MAs Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman inaugurated the 19th edition of Aero India, it was more than apparent that business at the trade show would be entered around the famed MMRCA 2.0 tender.

Floated by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in July, 2018, the tender aims at acquiring at least 110 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) platform from a global manufacturer. These MMRCA platforms have been a key requirement for the Air Force as it struggles to check the rapidly dwindling squadron numbers.

The Air Force currently operates only 30 squadrons of fighter aircraft as against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons, which is essential to repel any two-front conflicts in the future.

The MMRCA platforms themselves are key force multiplier for the Air Force’s strike capabilities. Promising drastically increased strike range and payload capabilities, these MMRCA platforms are a need of the hour for Air Force to counter threats emerging along the mountain ridges of the North and Norther Eastern sector.

The platforms also promise to bridge the wide operational gap that exists between the light and heavy-weight fighter category. Such a capability will also drastically reduce the operational costs being incurred by the Air Force.The MMRCA 2.0, a resurrection of the now dead 2005 MMRCA tender, is witnessing at least six competitors offering seven platforms to the Indian Air Force.

Aero India – 2019 provided a strong marketing and networking platform for these aerospace companies. Top brass of the Air Force received detailed briefings regarding the capabilities of each of the fighter in fray.

Talk of the show undoubtedly was the unveiling of the F-21 fighter by Lockheed Martin. The company terms the F-21 as a fighter derived from the F-16 to specifically meet the requirements of the IAF. Featuring several key developments over its predecessor, the F-21, according to Lockheed Martin, is a revolutionary aircraft which promises unmatched capabilities to the Air Force.

As an improvement over the F-16s, the F-21 has been  equipped with consolidated cockpit display, which is aimed towards reducing the workload of the pilots. Addition of a dorsal spine, crafted along the aircraft’s central ride, mean that the fighter has significant space to accommodate newer avionics systems. The F-21 will also with an extendable probe-and-drogue refuelling system. With increased payload delivery capabilities, Lockheed Martin claims that the F-21 will deliver advanced and scalable capabilities to the Air Force.

Texas Air National Guard F-16s in Formation; Courtesy – Lockheed Martin.

While Lockheed Martin maintained the F-21 was an all together new fighter inside out, the industry was skeptical about the claim. Asked if this has given mileage to Lockheed Martin’s bid, several senior officers termed it as an innovative marketing technique.

“Combat proven, future read, and still called the F/A-18 Super Hornet” that is how Boeing Defense set tone to its media briefing at Aero India – 2019. Boeing’s target undoubtedly was the F-21. Taking pot shots at the F-21, senior Boeing representatives said that its F/A-18 was till the F/A-18 but only a much more advanced version of the proven Super Hornet.

On offer to India from Boeing is the F/A – 18 Block – III Advanced Super Hornet. The Hornet is a proven carrier-borne fighter that has been at the lead of US’ war against terror. The Block – III version of the fighter will fly in with an AESA radar, IRST system and shall be built around powerful avionics systems utilising open architecture technology. Addition of conformal fuel tanks will mean that the aircraft will enjoy considerable increase in ‘time on stations’.

Russian manufacturers returned to Aero India – 2019 with full force. United Aircraft Corporation (UAC), conglomerate of Russia’s aircraft manufacturers, had a strong presence in the trade show. Not the sidelines of the event, representatives of UAC confirmed that on offer to India were both the Sukhoi Su-35 and Mikoyan MiG – 35 aircraft, Asked about the participation of two different aircraft for the same tender, representatives said that the decision was taken since both the aircraft perfectly meet the known requirements of the Air Force.

The MiG-35, a 4++ generation, aircraft has been developed around the MiG-29 fighters, which are in active service with the IAF. Incidentally, the MiG-35 was unveiled to the world in Aero India – 2007. While 24 of these aircraft are on contract for Russian Air Force, Egypt has signed up to acquire 46 of these fighters.

The Sukhoi Su-35 on offer is also a 4++ generation fighter that has been developed around the Su-27 aircraft. Equipped with a unique thrust vectoring vectoring engine. Of the 48 aircraft on contract to Russia, four aircraft have already had combat experience in Syria. PLAAF, China’s Air Force, has also ordered 24 of these fighters and inducted the first batch in April, 2018.

Given the strong industrial presence and relationship Russia has in India, these aircraft have a strong potential to emerge as the black cats in the tender. UAC has confirmed that its preferred Indian industrial partner would be the state-run HAL, with which it shares a strong industrial bond.

Sweden-based Saab AB fortified its industrial partnership in India by signing MoUs with Dynamatic Technologies Limited, CIM Tools Private Limited and Sansera Engineering Limited. The MoUs with CIM Tools and Sansera expand the existing working relationships with Saab on commercial aero structures to the Gripen fighter and other defence-related products in the Saab portfolio. The MoU with Dynamatic is a starting point to explore future joint opportunities in commercial and defence-related aero structures work, including Gripen.

Back in Sweden, the Gripen – E development program is evolving within the laid down timeframes. While the second Gripen – E airframe had its maiden flight in November, 2018, the first air frame test fired the Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missile (BVRAAM) for the first time. The first two serial production units of the aircraft are expected to be delivered to Sweden’s Air Force by the year-end.

Dassault Aviation, who’s Rafale enjoyed the limelight at the show following the unfortunate political slugfest in the country, ratified its presence in India. As part of the offset obligations from the order for 36 Rafales, Dassault received the first made in India cockpit assembly for the Falcon-2000 business jets. With this, Dassault has gained a lead in the commercial bid. The manufacturer said that it remains committed to delivering the first batch of Rafale to India by September, 2019. The aircraft’s performance, it says, will itself talk about the capabilities.

At Aero India – 2019, the MMRCA tender definitely has gained traction. While the Government claims it remains committed to seeing through the tender at the earliest, truncated financial outlays and the absence of a well laid acquisition roadmap negate these claims.