July 1, 2009


The Competitors: Analysis

Mig 21 (Bison) of the Indian Air Force. (The planes that have been marked to be phased off.)

Recent changes in India’s needs and the contest participants are changing the relative rankings of the contenders. Geopolitical considerations are also intruding, as most of these choices have the potential to improve relations with an important potential ally. Standardization arguments will also carry weight. As of January 2006, India’s Air Force operated 26 different aircraft types, and the IAF is not eager to add to its support headaches.
Rather than attempting to predict, DID will simply summarize the strengths and weaknesses of the listed competitors. These aircraft also group into two very different categories: single engine lightweight fighters in the $25-50 million flyaway cost range (F-16 Falcon, JAS-39 Gripen, MiG-35); and larger dual-engine mid-range fighters in the $65-120 million flyaway range (Eurofighter, F/A-18 Super Hornet, Rafale).
Note that Active Electronically-Scanned Array (AESA) radars have a number of benefits over conventional mechanically-scanned radars, including durability, maintenance, the ability to track both air and ground targets via continuous scans instead of rapid switching, and potential electronic attack uses. A narrower field of view with less sidelobe “leakage” is both an asset and a drawback, depending on the situation. All MMRCA contenders to date appear to be proposing AESA radars in their fighters.

Lightweight Fighters

F-16 Fighting Falcon (Lockheed, USA).

Presumably, Lockheed’s “Block 70” offering would be an upgraded version of the F-16E Block 60 “Desert Falcon” currently serving with the UAE. Strengths include the widest multi-role capability among lightweight fighters; its proven AN/APG-80 AESA radar; the addition of integrated IRST capability; the widest choice of proven avionics and weapon systems; a long record of proven service so all issues are known; and widespread compatibility with potential allies in Asia and the Middle East who also fly F-16s. The combination of an AESA radar on a less expensive platform is also good news for cruise missile defense efforts, if that’s considered a priority.
Even so, the Indian Air Force has never seemed very interested in the F-16. Weaknesses include the fact that Pakistan also flies F-16s; the fact it’s a new aircraft type, so the entire support infrastructure would have to be developed; Lockheed Martin’s difficulty in complying with industrial offset provisions, given their lack of penetration in India. The MMRCA RFP’s delays may have helped Lockheed, by allowing them ample time to find arrangements with Indian firms. There are also reports that the US government is pushing this option, because of the regional reassurance factor. While an F-16 E/F Block 60+ would have a number of important advantages over Pakistan F-16 A/Bs and even its new Block 50/52 aircraft, the common underlying aircraft type would probably take some of the edge off of the deal from Pakistan’s point of view.

JAS-39 Gripen (Saab, Sweden; marketed by Britain’s BAE).

The Gripen is a true 4th+ generation lightweight fighter and significantly more capable than category competitors like the F-16 and Mirage 2000, though the MiG-35 may give it a run for the money. Gripen NG begins to address the aircraft’s range limitations, and would include an AESA radar among its other enhancements. Other strengths include a wide choice of integrated weapons and pods; reasonable purchase cost; the fact that it has been designed for exceptional cost of ownership; and the ability operate from roads instead of runways if necessary.
As an interesting side note, the JAS-39NG’s use of GE’s F414G engine could create future commonality with the failed Kaveri engine’s successor. The Tejas LCA will use GE’s F404 engines until an Indian substitute is ready, and GE’s F414 is one of 2 engines under consideration as the basis for the Tejas Mk2’s power plant.
The JAS-39’s drawbacks include its short range; the fact it’s a new aircraft type for the IAF; its AESA radar’s developmental status; and a low volume of international orders to date that raises questions about the platform’s ability to modernize over the next 30-40 years.
With respect to industrial offsets, Saab has an excellent record in countries like South Africa, Hungary, The Czech Republic et. al. The Gripen’s acceptance carries no spin-off geopolitical benefits, however, and that last weakness may prove to be the plane’s most critical hindrance in this competition.

MiG-29OVT, aka. MiG-35 (Rosonboronexport, Russia).

This modified MiG-29 includes improved radar and avionics that give it multi-role capability, extra fuel in a new aircraft “spine,” and thrust-vectoring engines a la India’s SU-30MKIs. Strengths include compatibility with the existing and future MiG-29 fleet, and its ability to carry advanced Russian missiles already in service like the revolutionary AA-11/R-73 Archer and longer range AA-12/R-77 “AMRAAMski.” The presence of MiG-29 infrastructure and a new plant for license-building RD-33 Series III engines in India also makes compliance with industrial offset requirements easier.
The MiG-29’s biggest weaknesses were short range, engines that produce telltale smoke (very bad in air combat) and lack of true multi-role capability; the MiG-35 largely fixes these issues, and may even add an AESA radar of its own if Phazotron-NIIR can have its new Zhuk-MAE ready in time. Technology sharing and co-production are also considered to be strengths; as one Indian officer put it: “Russians have their problems of delayed projects and unreliable spare supply but they give access to everything, unlike the Americans.” He’s referring to the IAF’s not-so-great experience with India’s existing MiG-29s, which have had maintenance problems in addition to their other deficits.
Remaining weaknesses in the MiG-35 bid include difficulties India is having with Russian firms over the refit of its new carrier, and over its orders for SU-30MKIs. There has also been legitimate speculation about the future viability of the MiG-29 family platform, which has been eclipsed in many ways by the SU-30. Algeria’s canceled $1.8 billion order adds further risk to the platform, which is mostly active via refurbishment programs in Russia, India, and other countries. India has made the MiG-29K its future carrier aircraft, but doubling down to add the MiG-35 would make India the first customer for both variants – neither of which has other sale opportunities on the near horizon. That could be spun as a positive industrial opportunity, but it’s a problem from a cost and risk perspective.

Mirage 2000-5 (Dassault).

Withdrawn. Industry analyst Richard Aboulafia points out that the history of global fighter purchases shows strong clustering at the lower-price end of the market; shutting down Mirage 2000 production will shut Dassault out of that niche. A Mirage 2000 entry would have had strengths that included compatibility with Mirage 2000s already in service, which performed very well in the 1999 Kargil skirmishes. An infrastructure already exists for industrial offsets, and its low end price could be raised along with its capabilities by adding equipment developed in the Rafale program.
The Mirage 2000’s potential performance similarity to the Tejas LCA project was both its weakness and its strength. One the one hand, that would have made it a good insurance policy if confidence in the Tejas fell. On the other hand, it may not have been seen as adding enough to the force mix if confidence in the Tejas program remained high. On Dassault’s end, the firm decided that it couldn’t keep that entire production line open without foreign orders for several years, while India decided on a potential buy. The aircraft was withdrawn before the official RFP was released, in favor of the larger and more expensive Rafale.
Tejas LCA (HAL et. al., India). A lightweight, indigenously-developed fighter aircraft expected to enter service around 2010. Currently in testing using GE’s F404 engine, while India’s accompanying Kaveri jet engine project stalled and was scrapped in favor of a potential new engine partnership. The Tejas is not an MRCA competitor – but its development plans, the confidence in its success, its ability to stay under $25 million, the potential for a naval variant, et. al. will have a behind-the-curtains influence on every MRCA decision. See “India: LCA Tejas by 2010, but Foreign Help Sought” for more.

Mid-Range Fighters

Eurofighter Typhoon (EADS/BAE, Europe & Britain).

A fourth generation aircraft currently optimized for the air-air role through its performance characteristics and what is by all accounts an excellent pilot interface. One surprise plus for Eurofighter could be its Eurojet EJ200 engines, which are being considered as the base powerplant for India’s LCA Tejas Mk2.
Typhoon fighters reportedly have “supercruise” capability beyond Mach 1 without using afterburners, though some analysts have cast doubt on how sustainable that is once weapons are attached. Some observers believe that aside from the F-22A Raptor, the Eurofighter is the next-best in-service air superiority aircraft world-wide, though the 2007 Indra Dhanush exercise that matched it up against India’s SU-30MKI makes a case for the MKI. Tranche 2 upgrades are giving this plane full multi-role capabilities, and India’s delay has given those developments more time to mature.
With respect to industrial offsets, BAE already has an order from India for 66 BAE Hawk trainers, 42 of which are being built in India. That order has run into trouble, however, which could hurt the Typhoon’s chances. Given EADS’ key role in the Eurofighter consortium, Airbus might also be able to contribute on this front.
Weaknesses include the aircraft’s $100+ million expense, which may stretch India’s budget to the breaking point; the fact it’s a new aircraft type for the IAF so the entire support infrastructure would have to be developed; its lack of naval capability; the developmental status of its CAESAR (Captor AESA Radar) technology; and the non-existent geopolitical benefits of selecting it. Given the Eurofighter’s performance and costs, simply buying more SU-30MKIs would appear to make far more sense.

F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet (Boeing, USA).

Highly upgraded version of the F/A-18 A-D Hornet, enlarged and given new engines and avionics. Commonality between the Hornet and Super Hornet is only about 25%. Strengths include its powerful AN/APG-79 AESA radar, which has drawn significant interest from India. This radar could allow Super Hornets to play a unique role in India’s fighter fleet as versatile “quarterbacks” (or better yet, “cricket captains”) due to their radar’s performance and information sharing abilities. Other advantages include carrier capability, a very wide range of integrated weapons, a design that is proven in service and in combat, F414 engines that may also serve as the base for LCA Tejas Mk2; and complete assurance in its future upgrade spiral, given the US Navy’s commitment to it.
The existence of a dedicated electronic warfare variant as of 2009 in the EA-18G Growler may also be a potent motivator, as the growth of sophisticated air defense systems will place a growing premium on this unique capability. Last but certainly not least, this choice offers an opportunity to create an early “win” which would strengthen India’s new alliance with the USA and prove its new status in the world. After all, when clearance for the aircraft was given, no other nation had even been offered the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet.
Since then, of course, close American ally Australia has bought 24 F/A-18F Block IIs in a controversial A$ 6 billion purchase, and even taken steps to modify the aircraft toward EA-18G Growler status. Australia’s deployment of Super Hornets gives the platform an additional selling point in the “allied commonality” department, and Boeing’s planned $1.5 billion investment in India’s aerospace market may help deal with defense industrial offset issues. The Super Hornet’s Boeing connection adds many industria options in the civil aircraft market as well.
Weaknesses of the Super Hornet platform include the aircraft’s expense. Given the costs to other customers so far, it seems unlikely that Boeing can deliver 126 F/A-18 E/F Block II aircraft for just $10.2 billion, let alone aircraft plus lifetime support. The Super Hornet also offers poorer aerodynamic performance than the Eurofighter or Rafale, due to inherent airframe limitations. Finally, it’s a new aircraft type for the IAF, so the entire support infrastructure would have to be developed from the ground up.

Rafale (Dassault, France).

Advantages include demonstrated carrier capability in the Rafale-M, which could be a very big factor if the RFP includes that as a requirement. The aircraft offers exceptional ordnance capacity for its size, and can have its range extended via conformal fuel tanks. It offers superior aerodynamic performance over the F/A-18 family. The Rafale claims “supercruise” capability, but observers are skeptical and it has been challenging to demonstrate this with the Snecma R88-2 engine. The Rafale also offers some equipment, maintenance and spares commonalities with existing Mirage 2000 fleet, which would probably increase if India’s Mirage 2000s are modernized in future. France’s reliability as a weapons supplier, good history of product support, and long-standing relations with India, offers additional plusses.

Weaknesses include the continuing absence of a compatible surveillance and advanced targeting pod, the need for additional funds and work to integrate many non-French weapons if one wishes to use them on the Rafale, and its lack of an AESA radar until Thales finishes developing the RBE2. The Rafale’s failure to win any export competitions is also an issue – one that reaches beyond mere perception of “also-ran” status. As DID noted in an update to “Singapore’s RSAF Decides to Fly Like An Eagle,” export failures are already forcing cuts in future Rafale procurement, in order to pay for modernization. That dynamic is likely to get worse over the next 30 years.

Initial reports indicated that the Rafale did not meet India’s technical evaluation criteria, because critical information was not included. Dassault persisted, and their fighter is now back in the race.

F-35 Joint Stike Fighter (Lockheed-led, multinational).

In February 2006, India’s Chief Air Marshal recently specificaly noted that the JSF was not in their plans for this buy, a likelihood that DID’s analysis had noted earlier due to probable lack of availability before 2015. The August 2007 MRCA RFP confirmed this.
If it were flying today, the F-35B STOVL variant would probably be by far the best fit for India’s requirements. The planes would be carrier-capable from all of India’s naval air platforms, including smaller carriers the size of INS Viraat (ex-Hermes) or LHD amphibious assault ships, and could use roads and short field runways on land for maximum operational flexibility. F-35 JSFs would sport ultra-advanced systems that include the AN/APG-81 AESA radar, and incredibly advanced sensor systems and electronics that would make it India’s most capable reconnaissance asset and even a potential electronic warfare aircraft. Other strengths would include greater stealth than any other competitor, which is critical for both air-air dogfights and strikes on defended targets. The Super Hornet may be able to fill the role of an aerial cricket captain, but the JSF is more like Sachin Tendulkar.
India has been invited to F-35 events. With potential US order numbers dropping, India might even be accepted into the program if they pushed for it. The F-35’s killer weakness was timing. Its advanced systems, established industrial partnership structure and program procurement policies could also make it nearly impossible to meet India’s industrial offset rules.


One thing to keep in mind when considering the options is the geo- political situation that is prevailing. While Dassault Rafale and JAS Grippen, are considered, one has to understand that both France and Sweden are countries who sells defense equipment purely as commercial deal, rather than any strategic deal. So tomorrow Pakistan too could get a hand on them.

Pakistan already uses the Pakistan’s new Saab 2000 turboprop. AWACS bought from Sweden. The same way the Grippens too would be available. The same goes with Rafale. France is a major weapons dealer for Pakistan. Pakistan uses French made diesel submarines. The same way they could get accesses to the 4th generation planes. (if they are interested in procuring them. But the current trend shows that they are more interested in the Chegudu, jointly developed with China, as it is a Joint venture,and a cheaper alternative.)

The FA-18 super Hornet along with the Eurofighter are considered Heavy fighters. They are of the 4.5th generation fighters. The Sukhoi 30 MKI’s of the Indian Air Force are of the same class as well.
Therefore according to my opinion, the Russian Mig 35, the Lockeed Martin F 16, would be the better option. But again, the Mig 35 is an unproven bird. But again a 4.5th generation medium aircraft. The thrust vectoring system gives the pilot a cutting edge technology. But the Russian maintenance is not exactly top notch. The F 16 is a proven bird with ample testimonials to support its capabilities. But the 30 year old air frame is a cause of concern, and also the fact that its going to be phased off from the USAF makes our planners to think twice. If inducted, the F 16's would be the first American fighter plane in the Indian Air Force inventory. Again there would be additional expences for the airforce to house these new jets, as we do not have the infrastructure.

Feel free to contact me, I consider your participation vital.

Sidharth K Menon
Defence and Imtelligence Analyst.