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MEDIUM MULTI ROLE COMBAT AIRCRAFT (MMRCA) PROCUREMENT CHRONICLE: A WASTE OF EFFORTS

The MMRCA case and the recent procurement of 36 Rafale aircrafts for the Indian Air Force demonstrate the poor strategy of the Government and ills of India's defence acquisition process.

The Indian Air Force's (IAF) all-stealth fleet is divided into light, medium and heavy categories with all the three categories facing shortage of aircrafts. At present, its inventory consists of over 720+ combat aircrafts with a balanced mix of offensive and defensive capability. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI forms the backbone of IAF's combat fleet with multiple role capability. The current inventory of combat aerial platforms of the Air Force is as given in Table:

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Also, the available fleet consists of ageing and virtually obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s (on extended life) and Jaguar aircraft which have already been upgraded, while, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 aircrafts are under upgradation. A large percentage of the fleet, approximately 40-45 percent is obsolete as most of the aircrafts were inducted in the 1960s-70s and thus are nearing their technical life. The IAF has to certainly replace these with new procurements in the next 10-15 years. The fast-depleting air combat fleet especially the medium combat of the Indian Air Force has been a matter of concern since last few years with the IAF has been running out of combat-worthy fighters.

The sanctioned strength of the IAF is 39.5 squadrons of combat aircraft, with a healthy level of 44 squadrons. The IAF had been maintaining that it had 32-34 squadrons with about 18 planes each; however a Parliamentary Panel Report of 22 December 2014 revealed that the force levels of the Air Force were down to 25 fighter squadrons. Moreover, 14 of these squadrons are equipped with MiG-21 and MiG27 which will retire between 2015- 2024 and these are planned to be replaced with Sukhoi Su-30 MKI, Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA). If the procurement process is not put on track, the strength will be reduced to just 11 squadrons by 2024.

The bulk of India's 25 active fighter squadron are of ageing MiG-21s, flying and fighting with the technologies of the 1970s vintage. These should have grounded long ago especially keeping in mind the numerous multiple accidents related with them due to their obsolescence/obsolete parts. As per the figures divulged by previous defence minister A.K. Antony in Rajya Sabha in 2012, over the last 40 years, India had lost more than half of its MiG combat fleet of 872 aircraft. Around 491 MiG aircraft accidents have taken place till April 19, 2014 leading to the loss of not only these aircrafts but the precious lives of pilots and civilians.

Total No. Of MiG-21 Variants inducted since 1964No. Of Mig-21s Lost Due To AccidentsNo. of Accidents OccurredNo. of Operational AircraftsCausalities
 872 MIG variants 380 491  264   171 pilots and 39 civilians & 8 persons from other services.

However, despite the controversy of accidents/operational worthiness of the aircraft, there have been prolonged delays in the purchase of MMRCA due to which these fatal machines could not be grounded. And with purchase coming to a deadlock isn't India risking the lives of its pilots. India needed to replace 30-35 year-old MiG-21s in a planned manner over last decade and we need to examine the recent MMRCA development in this perspective.

The MMRCA Chronicle

Faced with declining fighter strength for years, IAF wanted 126 (six and a half squadrons) of medium multi-role fighters with an option for an additional 74 aircrafts, to have the much required strike capability in medium combat fleet category. In 2000 itself, the Indian Air Force expressed interest in buying MMRCA to replace Soviet-era MiG-21s and subsequently issued a RFI in 2001. The RFP was issued in 2007. The first 18 jets were to be imported and the rest 108 manufactured under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). After over five-years process, French defence major Dassault Aviation was selected and contract negotiations has been quite slow since then over some issues, including the cost escalations in production as well as Dassault's refusal to take responsibility for the aircraft made on HAL's production lines. Dassault was to invest 50 per cent of the negotiated price in Offsets and also transfer technology and tooling to manufacture. The negotiations appeared to be deadlocked with no contract in sight even after 27 months.

 The Government in April 2015 announced its decision to acquire 36 Rafale combat aircraft worth over $5 Billion in flyaway condition from France under Government-to-Government (G-2-G) route. The aircrafts will be inducted within two years after signing the contract and inter governmental agreement.

Likely Impact

The reason cited by the Government for not moving ahead with the deal on procurement of 126 Rafale jets was economically unviable costing around $15 Billion, which a country like India cannot afford. Even now each Rafale would cost between $150-200 Million and with missiles and payload included, India, therefore, would end up paying $5.4 to $7.2 Billion for 36 Rafales - still expensive and moreover about twice the cost of the indigenized Sukhoi-30MKI.

Another argument given by the Government is that HAL is assembling Su-30MKI under license and that it costs much less and production can be ramped up to address declining numbers in the Air Force. The fact was known to everyone, then why so much time has been wasted on procurement of MMRCA? The mere fact that the IAF chose the Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon for the MMRCA is because they feel that it brings something more to the table that the Su-30MKI lacks. So after spending 8 years deciding on the Rafale and the Typhoon, if India simply says they are too expensive and decides to assemble more Su-30MKI instead, it simply does not make sense.

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Further reason stated for this acquisition is that for India starting a separate process, away from the 126 aircraft deal, is to urgently meet the “critical operational necessity” of the IAF. This somewhat seems to be correct as this small number of aircraft will at least plug the gaps in operational requirements. It will buy IAF some more time before it starts decommissioning the MiG 21 and MiG 27 squadrons.

Further, it was always clear that the MMRCA program was initiated to replace MiG 21s and MiG 27s specialized aircraft with the IAF. But, now the Government stand that MMRCA was never intended to replace the Mig 21s seems to be a late realization. The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas is way behind in time schedule for induction in the Air Force. It has not yet gone to 'proof of concept' and 'exploitation'. Even after all approval the production to pick up will take 5-6 years. Thus will it be wise to give analogy of replacement of medium fighter by LCA. The IAF has been stating that the LCA cannot replace MMRCA only to be reminded now by the Government that MMRCA cannot replace the Mig 21s. That should have been considered from the very beginning. Looks like we have come a full circle. What is more astonishing is the fact it took 15 long years to come to this conclusion as to there is no requirement of 126 Nos. of MMRCA. Not only this has resulted in wastage of efforts, time and money but also such an abrupt end to a deal that was so close of getting finalized will bring negative publicity for the country with the foreign OEMs being reluctant to participate in future defence procurements.

The decision in Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) case appears to be ill-timed and undoubtedly ill-calculated and reflects poorly on India's defence acquisition process. The subjective decision making, the consequences of which are likely to impact the Indian Air Force, with its air combat power facing fast-depletion of combat-worthy fighters.

Ritika Behal

Ritika Behal

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