The Indian Air Force (IAF) has ambitious plans to transform itself into one of the most modern air forces over the next decade and has begun with the process of acquiring different type of aircraft to strengthen its combat arm. The indigenous defence industry needs to build inhouse capabilities in this segment.
The IAF currently operates 32 fighter squadrons against a desirable 42 which includes about 30% squadrons equipped with aging and virtually obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s. The overall operational availability rate of the IAF's combat fleet in the past has been merely 55 percent which raises questions on operational readiness.
To maintain the present strength of 32 fighter squadrons, IAF will need a total of about 362 fighter aircraft by 2032. These could include additional procurement of 36 Rafale could be due to amortization of the customization cost paid in the first sttranche; creation of maintenance infrastructure; installation of training aids. The LCA is another program that is expected to fill this large void. HAL is delivering 20 LCA MK'1's in the IOC configuration and 20 more will be delivered in the FOC configuration. An order for 83 additional LCA's in the MK-1A version is being negotiated between HAL and the IAF.
To further cover the shortfall in fleet strength, the IAF plans to acquire around 110 fighter jets as per a request for information (RFI) issued to global vendors issued for which the response is expected in early July. The tender is open for single-engine and twin-engine fighter aircraft. The RFP is expected to be issued within six-eight months post-July 2018.
Out of the 110 aircraft about 85 percent of the aircraft will have to be made in India while 15 percent of them can be in a flyaway condition. The flyaway condition from the OEM are expected to commence within 36 months and the entire delivery will have to be completed within 60 months from contract signing. The IAF is likely to procure 82-83 (75 percent) single-seat fighter jets and 27-28 twin-seat variants (25 percent).
The analysis of response to RFI will be utilized to draw the minimum QR and depth and range of technology transfer. As some of the platforms have already been trial evaluated, to reduce the time for User trials only it is likely that aspects which were not tested or met the standard may be re-evaluated or combat record be analyzed. As per Strategic Partnership model the IAF to down select the aircraft and the MoD may approve the "strategic partner".
What is our need ?
The IAF is in desperate need of a platform that meets its multi-role requirements; is battle proven; has mature technologies that can and will be transferred indigenous production and above all, affordable in operations and lif cycle cost. In each of the above aspects, the US proposition makes sense. The IAF's experience till date with other US platforms has been anything but exceptional and ticks each one of the above boxes. The sheer number of occasions on which the C-130J, Boeing C-17 and P-81 have been used for operations, both military and humanitarian have proved that platforms of this genre are not only dependable but exceedingly affordable.
The reason's for which the F-16 were eliminated from the MMRCA have been addressed and India today has increased the width and depth of its strategic relationship with the USA. The signing of the first of 'foundational' agreements, LEMOA is proof of this. Consensus on the remaining foundational agreements are also not as far away as they were during the MMRCA contest. So any fear of obsolescence and non-sharing of technology are simply not grounded in reality.
It makes sense to consolidate the fleet reducing the variants and need to less expensive so that it can be purchased in large numbers and can be used in scenarios where expensive fighters are not expendable.
Lockheed Martin Leading by Examples
Lockheed Martin has a proven successful history of building fighter aircraft overseas to serve the international market. The F-16 is a good example of this as approximately 4600 F-16 have been produced, of which almost 1,000 aircraft have been manufactured outside of the United States in Turkey Korea and Europe. We would deliberate the Turkish F-16 project, which is similar in some ways to India's situation today and how it helped developing capabilities.
Developing Strategic Capabilities
Turkey was looking to establish an indigenous aerospace capability, a Joint Venture was formed in May 1984. The Joint Venture was named Turkish Aerospace Industries (TAI) and was formed to co-produce F-16 Fighting Falcons. With investment from Lockheed Martin's as well, it is a successful building up the Turkish aerospace industry. Today it is the largest aerospace facility in Turkey, and a complete eco-system. TAI plant and associated eco-system has grown still further and are continuing to expanding their capabilities after building 80% of the 262 F-16s for the Turkish Air Force, TAI began to branch into other areas to include:-
- Transport aircraft.
- Major components of the A400-M, Aerostructures for both military and commercial aircraft for Boeing and Airbus and most recently the center fuselage for the F-35.
- Modifications of Boeing 737s into an Airborne Early Warning aircraft,
- Modifications of the Augusta Mangusta T-29 attack helicopter
- Sikorsky T-70 Blackhawk utility helicopter, including flight operations.
- Upgrades TUAF fleet and International fleets such as Jordanian Air Force F-16s along with others.
- Turkey indigenous designed aircraft such as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV), Target Drones, Basic Trainer Aircraft, satellites and now even Turkey's own T-FX 5th generation fighter aircraft.
TAI's growth formed the beginning of the aerospace and defense eco-system in Turkey. Today, there are Turkish companies that produce electronics, weapons, displays, software, precision machining, engines, and wiring harnesses as subcontractors to TAI and other global aerospace and defense companies. TAI has over 50 programs and is ranked in the top 100 global aerospace and defense companies. The TAI employs 5,000 people with an annual turnover of just over $1 billion. A fine example for India to follow as it Certainly need similar capabilities in this segment.
Economic Benefits though Capabilities Development
TAI model is a demonstrator to country like ours to realize that there are no limitations in developing new capabilities across the entire spectrum of aerospace and we need to adopt such model. Long-term partnerships with companies like Lockheed Martin will assist in creating an Eco-system supporting indigenous capabilities into the private sector in the domain to be part of global supply chain.
Such partnership will bring new manufacturing skill sets - processes, technology, workforce skill development, tools, quality requirements, materials manufacturing, integration and test techniques. It is not just about structural and component manufacturing but brings skills in hydraulics, avionics, electronics, engine components, radar components, ground systems etc for manufacture in India. The partnerships would involve not just the aspiring strategic partners, but an extensive selection of MSMEs, a significant number of whom would become key suppliers of systems, subsystems, parts, components, repair and MRO for India. They can also be part of global supply chain for fighters with over 3500 platforms in service until at least the mid 2040s and potential to join later generation supply chains in the future. Indian industry can leverage indigenous developments and manufacturing techniques for future worldwide upgrades of the platform.
A price of approx. $80 million for each current version F-16 Block 70 fighter, the production of 200 new fighters would bring to India business worth $16 billion. This cost should not be seen in isolation. We need to combine this with the fact that potentially the Indian facility will support the global F-16 fleet; the material cost of the facility has been amortized and the operating cost of the F-16 is amongst the lowest in the world. This makes the Lockheed-Martin Offering a 'value' proposition and something the nation could certainly give a very deep thought in times where the Defence Capital Budget is just not sufficient for any extravagance.