In the Medium Fighter Aircraft segment, India currently requires 200 aircrafts, which include both single and twin engine as replacement. India's future 5th-generation aircraft, the Russia-Indian Sukhoi/HAL FGFA and the indigenous Medium Combat Aircraft, though will not be ready before 2025. Thus the need for an early selection of SP and OEM for the segment.

The Indian Air Force's (IAF) all-stealth fleet is divided into light, medium and heavy categories with all the three categories facing shortage of aircrafts. At present, its inventory consists of over 720+ combat aircrafts with a balanced mix of offensive and defensive capability. The Sukhoi Su-30MKI forms the backbone of IAF's combat fleet with multiple role capability. The current inventory of combat aerial platforms of the Air Force is as given in Table.

            The available fleet is now ageing and virtually obsolete MiG-21s and MiG-27s (on extended life) and Jaguar aircraft have already been upgraded, while, Mirage-2000 and MiG-29 aircrafts are under upgradation. A large percentage of the fleet, approximately 40-45 percent is obsolete as most of the aircrafts were inducted in 70s and thus are finishing their technical life. The IAF has to certainly replace these with new procurements in the next 10-15 years. The fast-depleting air combat fleet especially the medium combat of the Indian Air Force has been a matter of concern since last few years with the IAF has been running out of combat-worthy fighters.

            The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) to fill the gap between its future Light Combat Aircraft and its in-service Sukhoi Su-30MKI air superiority fighter. The Government in April 2015 announced its decision to acquire 36 Rafale combat aircraft worth over $5 Billion in flyaway condition from France via Government-to-Government (G-2-G) route. The aircrafts will be inducted within two years after signing the contract and inter governmental agreement. The IAF needs a medium, multi-role fighter single-engine fighters to replace the single-engine MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters to set up a production facility in India.

            In a meantime earlier restricted RFI for being a single-engined light MRCA was released on October 8, 2016. Mainly the following three offers are in hand for consideration under “Make in India”.

  • Saab JAS-39 Gripen single-engine, light fighters
  • LM F-16 Block 70 Super Viper single-engine, light fighter
  • Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

In addition, Indian Navy RFI for the 57 fighter planes, Boeing, Dassault, SAAB and Rosoboronexport have responded. The RFI queries are focused on technical parameters, budgetary estimates, likely level of indigenisation, transfer of technology and schedule of deliveries after a contract is inked. It is understood that Lockheed-Martin, F-35B/C did not respond as they are keen on G2G deal. A brief Competitors analysis of main contenders is as under:-

A comparative analysis of the responses of the above categories is as under:-


Saab Gripen NG

Saab offer includes setting up of a full manufacturing facility; transfer of state-of-the-art technology; setting up of an aerospace eco-system in India; creation of a local supplier base of ancillary systems; employment of a well-trained Indian workforce. training of engineers in Sweden for manufacturing and assembling the Gripen NG in India, partnering an Indian firm in 36 months; ramping up quickly to 18 fighters per year. Cost depend upon indigenisation level. It has also offered to:-

  • Partner ADA in developing the Tejas Mark IA, with four improvements needed. The Gripen NG's vaunted Selex Galileo Raven ES-05 AESA radar would be manufactured in India for the Tejas Mark IA and the Gripen NG, with a 100-degree sweep, that scans a wider cone than any other current radar.
  • Assist ADA develop its planned fifth-generation (Gen-5) fighter, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) Saab is part of a European consortium working on an unmanned stealth aircraft, called the nEUROn.

            Saab is silent on the Tejas Mark II, which would directly compete with the Gripen NG. Saab's vision clearly involves bypassing the Tejas Mark II and moving from the Mark IA, to the Gripen NG, to the AMCA. While the IAF apparently likes the Gripen NG though not a Gen-5 fighter, the Gripen NG's data link, a key element in modern air combat is reputedly the world's most advanced air craft. Its avionics are built of Gallium Nitride, which delivers superior performance over conventional Gallium Arsenide avionics. The Gripen NG carries diverse weaponry from various countries, including the French Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM), reputedly the worlds most advanced, with an estimated range of about 150 kms. The Gripen is the cheapest contemporary fighter to operate.

            The Gripen Maritime design has both CATOBAR and STOBAR configurations. A single engine configuration works against it. The Indian Navy will be hard pressed to explain junking plans with the LCA Navy (and perhaps the up-engined Mk.2) for another albeit more capable single engine fighter. However, Saab's chances in the IAF's single engine fighter deal will offset some of the downer factor of not being an available, proven aircraft today.


LM F-16 Block 70

Lockheed Martin F-16IN is "the most advanced and capable aircraft, the features include:

  • Conformal Fuel Tanks (CFTs) - This will give the F-16IN a combat range of 1700 km with 1500 kg weapons load.
  • Northrop Grumman AN/APG-80 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar. This is the same radar in service on the F-16 Block 60s in service in UAE.
  • General Electric F110-132A engine with 143 KN full after burning thrust with FADEC Controls.
  • Electronic warfare suites and infra-red searching.
  • Advanced all-color glass cockpit.
  • Helmet-mounted cueing system.

            The offer is also being made through Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), to transfer  a part of F-16 assembly line to India. Lockheed Martin owns the IPRs of only the airframe design & the F-16's FBW-FCS. It therefore isn't empowered to talk about licenced-production in India of everything else that's on-board the F-16. In addition, it is understood that LM asked the confirmed order of F-16 Block 70s and approval of  strategic industrial partner that's selected by Lockheed Martin. The company also offered to sell India the F-35 Lightning II aircraft in the future, as replacements, if the F-16 Block 70 was chosen.

            Recently, Tata Advanced Systems Limited (TASL) has signed an agreement with Lockheed Martin to produce F-16 Block 70 fighter jet. The agreement will enable Tata to integrate Indian sensors and systems into the high-technology and future upgrades for the aircraft on its own in F-16. In this context, Saab Gripen is a keen competitor in single engine fighter requirement  with a newer aircraft with more open on technology transfer.


Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet

Boeing, twin-engine F/A-18E/F Super Hornet is likely to remain in service by the 2040s and offer includes building a brand new Indian production line. Boeing's most powerful argument for the Super Hornet is perhaps its utility for the Indian Navy.

            Keen on Make-in-India bid for Indian Air Force requirement for twin engine fighters that Boeing hopes will quickly follow the current active single-engine contest. Boeing is on record to say that it has simulated STOBAR ski-jump operations and that the Super Hornet is capable of operating from a Vikramaditya-class carrier.


Dassault Rafale-M

The Rafale has types of advantages. It is in service with at least two Indian Air Force squadrons, and the possibility of more, the Rafale gets to push the commonality key. Cost, though, would be a pushback.


Mikoyan MiG-29K

The MiG-29K, has little chance of adding numbers in Indian inventory. It has run into several problems  not the least that it doesn't quite deliver what the Indian Navy needs from deck-based squadron, notably endurance. Other problems with the jet are well-documented, but the very fact that the Indian Navy has invested time, energy and a ton of funds on looking for new fighters means the MiG-29K is pretty much toast.

            The questions raised by the Comptroller and Auditor General over the Russian MiG-29K's ability to operate as an indigenous aircraft carrier, has been a concern.


Selection for SP Fighter Jet Segment

Under the SP model four segments were identified i.e, Fighter Aircraft, Helicopters, Submarines and Armoured Fighting vehicle. In the Fighter Air Craft segment, India's requires 200 combat aircrafts, which include both single and twin engine. India's future 5th-generation aircraft, the Russia-Indian Sukhoi/HAL FGFA and the indigenous Medium Combat Aircraft, though will not be ready before 2025, and 2022, respectively, thus necessitating the need for a replacement.

            As per the SP model, the government will select private Indian firms for the manufacturing of military equipment for a specified period. The foreign partner selection will depend on the Transfer of Technology and the financial proposal of the Original Equipment Manufacturer. A Government-to-Government deal will be signed after the selection of the aircraft. Under the SP model, government is likely to identify foreign partners to build 120 combat planes in India under $ 20 billion deal.

            The Indian Air Force is likely to hold limited trials of the latest version of  F-16 Block 70 and Saab Gripen fighter with an AESA radar to select the foreign partner to build 120 combat planes, a deal is estimated to be around $20 billion (Rs 1.3 lakh crore), under the Make in India project. Lately, TASL and Lockheed Martin forms JV for the purpose of “Make in India” for F-16 Block-70 aircraft and Saab is likely to partner with Adani, there could be a keen contest for selection of SP.

            Indian Navy is said to have preference for a twin-engine aircraft. If that be so the competition mainly appears to be between Boeing's FA-18 and Dassault's Rafale and the later has done a deal with the Indian Air Force (IAF), they may have an edge, for better logistics, maintenance, training and industrial support. Meanwhile, the Navy is testing the American F-18 and the French Dassault for acquiring 57 twin-engine planes for its next aircraft carrier Indigenous Aircraft Carrier (IAC).

            The Tejas Mark II (light combat aircraft), Naval Variant  prototype developed by DRDO is ready and has fullfilled the parameters of ski-jump on board aircraft carriers. However Navy had been insisting on twin engines but DRDO is working on the power of the engines and looking for strategic partners to provide back-end support.

            The IAF has plans of inducting around 123 LCA combat jets and the government recently gave clearance to a Rs 50,000 crore project to induct 83 planes and augmented the rate of production of these planes in the state-owned HAL in Bangalore. IAF is hoping that their replacements would be ready for induction into the service in form of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft and the 120 'Make in India' fighter planes.


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