February 7, 2012 Common Era
Magh 24, 2068 Vikram Samvat
Now that the dust has started settling on the decision of the MMRCA competition (which went in favour of the Dassault Rafale, in case you had taken temporary sannyas for the last week) it is as good a time as any to take stock of the whole saga and what it means for India and IAF.
Let it me first say that I think the MRCA program in its current form is ill thought out and possibly a waste of money. We should have opted out of the planned acquisition when the Mirage-2000-5 was withdrawn and invested in speeding up the LCA, MiG-29 and Mirage-2000 upgrades and gathering any available Mirage-2000 from the international market.
However, since that is not going to be, we might as well bear it and evaluate whether India's choice, the Rafale is a worthy winner of the MRCA race.
So It Begins...
|The Six MRCA Contenders. From Left to Right : Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, JAS 39 Gripen and Mikoyan MiG-35.|
To recap, the MRCA saga began as an urgent request from IAF to MOD for 126 Mirage-2000's, way back in 2001, in order to keep up falling squadron numbers. A number of MiG-21 variants and the MiG-23 were due to be retired and needed replacement. GOI, in all its wisdom, possibly to forestall any corruption allegation, opened up the requirement to a multi-vendor competition, adding MiG-29 and Saab Gripen to the Mirage-2000. Later the Americans offered the F-16 to the mix as well.
For the next few years, GOI and MOD dragged feet in the highest traditions of GOI and MOD, forcing Dassault, the French company which makes the Mirage-2000, to close down its Mirage manufacturing line and offer the Rafale in stead.
|Mirage-2000-5 : Tired of Waiting. Shown here in Qatari Air Force Colours.|
That was in 2007. In the intervening 5 years IAF has conducted an exhausting evaluation of the competing fighters including field trials at places ranging from the sweltering deserts of Rajasthan to the rarefied climes of Leh. In late April 2011, at the end of the technical evaluation, which involved as many as 643 individual parameters, only 2 of the 6 made the final cut. Dassault and Eurofighter Consortium were notified that their proteges had made it to the final round, the other 4 had effectively failed to clear minimum technical requirements set by the Air Headquarters.
The next stage involved a comparison of the bids taking into account purchase cost, life-cycle cost and adherence to TOT and offset requirements. Last week, on the last day of January Dassault Rafale was declared as L1, or the lowest bid of the two remaining contenders. Negotiations are expected to begin in earnest (which in GOI speak means sometime in the next few months) in order to finalise the nitty-gritties of a contract between GOI and Dassault Aviation.
Still, it's not over till the fat lady sings and the other contenders will think they are in with a chance until GOI representatives sign on the proverbial dotted line.
|Rafale Emitting flares.|
Before we embark on a detailed technological bells and whistles comparison of the contenders, it would help if we first tried to guesstimate IAF's requirements from the MRCA program.
|A Plethora of Threats : From Top to Bottom Su30-MKK, JF-17, F-16, J-10, J-20.|
Given increasing levels of military co-operation between China and Pakistan, IAF is planning for an eventuality when it is called to fight both adversaries on two fronts. Pitted against IAF's 700 odd fighters would be a 1000 strong fighter fleet of PLAAF and PAF combined, to say nothing of the potent SAM cover on the Chinese side.
What this means is that IAF would most likely be too stretched numerically to be able to afford specialized strike aircraft protected by dedicated air superiority fighters. Ideally, a formation of a single type should be able to do both with equal ease, thus performing as a self contained unit that can hold its own for limited periods of time without needing reinforcements.
If we again look at the combined ORBAT of PLAAF-PAF and compare with the IAF's, we find that the Su-30MKI is perhaps unmatched in air superiority, owing to its highly capable radar and avionics. It is certainly the case against PAF and even against the PLAAF's Su-30MKK's, the advantage is lesser but still substantial. When the FGFA enters service by the end of the decade, this advantage would become substantial, even taking the Chengdu J-20 into account.
The one disadvantage of the Su-30MKI, namely its large RCS is somewhat softened by the Rafale, which can use its relatively low RCS and ability to fire very long range air-to-air missiles like the MBDA meteor. With fleet wide datalinks expected to be available by the time of induction, radar inputs can come from AEW&C aircraft or even Su-30MKI's flying as mini-AEW aircraft.
|HQ-9 Missile Launchers in PLA's National Day Parade. The missile system incorporates substantial amount of technology from the S-300 SAM.|
Where the IAF finds itself a little thin is the area of long range strike under high SAM threat conditions and China's air-defence network based on S-300 knock-offs surely counts as one. Against that threat, Rafale arguably gives India the best chances of hitting China's SAM and C3I nodes in case of a conflict. While the F/A-18 superhornet was also considered highly capable in strike role, it is not stealth optimised, the airframe design gave subpar performance in A2A and availability of the truly capable version from USA was always doubtful.
The Rafale is after all the only MRCA contender designed from ground-up with RCS reduction in mind, always an advantage when operating against a high threat air defence network. It also has significant load carrying capacity in multiple hardpoints and a highly capable EW system in the SPECTRA. Add the fact that it is cleared for a number of modern stealthy A2G munitions, viz. Storm Shadow/SCALP EG, AASM etc and it clearly becomes the ideal platform to complement the Su-30MKI as the cutting edge of IAF.
Technology Boost While the Indian military industrial complex has been taking rapid strides in recent years, it still lags the advanced ones by 15-20 years on average. The MRCA program is one of the best opportunities for the Indian military-industrial complex to get a much needed infusion of cutting-edge technology so it can try and close the gap with the more advanced MIC's. The know-how available from TOT due to MRCA program should find its way into future Indian programs like the AMCA and upgrade programs.
|Aiming For the Future.|
Ideally, the future military projects would either see India going it alone or as equal partners in JV's with international partners, in stead of the 'buyer of technology' model of acquisition we have now. Leveraging and further developing the technology available from MRCA would allow Indian MIC to bargain from a position of strength while deciding workshares not to mention the expected domino effect in India's own projects.
The Political Factor
|Dr Manmohan Singh with French President Sarkozy|
That is however only the external ramifications. From India's perspective the deal offered both opportunity and risks. Firstly, it was a chance to break out of the overt dependence on Russian origin weapons, to diversify sources so that no one country held overwhelming leverage over India. A contract this large would also potentially buy political support in international fora, support for UNSC candidacy for instance.
While choosing an American aircraft offered possible strategic gains, by refusing American contenders one risked irking the sole superpower. American foreign policy being volatile at best and hypocritical and self-serving at worst, an American fighter for MRCA came with the attendant risk of crippling sanctions. Especially so given US propensity to offer up India as a sop to Pakistan in order to buy a little breathing space in Afghanistan.
The Swedish option, while neither offering much in terms of strategic opportunities nor risking much in terms of upsetting a major power should the decision go against them, was nevertheless hampered by the perception that US could and would hold back US origin items. In any case, there was not much to be gained by opting for the Swedish option.
That left the four nation Eurofighter and the French Rafale. While UK, Germany, Italy and Spain constitute the partner nations of Eurofighter, it is the first two that carry the most influence both in and out of the project. Unfortunately the economic crisis in these countries put into doubts their commitment to the program. Moreover, it was also questionable whether the gains from the sale to India split four ways would be enough to justify increased political mileage for India from any of the countries individually. The reputation of UK as the loyal sidekick to US meant strong skepticism among Indian decision makers that UK could follow a foreign policy independent of the US.
France on the other hand has a rather sterling reputation in comparison, its prompt support during the 1999 Kargil War still well remembered in New Delhi. From having taken a leading role in offering nuclear power know-how to publicly supporting India's bid for a permanent seat in UNSC, France has smartly played the 'strategic co-operation' card at every opportunity. Its reputation as the western European country with the most independent foreign policy (read not directed from US) hasn't hurt its chances either.
The outlook is certainly promising and hopefully the outcome would be as well.
Some features of Rafale dovetail nicely into advantages for India, although not substantial enough to have decided the fate of the acquisition, they certainly sweeten the deal in favour of the French fighter.
|Advert by Dassault highlighting its long history with India.|
|Rafale M landing on an aircraft carrier.|
The chances for Indian Navy opting for a naval version of the MRCA are rather remote. With 45 MiG-29K on order and 40 odd NLCA Mk2 expected to join the Naval Air Arm, Navy wouldn't need any more carrier based fighters until the third aircraft carrier joins the force; which shouldn't be before 2025. For that timeframe it is highly likely that IN would want a fifth generation fighter rather than a 4+ generation one. Even so, the option of a capable aircraft that is readily available and is essentially same as a version operated by the air force offers an attractive safety cushion should something go wrong with the other procurements.
Dark Side of the Rafale
Like everything else in life, Rafale comes with its share of weaknesses. For one, it has a very small sized nose that severely limits the radar aperture, giving lower performance than a corresponding larger sized radar. The aerodynamic profile of the airframe means that there is no way of fitting a larger nose and hence a larger radar. The only way to get improved radar performance is by a qualitative upgrade that involves more sensitive TRMs.
As of now the Rafale is also limited to the comparatively short-ranged MICA as its BVR missile. However this should be solved when it is cleared for the Meteor.
If the Mirage-2000 upgrade is any indication, it is a given that the cost of French weapons, spares and future upgrade programs are going to be exorbitant. This is a potentially contentious issue which can create bad blood between India and Dassault. Hopefully the initial agreement would be comprehensive enough to prevent such an eventuality.
A Note of Caution
One little noticed news snippet on the day of the announcement stated that the shares of Dassault Aviation rose more than 18% to a 22 year high on news of the Rafale being chosen. Bereft of the fluff, what this indicates is that huge amounts of Indian public money is being used to bankroll weapons developers from abroad. This is a trend we see across the board in all three forces. Arguably, we may not have many other options at this point of time, but this model of arms procurement is not sustainable in the long run. With skyrocketing price tags on weapons and increasing expense on manpower, the military may soon find itself devoid of money to upgrade or buy new weapon systems from abroad.
The better alternative is to develop and support domestic R&D to a level where it can compete with the best in the world. Not only are Indian developed and manufactured weapons degrees of magnitude cheaper than foreign equivalents, they are also tailor made to suit use by India. Investment in domestic industry in turn improves the economy, generates employment and is a potential earner of foreign exchange. Not to mention it is a better option in terms of information security as well.
Let us hope the decision makers keep in mind the larger picture as well.
MMRCA - Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft
IAF - Indian Air Force
GOI - Government of India
MOD - Ministry of Defence
RFP - Request For Proposals
TOT - Transfer Of Technology
PLAAF - People's Liberation Army Air Force (of People's Republic of China)
PAF - Pakistan Air Force
SAM - Surface to Air Missile
ORBAT - ORder of BATtle
RCS - RADAR Cross Section
FGFA - Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft
AEW&C - Airborne Early Warning and Control
EW - Electronic Warfare
A2A - Air to Air
A2G - Air to Ground
MIC - Military Industrial Complex
UNSC - United Nations Security Council
NLCA - Naval Light Combat Aicraft
IN - Indian Navy
BVR - Beyond Visual Range