddling the upper fuselage to confer an additional 10% range (by carrying an additional 3,000lb of fuel), a greater payload capacity (over the existing 17,750lb or 8,050kg of weapons in 11 stations) that will overshoot the Rafale’s existing capacity of 9,500kg or 21,000lb spread over 14 stations), an internal nose-mounted IRST sensor, a spherical missile and laser warning system that will be housed above and below the aircraft, and an enhanced performance engine (EPE) version of the existing 98kN-thrust F414-GE-400 turbofan that would provide a 20% increase in thrust. Boeing has even gone to the extent of pledging that the ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ variant will be superseded in 2024 by a sixth-generation variant, tentatively known as the next-generation air dominance (NGAD) fighter.
The Rafale’s latest tranche 4 variant, on the other hand (as we now know from the data released by Dassault and the French Armee de l’Air in connection with the on-going M-MRCA competitions in Brazil and the United Arab Emirates), suffers from certain fundamental shortcomings when compared with the ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ variant. For instance, the THALES-built Radar à Balayage Electronique-2 (RBE-2) AESA-MMR—having an antenna array equipped with 1,001 transmit/receive modules, having a detection range of 180km, and performing TWS of up to 40 airborne targets—does not, as yet, have a ground moving target indication-cum-tracking (GMTI/T) mode simultaneously interlaced with the airspace TWS mode. In addition, its synthetic aperture radar mapping mode is still under development. Also, the growth variant of Snecma Moteurs’ M88 turbofan—the M88-3—which will be rated at 90kN (20,000lb) with afterburner (a 20% increase over the original M88-2) and a higher time-between-overhauls (from the present 800 hours)—is unlikely to be available in the near future. Furthermore, it is highly unlikely that Dassault Aviation will be able to ramp up its production capacity from the present-day 1.7 aircraft per month to more than 20 without a significant hike in production costs (only 294 Rafales have been ordered to date). Consequently, the per-unit cost for an exportable tranche 4 Rafale (minus its weapons package, flying training tools and product-support equipment) will exceed the present-day figure of €54 million (US$78 million) by as much as 50%. Against this, the ‘Super Hornet International Roadmap’ variant of the F/A-18IN is estimated to cost about $60 million or even less, since the Super Hornet’s production line in St Louis, Missouri, has been steadily churning out some 30 units per annum (to meet the total production order for 515 F/A-18E/Fs and 114 EA-18Gs for the US Navy, plus 24 F/A-18Fs for the Royal Australian Air Force). The only silver lining in the Rafale’s favour is the availability of two 1,150 litre detachable conformal fuel tanks (CFT), which can be mounted on the upper surface of wing/fuselage blend, causing less drag than traditional underwing fuel tanks, and freeing underwing stations for carrying armaments. CFTs bring the Rafale’s maximal external fuel load to 10,800 litres.
In the final analysis, therefore, it should not come as a surprise if the MoD declares Boeing’s F/A-18IN Super Hornet bid as the preferred choice on both technical and cost grounds. If this were to happen, then all that is left for Dassault Aviation to do (as it once did on September 6, 2005) is identify and disclose the two main reasons for the MoD’s decision: the weakness of the US dollar, which it should describe as a definite handicap for the economic competitiveness of the French offer, and the negotiating influence of “America’s military-industrial power and technological might”.
From a historical perspective, Dassault Aviation’s fortunes in India began to dip since the early 1980s when earlier ‘verbal’ commitments from the MoD and IAF HQ were not converted into reality. For instance, the IAF’s well thought-out plan for inducting close to 180 single-engined Mirage 2000H/TH MRCAs along with up to 60 twin-engined Mirage 4000s were brushed aside throughout the 1980s in favour of a USSR-supplied fleet of MiG-23MFs, MiG-23BNs, MiG-27Ms and MiG-29B-12s. This grievous setback, coupled with the loss of a Saudi order for the Mirage 4000 (whose R & D was privately financed by Dassault Aviation), imposed an enormous financial burden on the French aircraft manufacturer throughout the 1990s, which in turn has since affected the Rafale’s series-production rate, and has also prevented Dassault Aviation from investing in financially viable mid-life upgrade packages for those Mirage 2000s that are presently in service with the air forces of Egypt, Greece, India and Peru (this is the subject-matter of a standalone analysis, which will be detailed in the very near future). Secondly, unlike its US-based counterparts, French aerospace OEMs have, since the 1990s, failed to grasp the enormous marketing advantages offered by way of industrial synergies when it comes to export-driven marketing strategies. For instance, for marketing the F/A-18E/F Super Hornet on a global scale, OEMs like Boeing Defense & Aerospace, GE Aero Engines, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman formed an integrated consortium as far back as 2001 and to all prospective export customers, it is this unified military-industrial consortium that has given technical presentations and conducted in-country product demonstrations, and most importantly, has also successfully implemented multi-party and multi-disciplinary direct/indirect industrial offsets obligations. In stark contrast, the Rafale’s marketing campaign has been conducted to date solely by Dassault Aviation, with other French OEMs like THALES, Sagem Défense Sécurité and Snecma Moteurs being left alone to promote their sub-systems and components on board the Rafale through their own individual ways and means. If one were to add to such woes the unsustainable nature of the French welfare state, one will understand why, despite having a product like the Rafale, which incorporates cutting-edge technologies, Dassault Aviation has consistently suffered from marketing reverses in Algeria, Australia, Morocco, Oman, Singapore, South Korea, the UAE and will soon, in all probability, in Brazil, Finland, India, Kuwait and Switzerland as well.
Last but not the least, US-based OEMs like Boeing Defense & Aerospace, GE Aero Engines, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman, L-3 Communications, Lockheed Martin and CAE have already bagged several lucrative contracts from the MoD and are now well on their way toward implementing their multi-disciplinary direct/indirect industrial offsets obligations with more than 60 selected India-based industrial entities (inclusive of both DPSUs and private-sector companies). Some of these already-bagged contracts include that for eight Boeing P-8I long-range maritime reconnaissance/ASW aircraft worth $2.1 billion (with another four units due to be ordered soon), the supply of an initial six Lockheed Martin-built built C-130J-30 Super Hercules transport aircraft worth $0.9 billion (with a follow-on contract for another six units now being negotiated), the purchase of 24 Boeing AGM-84 Harpoon Block II air-launched anti-ship cruise missiles worth $170 million, and the order for an initial 99 F414-GE-INS6 turbofans (plus options for another 49) worth an estimated $750 million for powering the projected Tejas Mk2. Add to this the expected orders—all for the consortium comprising Boeing Defense & Aerospace, GE Aero Engines, Raytheon and Northrop Grumman—in future for an initial 25 CH-47F Chinook heavylift helicopters, an initial 22 units (against a projected requirement for 40) of AH-64D Longbow Apache attack helicopters worth $550 million, and the procurement of ten C-17A Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft worth $5.8 billion, and one will be able to see the big picture—an enormous American pie which, within India, will be shared over the next 25 years (though multi-disciplinary direct/indirect industrial offsets contracts) with the bulk of India’s existing aerospace and military-industrial entities.
A final word about the famous remark made by the IAF’s Chief of the Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik on February 10, on how the M-MRCA competitors could interpret the MoD’s selection of the winning bid. He had remarked that “if other competitors [who lose out in the race] put spokes in, then the timelines would get pushed back”. Going by historical precedent, he was, in all likelihood referring the incident on April 19, 2002, when Dassault Aviation filed a court injunction in Seoul (against Seoul’s decision to order the F-15K instead of the Rafale), disputing the selection process, which it claimed to be biased in favour of US interests.—Prasun K. Sengupta