The Narendra Modi government is looking at splitting the mega deal for 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) into two separate orders : Rafale vs F-18, even as the Navy pursues its own fighter aircraft acquisition programme, IndianDefenceNews has learnt.
Sources in the Indian defence and security establishment said that instead of acquiring 114 fighters in one go, as was planned earlier, the government is looking at going in for an initial order of 54 aircraft for the IAF.
This would involve 18 fighters being bought off-the-shelf from the foreign Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM) and 36 being built in India through a joint venture under Make In India.
This would be an order that will be placed with the foreign OEM directly.
Asked what happens to the subsequent need for the IAF, the sources said that a follow-on order will be placed to the joint venture and this deal would be in Indian currency.
While sources refused to speculate on whether there would be a global tender that will be issued, the main players for the IAF deal will be American firm Boeing, and Dassault Aviation of France.
‘IAF happy with Rafale jets’
India has already bought 36 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault Aviation and has set up two bases with two separate simulators for training.
In France, each base can cater to 72 aircraft and hence India going in for two separate bases for just 36 came as a surprise and an indicator that more Rafale jets could be bought.
Boeing, which is keen to bag the mega deal, will decide on what to offer to the IAF — F/A 18 Super Hornet Block 3 or F-15 EX — depending on what the final technical requirements are.
In the past, both companies have said in private conversation that any plans to start off a production line in India will depend on the number of aircraft ordered for.
Dassault Aviation had gone on record saying that to start a production line in India, a minimum order for 100 fighters was needed.
However, it is not yet known what the number of follow-on orders will be once the order for 54 is completed.
The IAF is banking on the MRFA along with the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas Mk 1A and the future-generation indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
Sources have indicated that the IAF is happy with the Rafale jets and would be content if more of the same are bought, which will be a government decision.
Any future purchase of Rafale aircraft will work out to be cheaper than the 36 already bought.
This is because a large component of the €1,700 million paid for India-Specific Enhancements in Rafale will come down as the majority of the cost was for research and development, modification and certification.
The cost of setting up the base and training will also come down since India had paid for setting up two bases for just 36 aircraft. These bases can easily accommodate more squadrons of Rafale without additional cost.
Also, future Rafale fighter jets will come with no offsets under the new policy of the government, thereby bringing down the cost further.
The Rafale is the 7th addition to the types of fighters that the IAF has — a feat unique to the force in comparison to major air forces in the world.
Navy set to pursue own deal for fighters
It is also learnt that the Navy is looking at procuring fighters for its aircraft carrier on its own rather than tagging along with the IAF.
Earlier, in 2020, then Navy chief Admiral Karambir Singh had said the force was trying to work with the IAF for a possible joint procurement.
The Navy, which had an original plan to buy 57 fighters, is now looking at buying 26.
For the naval contract, too, the competition is between Boeing and Dassault Aviation.
Two Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornets, on lease from the US Navy, are showcasing their ski-jump from the shore-based test facility (SBTF) at INS Hansa in Goa to project their capabilities to operate from Indian aircraft carriers.
This was done after Dassault Aviation conducted a similar demonstration.
Sources said that all the 26 aircraft will be bought off the shelf. However, given that India will be operating two aircraft carriers by August this year and has faced multiple issues with the existing MiG-29K, the Navy is likely to add more new fighters in the coming years.
If the Navy decides to go in for its own procurement process rather than aligning with the IAF, then the advantage is with Boeing.
This is because its single-seater and twin-seater are both capable of operating from the aircraft carrier, unlike Rafale M, whose twin-seater operates from the shore.
Another aspect that Boeing is pushing for is interoperability. The US firm says the Super Hornets are compatible with systems and platforms that the Indian Navy already operates or has acquired — MH-60 Romeo anti-submarine helicopters, and P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime aircraft.
The aircraft, which can carry more anti-ship missiles than the Rafale M, will become more potent with all assets talking to each other and giving a holistic view of the zone of operations, Boeing has said.