India’s Fighter Acquisition Troubles
Image Credit: REUTERS/Jayanta Shaw

India’s Fighter Acquisition Troubles


Confronted with shrinking combat aircraft capacity, the Indian Air Force appears willing to swap projected numbers on paper for actual fighters on hand. At least, that is the message being conveyed by IAF brass as they once again trim their fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) requirement.

Reports in the local media indicate that the IAF has reduced the scope of its outlined FGFA procurement down to just three squadrons of fighters (roughly 18 aircraft apiece), plus a handful of extra aircraft for training purposes. This would place the total requirement at around 65 Russian-built T-50 fighter jets, far less than what was envisioned back in the middle of the previous decade when the unit figure was placed at 214 aircraft. This latest reduction also represents the second time the IAF has downsized its requirement, with the first coming in October 2012 when the service announced a reduction from 214 fighters down to 144.

Once again the IAF finds itself in the midst of a major fighter procurement project that promises a lot, delivers nothing in the short term, and is subject to localized industrial work share and advanced technologies that serve to both complicate and potentially derail negotiations.

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The price exacted due to such grandiose requirements and ambitiously outlined industrial offsets comes in IAF combat aircraft strength, which continues to dwindle as age, serviceability issues, and lack of concrete orders take their toll.

The Indian government has mandated that the IAF field a 750-unit jet fighter fleet for the purpose of conducting a two-front war if necessary against neighboring rivals, China and Pakistan.

This would require 42 squadrons to be stood up and operationally ready.

Instead, the IAF is able to field 32-34 squadrons on paper, with India’s Parliamentary Consultative Committee on Defence noting this past April that due to attrition, obsolescence, poor serviceability rates, and ongoing upgrades to the combined fighter fleet, in actuality the IAF has just 25 functional fighter squadrons on hand.

As if those numbers are not stark enough for India’s defense planners, around 40 percent of the roughly 580 fighters in the IAF fleet consist of aging Soviet-legacy MiG-21s and MiG-27s slated for retirement within a decade.

The obvious mismatch between security mandates and capabilities on hand amplifies the pressing need to identify future jet fighter solutions and expedite the procurement process. But instead, India’s woeful defense acquisition practices serve to impede progress toward meeting future air power requirements.

So now the FGFA project can be added to the list of reminders of India’s grand procurement aspirations running aground on the rocky shores of reality.

As was the case with the now-defunct $12 billion “deal of the century” Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) project, India outlined a defense project that featured a large-scale buy with intensive industrial collaboration between state aerospace giant Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) and a foreign vendor. In the case of the FGFA project, the foreign vendor is Russia’s Sukhoi, the designer and producer of the stealthy T-50 under Russia’s PAK-FA (Prospective Airborne Complex of Frontline Aviation) fifth-generation aircraft program.

But like the MMRCA, Indian demands for significant localized work share – a must under New Delhi’s “Make in India” industrial initiative – proceeded to impede upon the pace of each project.

In the case of the MMRCA, France’s Dassault harbored deep-seated worries as to whether Indian industry could meet localized content requirements for its Rafale fighter, and lacked faith that HAL was a technologically capable enough in-country partner.

The 2007 MMRCA tender required that the winning bidder produce the first 18 of 126 fighters on its own production line, with HAL producing the remainder in India. Added to that, word filtered through the media that India was demanding that Dassault guarantee the HAL-produced Rafale – a bridge the French aviation prime considered too far. Thus as a means of moving the Rafale purchase forward, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi opted to bypass the MMRCA tender and forge a government-to-government agreement in Paris for the procurement of 36 of Dassault’s fighters in flyaway condition.

The FGFA project, meanwhile, began to take form in December 2010 when a collaborative preliminary design contract worth $295 million was inked between India and Russia. Needing additional funding to rev-up its fifth-generation PAK-FA project, Russia turned to its most lucrative arms purchaser, India, with an offer of industrial collaboration. Eager to advance its own technological know-how in the military aerospace domain while filling an advanced fighter requirement for the IAF at the same time, India obliged.

But both the IAF and HAL have grown disenchanted with the project, and an $11-12 billion research and development contract (outlining the final design and development of the Indian aircraft) with Russia remains unsigned by New Delhi.

The IAF concerns over FGFA are multiple. These include worries about the fiscal balancing between unit and project price for FGFA versus the larger service budget, the willingness of Russia to transfer sensitive technologies, and misgivings regarding the adequacy of the T-50’s AL-41F1 engine.

HAL, as is its want, desires greater work share in a project for which India would be covering 50 percent of the price tag.

The Indian government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, meanwhile, is trying to cover two priorities within one contract: Meet national security requirements while boosting the technological capabilities of India’s aerospace and defense sector.

Like the preceding UPA-led government, the Modi government is beginning to confront the hard reality that efforts to favor HAL and/or localized work share in defense contracts with foreign vendors too often end up forming a bridge to nowhere. In the end, the Indian military is more often than not left with aging equipment and no replacement in sight.

To avoid waiting for deliveries of its new FGFA – currently expected to take eight years upon the signing of the R&D contract, the IAF wants to buy the Russian-built T-50 in flyaway condition. This would mirror the method undertaken by the Modi government with the canceled MMRCA: make a direct government-to-government off-the-shelf procurement of an initial batch of fighters that will immediately meet IAF needs, and then revisit a larger unit-purchase contract designed with localized work share and technology transfer.

On paper this idea sounds both practical and, for the IAF, ideal. But this being India, nothing is quite as easy as it sounds.

Reports now indicate that France and India are struggling to consummate the 36-unit Rafale sale that Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar indicated to local media last spring would be sealed no later than July. Holding up the potential deal? Industrial offset obligations, unit prices, and IAF requests for specialized weapons-fitting modifications on the aircraft.

Even when the government attempts to cut through its own labyrinthine process to expedite a foreign military procurement, nothing is ever easy for defense acquisition in India.

Daniel Darling is an international military markets analyst at Forecast International Inc., an aerospace and defense market research company located in Newtown, Connecticut.

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