IAF to contract multi-role combat aircraft program under Buy Global, Make India; 114 aircraft in pipeline intact

The IAF’s $20 billion Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) mega project is once again the subject of debate. Against the fast-depleting squadron of the Indian Air Force, the MRFA program of acquiring 114 multi-role fighter aircraft is one such program to which the Indian Armed Forces and the government attach utmost importance. On the criticality of such a serious concern and against hidden threats from adversaries in the North and West, the MRFA is being considered to be placed on the fast track under the “Buy Global, Make in India” , proposing a change in the strategic partnership model. Assessed on fact, the number of combat aircraft initially marked for acquisition remains at 114. The assessment is based on factual analysis with highly qualified subject matter experts. Talk of reducing the number of aircraft is not a viable option in the emerging scenario where the Indian Air Force has already planned 500 fighter jets in the near future to be able to maintain critical air power.

Last year, the Chief of the Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari added the ‘made in India’ element to the MRFA project emphatically and announced that ambitious procurement must embrace indigenization. Competition is intense with the world’s leading OEMs vying for the MRFA, including Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F, Dassault’s Rafale, Gripen JAS-39 E/F of Saab, the Russian MiG-35. and SU-35, and the European consortium led the Eurofighter Typhoon. Along with them, Boeing also plans to offer its upgraded F-15EX which has been approved by the US government for India. Beyond the intense competition, the quest for 114 fighter jets has seen the journey tumultuous and torturous, calling it an endless saga of high ambitions on a low trajectory. The quest has been to lay the foundation for advanced capability aerospace ecosystems in the country, which has had some success in getting LCA Tejas off the ground through the many decades of trials and tribulations. MRFA is based on the idea of ​​extending this terrain, by assimilating advanced technologies from the world of aerospace and defense that could be designed and built in India.

The IAF first issued the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender for the purchase of 126 new combat aircraft from foreign OEMs in 2007. It was proposed to continue to build capabilities and retain sanctioned strength of combat aircraft as Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas, a planned indigenous replacement for the aging IAF fleet, needed more time to fill gaps. In 2012, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale emerged as the final contenders, with Rafale winning the competition for the contract, but the program could not start due to certain clauses on the contractual warranty and other disagreements with the contract. ‘OEM selected. Finally, in 2015, the MMRCA project was cancelled. Under such severe circumstances for the IAF to maintain operational capabilities, the government instead decided to acquire 36 Rafales in flyover condition from the French entity Dassault’s. This has been formalized as part of the government-to-government agreement which is to make procurement much faster and more deployable.

In 2018, the government launched a new plan renamed “MMRCA 2.0”, launching a request for information (RFI) for the acquisition of 114 MRFA.

Airpower and capability gaps

A look at geopolitics and global conflict gives clear indication that the air dimension of the war has established unprecedented superiority. Next-generation technological breakthroughs in air warfare are already unfolding in scale and in the form of unmanned systems, hypersonic fighter jets and laser-powered weapons. It almost redefines the concept of modern warfare in the air and in space. How does the IAF embrace such a shift in terms of evolving threats and capabilities?

The IAF currently has planned 83 LCAs, 70 HTT-40s, two squadrons of AMCA Mk-Is and five squadrons of AMCA MK-IIs. In addition, the order of LCH and other developments of the helicopter fleet will provide for 400/450 aircraft. In the long term, the IAF will have the LCA AMCA and MRFA version in its flight line as well as 56 C-295s for tactical airlift. Nowhere in the world has such a commitment of 450 aircraft been made. This outlines the IAF’s plan for capacity building.

Last year, in an exclusive author interaction, Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari explained his thoughts on building and acquiring such capabilities, saying: “In the long term, the IAF will have the LCA AMCA and MRFA version in its flight line with 56 C-295s for tactical airlift. Nowhere in the world has such a commitment of 450 aircraft been made. This outlines the IAF’s plan for capacity building.

But the dichotomy remains to close capability gaps in building an advanced aerospace base for these next-generation fighter jets versus faster acquisition of these air assets amid depleted squadron numbers. . How do we approach factors such as joint production and technology development with OEMs in India? So in depletion of squad numbers or technology, is it priority or chronological balance?

But the issue is largely not about improving the policy and moving from the “Strategic Partnership (SP)” model to the “Buy Globally, Make in India” category under the process. Defense Acquisition (DAP) 2020. This is to lay the foundation for a capability building roadmap and which is to leverage the MRFA project for substantial technology gains and build systems and subsystems of global standards. India’s aerospace ecosystem is ticking for technology flows across dimensions for next-generation fighter jets. It is also about taking a good leap in our manufacturing technology that we have learned over the years for LCA Tejas. Besides the number of aircraft, the IAF is still focused on the need for next-generation technology that is ready for future conflicts. Advancement in the aerospace spectrum is breaking boundaries in areas such as stealth, speed, electronics and sensor suite, and quantum combat cloud-networking platforms, partnering with unmanned aerial systems with greater firepower. Apart from the security dimension, the MRFA project worth 20 billion dollars constitutes a convincing argument for India in terms of economy of scale when we have the capacity to design, develop and produce 5 6 generation fighter jets.

Currently, Tejas Mk1 FOC version aircraft are being delivered by HAL. LCA Mk 1A production is expected to start by 2023-2024. The LCA Mk-1A will have better capabilities with indigenous technologies such as AESA radar, integrated electronic warfare (EW) suite, long range beyond visual range (BVR) missile, aerial refueling with better maintainability and avionics suite.

Another groundbreaking project, the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) and IAF AMCA program was conducted in August 2020, while critical design review is under review . DRDO) with the active support of the IAF, is working on the development of a new generation technological demonstrator. Such complex projects require greater flow and collaboration with global innovators in the world of aerospace and defense manufacturing.

As IAF Chief VR Chaudhari again emphasized to the author during last year’s interaction, noted: “The IAF envisions the AMCA to encompass a edge and enhanced multi-role capability with the infusion of 6th generation technologies. Experience from LCA production will influence the design of the AMCA to meet future operational requirements. »

But the most important aspect of MRFA is the ability to acquire and develop elusive jet engine technology. The depth of negotiation lies in addressing these shortcomings, whether under the “SP” model or Buy Global, Make in India. Overall, the requirement is to meet the appropriate jet engine for the projected 500 combat aircraft for India’s next generation of advanced medium combat aircraft and Tejas Mk-2. What India lacks is the elusive jet engine capability. While the DRDO military gas turbine project has reached a certain Technology Readiness Level (TRL) in the production of crucial propulsion systems for unmanned aerial vehicles and weapons platforms as well as delivery systems long-range weapons, jet engines remain a complex task. As G. Satheesh Reddy, DDR&D Secretary and President explained, “As you know, these engines are being refused by global OEMs for mission critical applications.” The international reach in this case will allow India to jointly develop under the open architecture matrix, having full access and rights to the aircraft engine.

It should be noted that China is already upgrading the J-20 and J-31 aircraft and working on the new fighter jets with sixth-generation capabilities in areas covering stealth capability with hypersonic weapons. China is taking the lead on the air dimension of AI-based precision and laser warfare capabilities.

Clarity is the key to making substantial progress on crucial projects like MRFA. The political conundrum that blocks the deadline defeats the purpose. The proposed 114 MRFAs must go through such tracks to build an advanced aerospace industrial base and the IAF to cement its formidable position in air warfare.

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