As my colleague Franz-Stefan Gady reported earlier, India’s request-for-proposal (RFP) for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft has been, as was expected, formally withdrawn. Following Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in Paris earlier this year that New Delhi would opt to purchase 36 Dassault Rafale fighters off-the-shelf, it was only a matter of time before we received confirmation from the Indian Defense Ministry of the MMRCA’s demise. The government-to-government deal left little hope that long-standing disastrous negotiation process between France’s Dassault Aviation and the Indian defense ministry would go on. As I commented at the time, the “mother of all defense deals,” as India’s MMRCA tender was known, was effectively dead.
What’s interesting at this juncture is what New Delhi plans to do to meet the Indian Air Force’s outstanding requirement for another 90 medium multi-role fighters. The Times of India reports that, in line with the Modi government’s “Make in India” initiative, the Indian government will revive a new RFP for 90 medium multi-role combat aircraft, effectively reanimating the procurement process but with Indian manufacturers in line.
This development is, again, not unsurprising for anyone that’s kept their eye on the MMRCA process with Dassault. One of the sticking points between the Indian government and the French firm was Dassault’s hesitation to let India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) manufacture 108 of the 126 aircraft. Successive Indian governments, including the previous Congress-led government, saw an indigenous manufacturing component as crucial to any final MMRCA deal with Dassault. Modernizing and expanding India’s indigenous defense manufacturing base has long been an objective for Indian strategic planners. However, as critics noted after Modi’s announcement in Paris, the decision to go off-the-shelf rewarded Dassault’s intransigence on the indigenous manufacturing issue, awarding the firm a hefty contract with little benefit to India’s domestic manufacturing base.
The decision to opt for a 90-jet domestic MMRCA RFP is, in theory, a wise move by the Indian government. The 36-jet purchase from Dassault will help plug the IAF’s ongoing fighter shortfall, and the 90-jet RFP will lead to the kind of boon for the domestic Indian defense industry that the original MMRCA tender was supposed to produce—it’s a win-win. However, as with most Indian defense procurement projects, the catch is the implementation and the avoidance of delays.
The original MMRCA process, from its inception to its implosions this year, holds the distinction of being perhaps the most spectacular defense procurement train-wreck in recent history. In theory, going the domestic route should ease things over, but the Indian government needs to plot out a swift road map and stick to it. The Indian Air Force already faces critical capability shortages and will fall far short of its ideal operational scenario of a 750-fighter fleet (the current shortfall is clear—the IAF stands at its lowest fighter strength in over a decade). It’s unlikely that any approach will get the IAF the fighters it needs in the time-frame it needs them (years ago, preferably), but the onus is on the Modi government now to show that the reanimated corpse of the MMRCA will soon fulfill the gaps in Indian military aviation.