The Indian Air Force (IAF) in an effort to drastically boost up its strike capabilities has recently floated a RFI (Request For Information) for acquiring several single-engine fighters. The RFI which was floated in November, 2016 had been forwarded to several global aerospace companies through Indian embassies.

The RFI has formally been received by USA based Boeing and Lockheed Martin, Sweden based Saab and Russian based Mikoyan. An executive of one of these companies talking about the RFI, termed it as extremely short in nature and said that it had scope for only a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ reply.

The RFI has been floated by IAF in an effort to find replacements to the aging MiG-21 aircraft which have been in service for over four decades. Under the command of the IAF are only 32 squadrons of fighter aircraft, as against the mandated 42 squadrons. Of these 32 squadrons, close to 12 squadrons are composed of MiG -21 and MiG -27 aircraft which are to be gradually retired by 2022.

The single-engine fighters which the air force is scouting for are the primary air superiority aircraft and are termed as the first line of aerial defence in a country’s arsenal. These aircraft will be the primary responders to any aerial intrusions and are in charge of guarding the air space until larger air superiority aircraft takeover.

India in the late 1980’s had constituted the LCA Programme in an effort to indigenously develop a replacement for the MiG aircraft. Technological hurdles, however, have delayed the programme and the by-product ‘LCA Tejas’ is years away from rapid induction. The depleting fleet strength has forced the air force to now opt for a foreign fighter.

The RFI has not mentioned the exact numbers the IAF is seeking but has specified that the aircraft will be a single-engine fighter. The RFI further enquires the company’s interest in co-developing a fighter aircraft for the IAF under the ‘Make in India’ initiative.

Defence Minister, Manohar Parrikar, speaking about the RFI on the sidelines of a defence engagement in January, 2017, confirmed that the air force was indeed scouting for a single-engine fighter to replace the Soviet origin MiG-21 aircraft.

Speaking about the selection process he had said “The second line for single engine requirement is felt, for which we are thinking of using the strategic partnership route. Very soon once the strategic partnership chapter is finalised, we should start moving in that direction. During the current year the decision should be tentatively over. Maybe a few of them will come in ready-made status but the rest will be made in India increasing the Indian capability in aviation. The company with the best transfer of technology and economically viable offer will be selected”.

The Saab manufactured Gripen – E fighter aircraft which is on offer to the Indian Air Force.

With the air force opting for single-engine fighter the race has narrowed down to Saab’s Gripen and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 fighter aircraft. Saab and Lockheed Martin remain the sole manufacturers of single-engine fighter aircraft worldwide.

Sweden based Saab, a pioneer in aerospace technology, has offered its latest and smartest Gripen – E fighter for the air force. The company has steadfastly offered its Gripen platform to the IAF since the late 90’s. Gripen – E which was rolled out in May, 2016 remains to be one of the most advanced and the latest 4.5 generation fighter in the market.

The Gripen – E dubbed the ‘Smart Fighter’ has a combat range of over 1,500 kilometres and is powered by a single GE F414 turbo-fan engine. Highlight to Saab’s offer is its willingness to transfer not just the technologies but the true capabilities required to manufacture fighter aircraft to Indian aerospace firms. Saab has chalked out elaborate plans to set-up one of the world’s most modern aerospace ecosystem and manufacturing facility in India.

Saab India, Chairman Jan Widerström, speaking about the Gripen offer to India said “We will provide the Indian Air Force with an Indian-built combat aircraft of the future, with next generation technology. We are offering real technology transfer. We do not attach strings to our technology.  Saab is offering an industrial facility that will be the centre-of-gravity for the Made-in-India Gripen. It is an unrivalled offer that will set new standards in aeronautical engineering excellence for decades to come, should India procure Gripen”

The unmatched ToT offer and the concurrent developmental progress shown by Saab have propelled Saab’s chances in bagging the multi-billion dollar deal. Gripen comes as one of the most cost efficient and yet as a reliable product for the IAF.

Rivalling Saab’s Gripen offer is the legendry ‘F-16 Falcon’ produced by US aerospace giant Lockheed Martin. As India’s relationship with USA matures, Lockheed Martin’s offer to the IAF is gaining solid ground.

The F-16 has been in operation with over two dozen air forces across the world and the company has till date built more than 4,500 fighters. The aircraft has for decades served as the mainstay air superiority fighter of the US air force.

Lockheed Martin is offering India the newest and the latest version of the aircraft which has been earmarked as Block – 70, which is to be built in India under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. The company has promised to transfer its Texas based production line to India if the air force opts to buy hundreds of these aircraft.

Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighter

If India does opt for the F-16, the country would not only become the lone manufacturer of the aircraft but also a leading MRO destination for these aircraft. However, the echoing calls from the newly elected Trump administration not be exporting jobs outside USA, has damned Lockheed Martin’s offer. Also, there exists critical concern within the air force in choosing an aging technology such as the F-16 which is actively being replaced by the F-35 stealth fighter.

With the government gearing up to release the ‘strategic partnership’ model in the coming months, both Saab and Lockheed Martin are scouting for partners in India. MoD and the air force expect to be signing deals for the aircraft by the year-end, but this however remains highly sceptically given the track record of acquisition programs. While the IAF will be receiving an able fighter, the country’s aerospace sector will receive unmatched technological knowledge to steam ahead with several delayed indigenous programs.

© Karthik Kakoor