It's the biggest fighter aircraft deal since the early 1990s,said Boeing's Mark Kronenberg
, who runs the company's Asia/Pacific business. DID has offered ongoing coverage of India's planned multi-billion dollar jet fighter buy
, from its early days as a contest between Dassault, Saab, and MiG for a 126 plane order to the possible entry of American competitors and even EADS' Eurofighter. What began as a lightweight fighter competition to replace India's shrinking MiG-21 interceptor fleet appears to have bifurcated into two categories now, and two expense tiers.
That trend got a sharp boost recently, when Press Trust of India (PTI) reported a surprise pullout by the CEO of Dassault on the eve of the RFP. The Mirage 2000v5 will no longer be fielded for the India deal, despite the fact that India already flies 40 Mirage 2000Ds and its senior officials have touted standardization as a plus factor. So, what's going on?
In a word, lots. The participants are changing, India's view of its own needs is changing, and the size and nature of the order may be changing as well....Dassault's Move: The Rafale Option
According to India Press Trust
, Chacks Edelstenne, CEO of Dassault Aviation, visited the Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh and The Deputy Chief of the Air Staff Air Marshal AK Nangalia on February 21, 2006. He informed his audience that "we are on the verge of closing the Mirage fighter assembly line and want to offer India a quantum jump in technology... Though India has not not floated the Request for Proposals (RFP), we have conveyed to India to supply 40 Rafale multi-mission fighters in single source deal."
In a related move, French engine maker Snecma, which is also bidding for DRDO's joint collaboration project on the Tejas LCA's Kaveri engines, has offered to mount Kaveri engines in Rafale fighters.Media reports note
that India's decision-making speed may have had something to do with the switch, as Dassault sources claimed that it would take at least three-four years for a contract to actually be signed with India. Word is that the French government thought that it would be too expensive to keep the Mirage factories running during that time without additional export prospects.
Dassault has reportedly assured India that its extensive Mirage repair and servicing facilities set up by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited at Bangalore would require only 'limited modification' to accommodate the Rafale, given its commonalities with the Mirage 2000s.
Dassault may be completely up-front about the reasons behind this choice. It may also have decided that the introduction of the F/A-18 Super Hornet, MiG-35, and changing requirements in the RFP make the Mirage a loser anyway, while boosting the Rafale's chance of securing an export order that would be critical to its long-term future.
Whichever way one leans, the withdrawal of the Mirage 2000 from the competition appears to be official and final.India's MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft): Changes
The original intent of India's fighter purchase was to replace hundreds of non-upgraded MiG-21s that India will be forced to retire, with a complementary force of 126 aircraft to go with India's high end Su-30MKIs, and its low-end Tejas LCA lightweight fighter. India is a large country, with coverage needs over a wide area (see map of airbases in "Order of Battle") and on several fronts.
Lightweight multi-role fighters that could make up for declining aircraft numbers with broader and better capabilities would appear to fit that need, and their initial shortlist followed that template.The Mirage 2000
were already in service with India in this role, and the JAS-39 offered a fourth generation aircraft whose costs and profile place it firmly in the lightweight fighter category. These aircraft served as a hedge against the potential failure of the Tejas lightweight Combat Aircraft project, and also offered a more immediate solution to plussing up numbers as existing MiG-21s and MiG-23s/MiG-27s were forced into retirement.
Since those early days, sharply improved relations with the USA have introduced a pair of American planes into the competition, and India's view of its own needs is changing. Official sources told Jane's that RFPs are now to be issued to France's Dassault (Mirage 2000-5 and Rafale), BAE/Saab (JAS-39 Gripen), EADS/BAE (Eurofighter Typhoon), The American firms Lockheed (F-16 Block 70) and Boeing (F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet), and Russia's Rosonboronexport (MiG-29OVT with thrust vectoring, aka. MiG-35).
India's requirements are also changing. Jane's Defence Weekly notes that India wishes to 'significantly' augment their strike capability and range to deal with out-of-area contingencies (a trend noted by DID recently). This has delayed the MRCA RFP, originally expected in December 2005. Another contributor to these delays has been the need to refine and clarify the new industrial offset rules (perhaps US lobbying has made a difference).
Of even greater importance is Jane's belief that India will increase its initial requirement from 126 multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) to around 180-190 aircraft, with the additional number being considered for acquisition by the Indian Navy. Reports to other outlets vary, however, and some reports have India standing firm at 126 aircraft.
The naval requirement will be extremely significant because the current roster of competitors contains only two aircraft that qualify for future STOBAR1 carriers like the INS Vikramaditya (ex- Admiral Gorshkov) and the Vikrant Class (aka. Air Defence Ship), which will reportedly weigh in at 37,500 tonnes with a design that is heavily influenced by Italy's Cavour Class.
Those aircraft are the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet and Dassault's Rafale-M variant. Additionally, the MiG-35 is related to the MiG-29K naval variant slated for operation on INS Vikramaditya. If Russia wishes to invest in the idea, a carrier-capable MiG-35K may also be doable - if the extra weight of the new fuel tanks doesn't create a problem given the hard impacts of carrier landings.
Recall India's need to replace large numbers of aircraft. Given that both the Rafale and Super Hornet carry flyaway costs in the $55-70 million per plane range, and total program costs significantly higher than that, a naval requirement within the competition almost certainly means a split of the order between these high-expense platforms and a cheaper lightweight fighter contender. For instance, there's the possibility of a smaller F/A-18 E/F order and a large MiG-35 order.
India's defense procurement process is definitely a game for the patient, but an RFP that clarifies India's exact requirements and timelines is expected within the next few few months.