Almost two decades after it began a search for a fighter aircraft, the Indian Air Force is back to square one. The IAF will begin the search again to arrest its falling squadron strength, as the Union government had scrapped the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender after ordering 36 Rafale fighters from France in flyaway condition.
“The Request for Information (RFI) for selecting a new fighter aircraft is expected to be issued before the DefExpo in April. It will be an open tender and not limited to single-engine aircraft,” a defence official told The Hindu.
Earlier, the IAF was looking for a single-engine jet to replace the MiG-21s and MiG-27s. The new jets were to be manufactured in India by the private industry under the Strategic Partnership model. However, the contest is now being opened up.
“The contest for single-engine jets has only two contenders and it would end up being a single-vendor situation on technical evaluation. So it has been decided to widen the contest to avoid issues later,” the official said.
While the Lockheed Martin F-16 and SAAB Gripen are single-engine fighters, the contest will be now open to Boeing F-18, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and Russian MiG-35, all of which were part of the earlier MMRCA contest. The open tender will essentially be MMRCA all over again.
“The IAF has already evaluated all the aircraft in the MMRCA contest. So once the technical evaluation process starts, selection of one aircraft can be completed in two years. After that, it is the contract negotiations. Concluding the contract depends on how fast we can close it,” an IAF source said.
In 2000, the government decided to procure 126 fighter jets, but it was only in 2007 that the RFI, the first step in the long procurement process, was issued for 126 aircraft under the MMRCA deal expected to cost around $12 billion.
However, with contract negotiations reaching a deadlock, in 2015, Prime Minister Narendra Modi scrapped the deal and announced an Inter-Governmental Agreement with France for 36 Rafales at a cost of €7.87 billion, including aircraft, spares, weapons and a maintenance and performance guarantee for five years.
Under the new deal, the IAF is looking for over 100 aircraft, and the official said that whether single- or twin-engine, the aircraft were equally competent and the final choice would depend on the extent of technology transfer and price.
Another reason for widening the tender is for the selection of a competent Indian partner. In anticipation of a single-engine tender, Lockheed and SAAB had tied up with prospective Indian partners.
“The Indian SP partner has to be selected by the government through a competitive evaluation. So it is good to have a wider pool of both OEMs [original equipment manufacturer] and Indian partners to choose from,” the official said.
One defence official observed that procuring at least two more squadrons of Rafale jets would make economic, operational and logistical sense as India is spending €2 billion on IAF-specific customisations and 36 is too small a number.
“It makes logical sense and would save us money as the additional aircraft would cost less. But in the current political climate, it is not possible,” he said.
The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons but is currently down to 31 squadrons and with the planned induction of 36 Rafales between 2019 and 2022, remaining Sukhoi-30MKI and some LCA Tejas, the strength will hover at 30 till 2027 and in the subsequent five-year term, will fall to 27. If there are no newer inductions, it is expected to slide further to 19 squadrons by 2042.