By Rohit Srivastava
As an aftermath of the Covid-19 pandemic, India has decided to achieve self-sufficiency in Defence through local manufacturing and by restricting the import of items. It is a fact that India, like other nations, is facing an economic slowdown, which will impact the availability of funds for defence purchases.
One of the major purchase programs is that of Indian Air Force’s (IAF) requirement for 114 multi-role fighter aircraft through the strategic partnership model. It’s been over two decades since IAF started to look for 126 medium fighters through the MMRCA programme.
IAF is making serious investments in the Indian home grown capability by committing itself to buy over 200 Light Combat Aircrafts (Mk1A, Mk2). Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), which is expected to arrive by the end of this decade. Last year, post the Balakot strike, India approached Russia to buy an additional one squadron of Su-30 MKI and 21 MiG-29 UPG. Both sides are yet to finalise the purchase agreement.
In the meantime, India will be decommissioning its MiG-21 and MiG-27 which will substantially reduce the fighter numbers. To maintain its squadron strength, which is around 30 - a dozen less than sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons- IAF needs 114 multi-role fighter.
Last month, the Government of India announced a series of policy reforms to take India towards self-reliance in defence, according to which India will make concessions to facilitate purchase through Indian vendors. According to the proposed Defence Production Policy, India is planning to achieve self-reliance in development and manufacture of 13 platforms/weapons including fighter aircraft by 2025.
On the other hand, due to global recession, there will be substantial reduction in the capital purchase budget. India will have to ensure more bang for each buck.
In addition to the financial worries, India’s main adversary China has moved inside the Line of Actual Control in Ladakh. The two sides are in a stand-off. Although, both sides are trying to avoid war, yet, one can never be sure.
In the given situation, India cannot afford to go for high-cost platform in small numbers. Recently the Indian Air Chief, in an interview with a news portal, said that India needs to reduce the number of types of aircrafts for better logistics and maintenance. To this one may add, this will make a business case for spare production also.
If one includes LCA and Rafale, the IAF will have eight different kinds of fighter aircraft in its inventory, namely, Mirage 2000, Su-30, SPEECAT Jaguar, MiG-21, MiG-29, MiG-27. The design philosophy behind multi-role fighters is that the one aircraft can do multiple jobs and therefore air forces can let go of role-specific aircraft like bombers, air superiority aircraft etc.
Now, Let us look at the available options for the 114 fighter programme from this perspective.
Since, IAF do not wish to add any new types of aircrafts in its fleet, only two aircrafts out six contenders (excluding F-16,F/A-18, Eurofighter and Gripen) for MRCA should be considered, i.e., Rafale and MiG-35 (improved version of MiG-29UPG).
Lets accept for the sake of argument that Rafale is the best aircraft in the medium weight multi-role 4++ generation aircraft category. And now we can compare which of the two is a better option for the IAF.
India paid Euro 7.8 billion for 36 Rafale jets where each aircraft costs over $200 million. The justification for the high cost is India-specific modifications and advanced weapons such as Meteor, Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile, with a range of 150 km and Scalp loitering ammunition.
On the other hand, Russian MiG-35 is expected to cost in the range of $35 million. Even if each MiG-35 costs $50 million (adjustment to inflation and increase in exchange rate of dollar) over the programme period, then, for the cost of one Rafale IAF one can purchase four MiG-35s.
For an air force which is cribbing about fighter shortage, IAF could have purchased eight squadrons of MiG-35 for two squadrons of Rafale. It makes no sense to go for a small batch of aircrafts. IAF on records has said that the Rafale deal was in line with the previous emergency purchases like MiG-29, Mirage-2000 which were purchased to enhance strike capability.
Coming to the indigenisation and support to Indian industry, Since India already operates over 100 MiG-29s and Russia and India are working on spare parts production in India, another 114 aircraft will make the logistics and maintenance of MiG-35 fleet more cost-efficient. The local spare production will substantially improve the operational availability of aircraft.
The spares manufacturing will help in retaining and developing the aircraft manufacturing skills across the ecosystem and will also strengthen the nascent aero-space sector. This will help in achieving self-sufficiency in military aviation.
Finally, coming to weapons, Russia has no objection in equipping its fighters with Indian missiles. In the last two years, DRDO has finished development of Astra (beyond visual range air to air missile with a range of over 100 km) and also launched development of light weight BrahMos NG (1.5tons). Each MiG-35 can carry one BrahMos NG along with other weapons. The BrahMos NG with its 290 km range can hit targets deep within the adversary’s territory and is a much cheaper option than the French scalp munitions.
Weapons make large part of fighter deals and if India can have its own missiles along with Russian missiles, India will not be short of options against its adversaries. France has declined India’s request to equip Russian and Indian fighters with Meteor. Hence if India wants more Meteors India will have to purchase more Rafale. The self-sufficiency in the defence sector will go for a toss. On the other hand Russia, by allowing integration of air launched BrahMos and Astra on Su-30, is helping India in achieving self-sufficiency in missile systems.
India must look at the future. In the next 20 years all these 4++ generation aircraft will not be the front line fighters in any major air forces. It is time for India to think progressively. Technology in itself is cheap but becomes costly when it is part of a product. Hence it is not prudent for India to invest in an expensive product that would become obsolete in the near future. The next fighter of France is a stealth aircraft.