As the saying goes, “Those who know much, talk little”. But its meaning seems to have been lost on India’s new Raksha Mantri (Defence Minister) Manohar Parrikar, if we are to believe what he was reported to have said at an on-the-record press conference on December 30, 2014 regarding the procurement of 189 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft (M-MRCA). Most of the ‘desi’ newspapers attributed two statements to Parrikar: (1) additional licence-built Su-30MKIs are adequate for the IAF in case it is decided not to procure the Rafale; and (2) The Su-30MKI is an adequate aircraft for meeting the air force’s needs. Now, while it is understandable for a select group of ‘desi’ journalists to deliberately twist-and-turn the Raksha Mantri’s statements/observations (since for the past 18 months they have either been promoting, for their own vested financial interests, the procurement of either the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter or the Eurofighter EF-2000), in case these ‘desi’ journalists for once did get it right and correctly quoted the Raksha Mantri, then India is indeed in some serious trouble.
Let me explain how and why. Neither the Su-30MKI nor the MiG-29UPG/MiG-29K were ever designed as multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA). Their design and performance parameters were instead optimised for air dominance/air superiority, with standoff all-weather precision strike undertaken from medium altitudes being a secondary capability. It is for this reason that the erstwhile USSR had developed the Su-24 and Su-27IB/Su-34 as all-weather, terrain-hugging deep penetration strike aircraft (DPSA), and the Su-25 as a dedicated tactical strike/close air support aircraft. Consequently, neither the Su-30MKI’s nor the MiG-29UPG’s/MiG-29K’s airframes have the stress tolerances that are required for flying terrain-hugging flight profiles. Their existing X-band multi-mode radars or MMR (RLSU-30MK NO-11M ‘Bars’ and the Zhuk-M2E) therefore don’t come with low-altitude terrain avoidance mode or automatic terrain-following capability or weather-mapping mode, and neither are they equipped with low-altitude navigation pods.
Consequently, the only true M-MRCAs that are operational today in an area between India and Japan is the Republic of Singapore Air Force’s Boeing-built F-15SGs, which come equipped with Raytheon-supplied APG-63(V)3 AESA-MMR, Boeing/ELBIT Systems joint helmet mounted cueing system (JHMCS), TIGER Eyes Sensor Suite comprising Lockheed Martin’s AAQ-13 LANTIRN-ER navigation pod (containing a mid-wave staring-array FLIR sensor and a terrain-following radar and forward-looking infra-red sensor), an AAQ-33 Sniper XR targetting pod containing a mid-wave staring-array FLIR sensor with a 40,000-feet laser and charge-couple device (CCD) TV, and the AAS-43 infra-red search-and-track (IRST) system containing a passive long-wave IR sensor.
Simply put, therefore, the IAF is in dire need of procuring an M-MRCA fleet with automatic terrain-following capability—which the Rafale is optimised for. Presently, the IAF operates 3 MiG-29B-12 squadrons (now being upgraded to MiG-29UPG standard), 9 MiG-21 Bison squadrons, 4 Jaguar IS squadrons, 1 Jaguar IM squadron, 10 Su-30MKI squadrons, 3 Mirage 2000H/TH squadrons (being upgraded to Mirage 2000UPG standard), 3 MiG-27UPG squadrons, and 2 MiG-27M squadrons, making a total of 35 squadrons. Although the sanctioned strength of the IAF is 42 combat aircraft squadrons (which is due for increase to 50 squadrons by 2024, at least on paper), of these, those equipped with MiG-21 Bisons, MiG-27UPGs and MiG-27Ms will have to be decommissioned by 2017 at the latest.
Presently, the IAF is gearing up to form the first ‘Tejas’ Mk1 squadron—No45 ‘Flying Daggers’ Sqn—which will initially be first raised in Bengaluru before relocating to Sulur in Coimbatore, Tamil Nadu, this March. Present plans call for the first four IOC-standard) Tejas Mk1 MRCAs built by the MoD-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to be delivered by March 31, 2015, another six by March 31, 2016, and another eight by March 31, 2017. This squadron will, however, be declared fully operational only in 2022, once its 18 Tejas Mk1s are upgraded to FOC standard. The second Tejas Mk1-equipped squadron, comprising 20 FOC-standard MRCAs, will be formed up in 2017 and will become fully operational by March 31, 2020. All Tejas Mkls will be equipped with Israel Aerospace Industries/ELTA Systems-supplied EL/M-2032 MMRs, which will possess both automatic terrain-following and weather mapping modes of operation.
Going by calculations based on universal norms, I have estimated the flyaway unit cost of procuring 40 Tejas Mk1s as being US$52 million. To this must be added the cost of air base customisation and procurement of weapons packages, all of which works to out about US$72 million per aircraft.
Meanwhile, to replace the MiG-27UPGs and MiG-27Ms, 68 Jaguar IS aircraft are presently being upgraded to DARIN 3-standard so that they can undertake all-weather tactical strike/close air support operations. This Rs.31.3 billion (US$0.57 billion) contract was awarded to HAL in March 2008 and is due for completion by December 2017. The upgraded Jaguar IS too will have on board the EL/M-2032 MMRs possessing both automatic terrain-following and weather mapping modes of operation.
From the above, it becomes clear that the IAF is now in desperate need of M-MRCAs with credible deep penetration strike capabilities and capable of flying terrain-hugging profiles. It is also well-known that the IAF wants to arrest the steady decline of its frontline combat aircraft inventory ASAP. The only available options—all non-negotiable—are as follows:
1) Ink the procurement contract for 189 Rafales latest by June 2015.
2) Increase the size of the Su-30MKI fleet to no less than 350 by procuring the first 50 Super Su-30MKIs in semi-knocked-down condition from Russia’s IRKUT Corp, starting 2017, while concurrently commencing the upgrading of in-service Su-30MKIs in successive tranches to Super Sukhoi-standard.
3) Increase the quantum of Jaguar IS being upgraded to DARIN 3-stadard from 68 to 125 and re-engine the entire fleet with Honeywell-supplied F-125 turbofans.
Now a brief explanation on why the Rafale M-MRCA procurement’s contract signature has been subjected to delays. Firstly, there was the financial crunch over the past two years. Secondly, the Union Ministry for Home Affairs had in 2012 issued mandatory industrial security-related regulations that called for comprehensive vetting (a most time-consuming process) of all technical and managerial personnel of those India-based Tier-1, Tier-2 and Tier-3 companies that were selected for the licence-manufacturing/licenced-assembly components of the Rafale M-MRCA. Thirdly, since French aerospace OEMs have always made use of France-origin precision machining, riveting and welding equipment and related test-benches, this time too they insisted that HAL and its sub-contractors procure all such hardware exclusively from French OEMs, instead of issuing global tenders for such industrial hardware procurements. Had HAL not agreed to comply with this key issue, all the involved French OEMs would have been unable to issue certificates of airworthiness for all those Rafales licence-built by HAL. It is this issue that has been most time-consuming and in the end, HAL had no other choice but to give-in.
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