Friday, May 15, 2009

From Mirage to MMRCA - Saga of Indian Defence Acquisition

Indian MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) competition has been a long drawn affair. An affair that outlasted torturous K-series sops from Ms. Kapoor. Just like key characters in those sops, various contenders had sudden entry or exit as far as competition is concerned. Another analogy is that as in the sops, main characters span across various generations. Number of characters in K-sops is approximately equal to the number of aircrafts to be purchased under MMRCA deal (126 aircrafts as of now). A few weeks back, assault of K-series didn’t seem to be never-ending. Same can be said for MMRCA deal as no end seems to be in sight. At least not yet.

MMRCA competition is a child with many parents. The most important factor being the gap between retirement of various variants of MiG-21 and delay in introduction of Tejas (indigenous Light Combat Aircraft aka LCA). Another critical factor has been the reluctance of UPA government still haunted by Bofors ghost. Third factor has been a dramatic change in geo-political situation in this part of the globe. Last but not the least has been the fact that IAF is now seeing itself in a much larger role than before and wants the right tools to fulfill that role. Let us discuss all these one by one.

Originally MMRCA existed just as a term of reference. IAF just wanted additional squadrons of Mirage-2000-V as the MMRCA. This was due to the fact that due to crashes, a fine fighter like MiG-21 was being branded as “flying coffin” by not-so-investigative media. A big hue and cry was raised by media forcing IAF to ground certain variants of MiG-21 for some time. While Fishbeds sat in their hangars, their replacement LCA was facing major issues. Post-Pokhran, LCA was suffering from sanctions put up by USA and other countries. It was already running a decade behind schedule and the magic lamp that can turn it into a deadly fighter is yet to be found. Even now LCA is couple of years away from serving the IAF. This major gap brought down IAF numbers quicker than anticipated. So the quickest solution was to get an aircraft that would fill the gap created by MiG-21 crashes and delay in LCA project. IAF had an aircraft in mind which would do just that and more. This aircraft had proved its worth in Kargil conflict by bombing some high profile targets like Tiger Hill. It was none other than delta-winged Mirage-2000H (called ‘Vajra’ in IAF service). Purchased during the tenure of Rajiv Gandhi, M-2000 silenced those who claimed that India had paid a fortune for this tiny aircraft. So it was quiet natural that IAF was impressed by this aircraft and wanted to have some more squadrons flying this bird. It put up its intentions in front of MoD and almost got it approved. The then Defence Minister, Mr. George Fernandes clearly mentioned that next government would sign the deal for buying an advanced version - Mirage-2000-V - from Dassault.

New government came to power. This was a coalition led by Congress. As most of us know, history of independent India has seen Congress is power for a longer time than any other political party. It was during the tenure of Congress party that a deal was signed to purchase around 400 howitzers for the Indian Army. Alleged kickbacks from Bofors deal would haunt the Gandhi family and Congress for a very long time. Even exceptional performance of 155mm Bofors howitzers during Kargil conflict didn’t do much good to them. So when it was time to sign the deal for additional Mirages, Congress led coalition – UPA – faltered. Memories of past came rushing back. UPA was not ready to take any chances. So under the pretext of “avoiding a single vendor situation”, UPA created a saga popularly known as MMRCA competition. Initially the contenders were Mirage-2000-V, F-16 Block 50-52/60 and MiG-29 M2 (later renamed MiG-35). Most of the enthusiasts and IAF officers thought that it was just a tactic to pressurize France and eventually Mirage will be selected.

Few years went without anything concrete happening on the MMRCA front. And then suddenly India found a new friend in USA. Thaw in relations was due to various economic and political factors and it opened lot many doors that were earlier off-limits to India. It seems IAF was told that they can’t have their Mirages. Instead, revised requirements for MMRCA were to be submitted. Huge shift in these requirements is clear from the entry/exit of contenders. While Indian government was courting USA, France announced that they would shut down assembly lines for Mirage. This situation saw Mirage pulling out of the race, being replaced by Rafale. As if this was not enough, F-18 E/F Super Hornet, JAS-39 Gripen, and EF Typhoon joined the party. To a careful observer, this would be bit amusing. As most of us know, initial MMRCA competition was for a medium aircraft with MTOW (Max. Take-Off Weight) less than 25 tons. And since it was supposed to replace IAF’s workhorse – MiG-21 – it calls for good serviceability and lower maintenance cost. But the late entrants didn’t fit this criterion. Instead they are expensive and advanced aircrafts that might compete with Su-30MKI in terms of performance and resources.

IAF top brass, who was earlier content with just buying additional Mirages wanted to make the most of increased defence budget and newfound economic strength. They feverishly drew up requirements making it clear that nothing but the best will satisfy them. Terms like AESA, network centricity, swing role, etc. started taking up their slots in requirement sheets. This was the first time that IAF had a chance to get its entire wish list without having to worry about running out of money. IAF, after operating air dominance fighters like Su-30MKI and acquisition of force multipliers like IL-78MKI tankers and PHALCON AWACS is in the mood to make the most out of these assets. Indian economy growing and threats to Indian interests are also changing. It is only a matter of time before we have to send our forces to distant lands to ensure safety of our commercial and political interests. This is evident from so many exercises held with various air forces across the globe. This has forced IAF to rethink its requirements and the end result is requirement for a highly capable aircraft with a good upgrade potential.

Military benefits from MMRCA deal are better known to IAF and Ministry of Defence (MoD). But economic benefits that will result from this deal will affect local industry in a big way, thanks to the offset clause. As per the offset policy framed by GoI in 2006, any deal worth more than Rs 300 crore should have an offset clause of at least 30%. This means 30% of the total deal amount will have to be invested in local industry. And the beauty of it is that, it has to be specifically invested in defence sector, eventually strengthening local industry. Since Transfer of Technology of advanced technology is also a deciding parameter of MMRCA deal, Indian defence sector will benefit in terms of funding and technology infusion.

With the recent global crisis, aviation majors like Lockheed Martin (makers of F-16/F-22) and Boeing (F-18/JSF) have been forced to layoff thousands of employees. The situation is not much better for RAC MiG and European aviation companies either. In such a scenario, all eyes are fixed on MMRCA competition. 126 aircrafts is a big deal by any standard, but at this time, such a deal can keep production lines open and give a welcome respite to the winning company.

MMRCA Contenders.
Image Courtesy: SP's Aviation

1 comment:

  1. Another superb post !!!

    Little clarification, Lockheed martin and other defense system manufacturers are Hiring crazily in US. Recession is just an excuse to layoff non performing people.