Dassault Rafale was a capable fighter jet with limited foreign customers until the Indian Air Force (IAF) bought 36 of these French jets. Since then, the French aircraft maker has experienced a windfall of orders and emerged as one of the world’s best-selling aircraft.
The SAAB Gripen is expecting the same turnaround of fortunes by clinching the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) deal from the IAF with an upgraded Gripen E.
The Indian defense market has been abuzz with excitement about the impending tender for 114 MRFA for the IAF, whose fighter jet squadron strength is fast plummeting. The MRFA deal takes it forward from where the previously conceived Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) left after being scrapped in 2015.
The MMRCA deal was in process for nearly 15 years before the Indian government scrapped it and purchased 36 Rafales directly from the French government.
The French omni role fighter jet Rafale struggled to find a buyer for a long time. Apart from the measly order from Egypt and Qatar, Rafale’s order book had nothing to boast about.
Rafale, which means “gust of wind” in French, failed to win contracts from Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Singapore, and Switzerland. Its high price tag has been a significant deciding factor against it.
The Indian branch of the Swedish subsidiary SAAB, which manufactures single-engine Gripen fighter jets, has been in the ring since the IAF expressed interest in importing 114 fighter jets. Last week, it publicly offered its upgraded Gripen-E platform to the IAF in a statement published on its official account on Platform X (previously Twitter).
A post on August 28 said, “Saab will offer 114 state-of-the-art Gripen E fighters as a part of its response to the upcoming IAF RFP. With Gripen E, India will get next-generation combat air capability and world-class availability – ready to face any threat, anytime, anywhere, from any dispersed location.”
But there seems to be a delay, if not a slip, between the proverbial cup and lips. The IAF had floated the RFI in 2018 and got an enthused response from the aircraft maker worldwide for the multi-billion-dollar deal.
The French fighter jets are considered the frontrunner to win the deal, assuming they are already in use. Other aircraft in contention include Boeing’s F-15EX and F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen, and Lockheed Martin’s F-21.
“Fresh ASQRs (Air Staff Qualitative Requirements) have been created for the MRFA. So, the conclusion that Rafale will emerge the winner is not a foregone conclusion,” a senior Indian Air Force (IAF) official told the EurAsian Times. The formulation of ASQR is the most crucial stage in defense acquisition as it determines the quality, price, and competition.
The IAF’s ASQR setting capability in MMRCA has even been commented on by the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). In 2007, the CAG’s observation was exhaustive and had a lot of technical details instead of using functional parameters. This led to situations where none of the vendors could meet the ASQRs. Further, the ASQRs were repeatedly changed during the procurement process.
“The MMRCA competition was a thoroughly conducted process. It took us years to vet every contender. For MRFA, which is just a different name for the contract, I can only expect the ‘Make in India’ could be the deciding factor,” Air Marshal (retd) M. Matheswaran told the EurAsian Times.
He was the former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defense Staff (DCIDS- Policy, Plans, and Force Development) at Integrated Defense Service (the Tri-Services Command) and was the Senior Air Staff Officer (SASO – Deputy C-in-C) of the Eastern Air Command. He worked on the MMRCA deal before it was scrapped.
Gripen E is the most modern fighter in the competition, and together with its weaponry, including the Meteor Beyond Visual Range missile, Gripen E will give the IAF an edge against its adversaries. The latest high-performance sensors such as AESA radar, IRST system, advanced datalinks, and AI-enabled decision support give the pilot superior situational awareness and ability to see first-act first.
The EurAsian Times had previously reported that while the Gripen-E is very appealing in terms of its advanced electronic warfare capability, integration of strong missiles, reduced-radar cross-section, and low operating cost, the jet still seems to be losing out to its competitors on two rather important fronts – political clout and economic backing.
The officials in the know of the process do not concur with the conclusion that Rafale will emerge victorious. “Other aircraft have upgraded suitably to meet IAF’s requirements, Gripen-E definitely, plus F-15E and F-21,” the official opined.
Gripen E can carry nine missiles and 16 bombs, as well as a large suite of other weapons and payloads. Along with it, the aircraft design enables easy integration of new weapon systems and stores for all missions, from air-to-air missiles to reconnaissance and heavy air-to-ground armament.
‘Make In India’ Going To Break MMRCA 2.0?
The MMRCA seems to be jinxed. The IAF had proposed in August 2000 to acquire 126 Mirage 2000 II aircraft. The proposal was discarded in 2004, and in 2007, a decision was taken to acquire 126 aircraft under MMRCA. It was later scrapped, and the IAF bought 36 Rafale aircraft through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with the French government.
The IAF is in the process of making a case for the purchase of the fighter jets and awaits the government’s Acceptance of Necessity (AoN). The key element experts in the MRFA touted as MMRCA 2.0, will be the Make in India component that the Indian government has been pushing hard for.
The IAF, which presently has 31 squadron strengths against the sanctioned strength of 42, has been awaiting the government’s nod for a long time. Air Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari, the then deputy chief of the IAF, told journalists during Aero India that the AoN is expected from the government in the next three to four months.
The green light still eludes the IAF, which needs to move swiftly and arrest its dwindling fighter squadrons by inducting 500 fighter jets. To toe the “Make in India” line of the Indian Government, the IAF preceded its proposal for 114 MRFA by expressing a desire to order 90 more Light Combat Aircraft Mk1.
“It is going to take at least 6 to 8 years after the government’s AoN. The IAF’s requirement is urgent,” the IAF official added.
Another official in the know of the things told the EurAsian Times: “The IAF needs a lot of aircraft to be recognized as a deterrence to the PLAAF (the People Liberation Army Air Force). However, they (the IAF) have not been able to convince the Indian government that the imported aircraft are required in such large numbers.”
“The whole process up to aircraft delivery will take 6 to 7 years. By then, Tejas Mk-2 may also be ready for induction. That may be the reason for the government’s indecision,” the official offered.
“F-21, F-15E, Gripen-E, Su-35 could all be contenders. But, first, the government has to agree to import fighter aircraft in the presence of LCA Mk-2 and Mk-1A,” added the official.
LCA Mk-2 is going to enhance range and endurance. The Mk-2 is 1,350mm longer, featuring canards, and can carry a payload of 6,500 kg compared to the 3,500 kilograms that LCA can carry. LCA Mk-2 will be powered by the General Electric F414-INS6 engine (earlier LCA variants used the F404).
The LCA Mk2 is expected to have a maximum speed of 1.8 Mach and a service ceiling of 50,000 feet. Heavy weapons of the class of SCALP, Crystal Maze, and Spice-2000 will also be integrated into the Mk-2.
The IAF is expected to order over 200 LCA Mk-2 fighters.
- Ritu Sharma has been a journalist for over a decade, writing on defense, foreign affairs, and nuclear technology.
- She can be reached at ritu.sharma (at) mail.com