China-India Deadlock: New Delhi Scraps Light Fighter Competition And Revives Medium Fighter Tender

Anupam NathAP Images

For the last two years, the government of India has been studying a proposal for the acquisition of 114 single-engine fighter jets. These aircraft were meant to replace the large numbers of Soviet-era jets still forming the backbone of the Indian Air Force (IAF).

However, such plans were dashed this week as the proposal was scrapped and the Air Force tasked with preparing a more comprehensive proposal that could also encompass two-engine medium fighters, The Times of India reported.

The Indian government also seems to be concerned with “needless allegations” that could arise from the current tender, a declaration that may be linked with the media and political fallout of the previous contests.

This development will further delay the acquisition of new fighters, which has been in the works since 2001. The Indian Defense Ministry has stated in the past that the nation’s Air Force requires a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons of 18 combat aircraft each to adequately contend with Pakistan and China, New Delhi’s rivals.

The decommissioning of older units and attrition have brought this number down to 31 squadrons during the last few decades. But this number may decrease to as low as 21 by 2022 when the venerable MiG-21s and MiG-27s are retired. Delays in the indigenous HAL Tejas can potentially lower even further the total number of active squadrons during the following decade.

This means that New Delhi needs to formalize a new proposal rather quickly, less it will lose the proper numbers to dissuade its enemies and maintain the balance of forces.

Dassault Rafale aboard French carrier Charles de Gaulle.
Featured image credit: Stephane de SakutinAP Images

The search for a new fighter jet to equip the IAF is now a long and contrived story. India has been working on a lightweight fighter, to replace the MiG-21, since the 1980s. The result of this procurement was the HAL Tejas. However, the project has been marred by delays and has produced minimal results for the time and money already invested.

In 2001, the groundwork for what would become the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition was laid down. Eleven years later, in 2012, the French Dassault Rafale would win the $20-billion tender.

Negotiations would drag on, as the French put serious obstacles to local production and technology transfer. Eventually, only 36 aircraft were bought from the 136 originally planned. The first aircraft is due to arrive by 2019.

The single-engine jet fighter deal, worth $18 billion, would have covered for the remaining numbers, but it was felt that it was too restrictive, limiting the competition to the American Lockheed-Martin F-16IN Viper and the Swedish Saab JAS-39E Gripen. Given that the tender implied the local construction of most units, the two companies sought local partners.

According to the website Poder Aereo, Saab joined efforts with the Adani Group, while Lockheed-Martin formed a partnership with Tata Advanced Defense Systems. The latter pair went even as far as to imply a complete transfer of the production lines from Texas to India, as reported by Forbes. This possibility has now been dashed by the backtracking of the Indian government.

The Drive delves further into the subject, arguing that broadening the competition makes some sense. The Indian military does not need only land-based fighters, but also naval jets for its carrier force.

It should be noted that the Indian Navy is dissatisfied with the performance of the Russian-made Mikoyan MiG-29K. Furthermore, a commonality between land-based and naval fighters makes logistical sense. New Delhi attempted to develop a naval version of the Tejas, to be produced alongside the land-based version, but the under-performance of the type has pushed that option off the table.

However, the Rafale has a battle-tested naval version, the Rafale M, which has served with the French Navy for some years now. Given that the type will be acquired as an interim measure anyway, the acquisition of further units, even for the Navy, would be a logical development, further solidifying the decision made during the MRCA competition.

But such a resolution is not necessarily what may happen.

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American involvement should be taken into account. Given the U.S. rivalry with China, the interests of Washington and New Delhi tend to align, and the later has been procuring American-made aircraft for some time. India has bought C-17 transport planes and P-8 maritime patrol aircraft, and the acquisition of fighters would further cement this cooperation.

This means that the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet may also join the new competition. The Super Hornet is also a battle-proven naval jet, and both the type and its predecessor have been serving as land-based fighters with American clients for several years.

Additionally, furthering the cooperation with Washington could also allow India to acquire the Lockheed-Martin F-35 stealth fighter.

New Delhi was previously engaged with Moscow in the development of the Sukhoi Su-57 stealth fighter. This cooperation compounded a long association with Russia, which goes back to the Soviet era. It also came on the heels of the collaboration with Sukhoi in the creation of the Su-30MKI, which is the primary fighter type serving in the IAF.

But the Su-57’s development has been marred by delays and increasing costs, and New Delhi is reportedly unhappy with the handling of the whole process. This means that India may try to look at its increasing proximity with the U.S. to gain access to stealth technology, to the detriment of Russia. The fact that the F-35 has a naval version, as well as a STOVL variant, in its lineup makes the type quite attractive to India.

Nevertheless, New Delhi’s requirements for technology transfer may become a strong contention point for any interested manufacturers, as it has been for Dassault. How large of a role this element will play depends on the details of the new procurement plan.

In the meanwhile, the IAF will have to make do with the current fighter types, until a final decision can be made.