MRFA jet procurement : In light of the lower numbers, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is halving its largest fighter aircraft acquisition programme and has signalled the possibility of a change in procurement model to one that is more attractive to international suppliers for compliance with Make in India standards.
Through a global competition, the planned USD 20 billion Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) procurement programme for 114 foreign fighters has been reduced to 57 jets. According to insiders, the original proposal to manufacture these jets in India under the ambitious Strategic Partnership (SP) Model is poised to be scrapped, and the slashed programme is likely to be relaunched under the Buy Global (Make in India) category of the Defense Acquisition Procedure 2020.
All 57 fighters will be manufactured in India, with technology transferred from a foreign OEM to an Indian business. The reduction is primarily due to the government’s Aatmanirbhar Bharat (self-reliant India) policy directive, which aims to reduce defence imports and instead build up a domestic Defense Industrial Complex to meet military needs. A fresh push is underway to devote the majority of the capital budget for Defense modernisation to domestic sources.
The Indian Navy’s requirement for imported deck-borne fighters was also lowered from 57 to 26 aircraft. The MRFA and Navy fighter cuts present both an opportunity and a challenge for domestic industry to make up the difference. It has been learned that a global tender for the procurement of 57 jets will be issued before the end of 2022. In 2018, the IAF issued an RFI for 114 fighters to the worldwide market.
Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s F-15EX and F/A-18 Super Hornet, Dassault’s Rafale, Saab’s Gripen, the European consortium’s Eurofighter, Sukhoi’s S-35, and MiG’s MiG-35 all submitted responses to Air Headquarters. India has a shaky track record when it comes to procuring a foreign fighter through a global competition.
The MRFA’s predecessor, the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) programme for 126 fighters, was shelved after a decade-long procurement procedure determined that Dassault’s Rafale was the winner but that a contractual agreement could not be reached. In a Government-to-Government contract with France, India purchased 36 Rafale fighter jets as an emergency acquisition in 2016.
The IAF’s aim to reduce its squadrons to roughly 35 over the next 15 years will require a foreign fighter. In the meanwhile, until indigenous Light Combat Aircraft versions and the futuristic Fifth Generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) mature and stabilise, a proven foreign combat jet will provide interim reliability and confidence.
IAF Chief Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari stated that the IAF’s approved fighter strength of 42 squadrons will not be reached in the near future. The IAF’s concern about maintaining minimum force levels stems from the inevitable retirement of its legacy jet fleets, which include the Mirage-2000, MiG-29, and Jaguars, over the next decade.
By 2024, the MiG-21’s last squadrons will be retired. Two more Rafale squadrons have entered service. In 2024, 83 LCA Mk 1A aircraft will be delivered. In the best-case scenario, the LCA Mk-2 and AMCA will be ready in a decade. The MRFA was created to bridge the gap between fighter squadrons and combat capabilities. The IAF, which had hoped for six MRFA squadrons as a backup, will now have to make do with three.
Reduced numbers in a worldwide tender, according to industry sources, make it more difficult to meet demanding Make in India and technology transfer requirements profitably. “A half-cut in numbers makes executing a complex tender like this one more difficult. An observer reasoned that “numbers bring viability, cost-effectiveness, and affordability.”
Another major source of concern is the failure of the SP model, which was supposed to launch the development of a private sector Defense Industrial Complex by reserving one large purchase per category as a one-time measure. The first programme under the SP Model, the Naval Utility Helicopter (NUH), has been scrapped.