The thriving Indian defence industry is all set to witness a major procurement process following the release of RFIs (Request For Information) by the Indian air force and the navy. The forces through these RFIs plan to acquire several multi-role fighter aircraft and this has effectively made India one of the most competitive markets for global aerospace companies.

The acquisition of foreign fighters even though is in stark contrast to India’s self reliance mission, is crucial to address the short fallings in the strike capabilities of the forces.  The acquisition process has gained greater importance as aging platforms are fast bleeding the country off its regional aerial dominance, which is crucial to tide over a two front war scenario.

The air force hurdled the beginning to this multi-billion dollar acquisition process by floating a RFI in November, 2016 and through its embassies had forwarded it to aerospace companies in USA, Sweden and Russia. The RFI which was received by Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab and Mikoyan sought the interest of these companies in jointly developing a single-engine fighter aircraft for the air force.

The RFI according to several sources of these companies has not listed the required numbers of the aircraft but has only sought the company’s offer and its willingness to transfer requisite technology to Indian firms. A senior executive has confirmed that an RFI was indeed floated and that the RFI was extremely short and had a scope for only ‘YES’ or ‘NO’ reply.

Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar’s statement in January, 2017 has confirmed that the air force is primarily scouting a single-engine medium multi-role fighter to replace aging MiG-21 aircraft. Saab and Lockheed Martin remain the sole contenders given the fact that these are the only two companies manufacturing single-engine fighters.

With the IAF gradually retiring aging platforms, rapid induction of single-engine fighters remain to be the need of the hour.  Of the currently active 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft under the command of the air force, at least 12 squadrons are composed of MiG aircraft which are to be retired by 2022.

With no forthcoming replacements, the air force has been forced to opt for foreign fighters. The multi-billion dollar deal is being routed through the government’s celebrated ‘Make in India’ initiative and this promises to arm the country with not only an able fighter but the capabilities to indigenously develop aircraft.

Sweden based Saab, a pioneer in aerospace technologies, has offered its proven Gripen – E fighter for the IAF. Saab’s ‘Smart Fighter’ is one of the most advanced 4th generation aircraft and also the most cost efficient air power package available in the market. Saab’s modular design promises to make Gripen – E one of the most efficient aircraft with an availability rate of anything upwards 90%.

Jan Winderstrom, CMD, Saab India, speaking about the aircraft said “Saab is offering India not just the aircraft but the true capabilities to make it a self reliant manufacturer. Gripen has been termed as a sixth and seventh generation technology by American experts who reviewed the program.”

Levelling against Gripen is Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter which remains to be the most manufactured fighter worldwide. The surging Indo-US ties have only fortified Lockheed Martin’s ‘Make in India’ offer. The company is offering the air force F-16 Block – 70, the latest version of the legendry fighter.

If India opts for hundreds of these aircraft, the company promises to make India the sole manufacturer of these aircraft by shifting its ‘Texas’ manufacturing line to India. Reservations however exist within the air force in choosing a fighter which is being replaced by fifth-generation fighters by its primary user – USAF.

The fighter market in India has further heated up ever since the Indian Navy released an RFI in January, 2017 to acquire about 3 squadrons of carrier-borne fighters. The navy in December, 2016 had turned down the indigenously developed N-LCA aircraft citing its inability to take-off from a carrier with full weapons load.

The RFI lists that the need is for 57 multi-role carrier-borne fighter (MRCBF) aircraft that can perform Air Defence (AD), Air to Surface Operations, Buddy Refuelling, Reconnaissance and EW missions in all weather conditions.

The RFI has also not formally classified either the aircraft type or the launch platform. The RFI questions the companies, if their platforms can effortlessly operate from a STOBAR as well a CATOBAR carrier. Even though the RFI shows a tilt in navy’s interest towards twin-engine fighters, the navy can eventually opt for a single-engine fighter taking into consideration the operating costs.

The navy’s RFI is expected to receive response from Saab, Boeing and Dassault Aviation. While Boeing is offering its proven F-18 Advanced Super Hornet, French based Dassault is offering a naval version of the Rafale fighter. Saab is set to offer it’s under development Gripen – M fighter, which is a marinised version of the Gripen – E aircraft.

The aircraft acquired by the navy now will not only be arming its under construction carrier IAC – I cherished ‘Vikrant’ but also the future carrier of the Navy, IAC-II which is expected to feature nuclear propulsion and electro-magnetic aircraft launch system.

MoD is planning to channel these acquisition programs through the ‘strategic partnership’ model which will mandate the winning firms to downright select an Indian partner. With this, the Indian firms will have a significant footprint not only in the aircraft made for the Indian forces but even for global customers. It further promises to not only provide India with an efficient strike platform but a shot at developing a comprehensive aerospace ecosystem.

 © Karthik Kakoor