The light fighter debacle

Among many other things, the new Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, would do well to study the long-running procurement of a single-engine, light fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to understand how dysfunctional procurement hamstrings the military. Friday’s announcement by Swedish company Saab and the Adani Group to build the Gripen E single-engine fighter in India followed a similar tie-up in June between US-major Lockheed Martin and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd (TASL) to build the F-16 Block 70 fighter and has brought the wheel full circle from 1999 when the IAF demanded 126 combat aircraft to replace its ageing fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-27 light fighters. It was originally hoped that the Tejas light combat aircraft would replace the MiGs. However, it was nowhere in sight during the Kargil conflict (1999). So the IAF decided to supplement its three-squadron fleet of Mirage 2000 multi-role fighters, which had performed well during Kargil. French vendor Dassault proposed shifting the Mirage 2000 production line to India. The idea was that if, after building the IAF’s immediate requirement of 126 fighters, the Tejas was not yet available, it would be easy to build more Mirage 2000-5s.

But in 2002, burnt by the Tehelka sting, the government shied away from single-vendor procurement and ordered a global tender. Washington, driving for a closer relationship with India, cleared the F-16 for sale to New Delhi, the Russians offered their new MiG-29M and Saab of Sweden jumped in with its Gripen light fighter. With the simple Mirage 2000-5 solution scuppered, the IAF took two years to issue a Request for Information (RFI) to these four fighter vendors in 2004. Three years later, when the IAF issued its tender, the original plan to build an affordable, single-engine, light fighter was officially dead. Boeing had joined the fray with an offer for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Eurofighter GmbH consortium had offered the Typhoon. Dassault, furious at losing out on an assured order and having to compete in a global procurement, dropped its offer of the Mirage 2000-5 and fielded the Rafale instead. This was now the “medium multi-role combat aircraft” (MMRCA) contest between a smorgasbord of dissimilar fighters — heavy, twin-engine fighters competing with medium, single-engine ones.

Predictably, the IAF did what air forces do and finally picked the Rafale — the most expensive heavy fighter in the fray. With a price tag that neither the United Progressive Alliance nor the National Democratic Alliance was willing to pay, the government has bought 36 Rafales for a mind-boggling ^7.87 billion. That is one-and-a-half times what was budgeted for 126 MMRCA. And the IAF, down to just 33 squadrons against the 42 needed to handle a China-Pakistan collusive threat, has gone back to the start line. Thankfully, the new RFI specifies a single-engine fighter that must be built in India by the private sector. But now there are fresh questions. Will there be space for the Tejas, which is now close to completion? And can novice aerospace companies such as TASL and the Adanis graduate straight to assembling complex fighters?

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