By cancelling the single engine fighter jet procurement and expanding it to include twin engine fighters, the government is trying to find a different result by trying the same thing as it was done in the previous MMRCA tender which it scrapped in 2015.
The reason apparently is due to the furore created over the Rafale deal and the government does not want allegations later as there were only two contenders for the single engine jet, Lockheed Martin F-16 and SAAB Gripen.
Confused and pushed on the defensive, the government has taken a step that will hurt the operational readiness of the Indian Air Force. It is clear that a twin engine fighter will cost a lot more than what the government is willing to spend.
In October last year, Chief of Air Staff, B.S Dhanoa stated that the IAF is prioritising the single engine fighter over twin engine to make up numbers at lower cost. So the decision to include twin engine fighters makes no sense.
IAF squadron strength is down to 32 while its sanctioned 42 and it includes old MiGs that are well past their expiry date and will be retired soon. It’s projected that India will need over 350 new fighter jets by 2032. The 200 single engine jets that the government has scrapped would have made a bulk of that.
The IAF can however use the cancellation of the deal to its advantage. With elections due next year, no progress can be expected and it will be left to the next government to take it forward. Even if the process is fast tracked, it will take another 4-5 years before a contract is signed and the first jet won’t join the IAF till about 2028.
Will the IAF want to induct 4.5 gen fighters between 2028-2035 when India’s principal adversary China has already inducted its 5th generation J-20 fighter? China is also working on another 5th gen fighter the J-31 for exports and Pakistan is likely to be its first export customer.
Given the timeline, the IAF should look for a 5th generation fighter. It will narrow India’s options down to Lockheed Martin’s single engine F-35 and the Russian twin engine Su-57. Since those are the only two 5th gen fighter options available in the world, it will not require much explaining.
India has already invested $300 million for initial design of the Su 57 with the intention to make them in India in the future. But that project has hit a wall as IAF is not happy with is stealth characteristics and the engine.
The IAF has shown interest in Lockheed Martin’s F-35 which has its order books full with over 3100 jets on order with over 250 already delivered. Lockheed intends to ramp up production to over 300 per annum bringing down its flyway cost to $80 million making it cheaper than any 4.5 Gen fighter today.
India should look for a production line which will not only will it create jobs but also get India into the global supply chain of what will the most widely produced fighter jet this century. With a requirement of over 200 jets, India will become the second largest operator of the F-35 after the US.
India should negotiate a waiver similar to Israel to incorporate some of its own weapons and electronics. India should also look to become a maintenance, repair and overhaul hub for the F-35.
With the Indian Navy also looking for 57 new jets, it will make sense to acquire a 5th gen fighter for it and share commonality with the IAF. As India looks to coordinate with the Quad to secure the Indo-Pacific, buying the F-35 will help in interoperability as Japan and Australia will operate the F-35s in their airforce as well as in their navy from their helicopter carriers.
India plans its own 5th generation fighter the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) but it is a long way from its first flight. India can waste the next few years looking for a 4.5 Gen fighter while leading countries induct 5th Gen fighters or take the call to initiate a 5 Gen fighter purchase of its own. It will require political and diplomatic will for what will be a strategic purchase.