Of late, there has been much consternation in the media over the issue of fighter aircraft acquisitions by the Indian Air Force (IAF). But the fact is, both the deal with France for 36 Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft, which has come under criticism from the opposition, and the tender for acquiring a foreign single engine fighter aircraft under the ‘Make in India’ banner, ultimately stem from the IAF’s need to replace a very large pool of legacy aircraft even as it seeks to attain its current sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons. We submit however, that the only realistic way to reconcile these objectives without ‘breaking the bank’, as it were, is to significantly augment the production of variants of the homegrown HAL Tejas, which, as we shall see is quite competitive in the Indian scenario. Indeed, India would be better off building variants from the Tejas family in numbers rather than pursuing the single-engine tender mentioned above which sees an ‘India specific’ Lockheed Martin F-16 variant in competition with the SAAB Gripen E/F.
Image: Tejas Mk1, single seat supersonic jet fighter
The IAF currently operates a veritable menagerie of fighter aircraft with its 34 squadrons composed of Mig-21 (including the upgraded Bison and earlier variants), Mig-27, Mig-29 (also undergoing upgrades), Su-30 MKI, French built Mirage-2000 upgraded to the latest standards at significant cost and license built Jaguar aircraft. In order to rationalize its inventory by inducting a Mirage-2000 class fighter, while phasing out the older Mig-21, 23 and 27 aircraft, the IAF had floated the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender. Failure of that process led to a ten-year long hiatus, as the IAF watched its squadron strength dwindle from 42 squadrons in 2002 to the 34 squadrons it has at the moment, necessitating expensive upgrades of its legacy fleet.
By the 2030s, the IAF will have to start phasing out its upgraded Mirage-2000 and Mig-29 squadrons as well. In order to maintain and improve squadron strength by then, an equivalent number of aircraft will need to be inducted. At the same time there needs to be a fresh look at the capabilities required by the IAF in a 50-year horizon when future combat will involve the extensive use of 5th generation manned fighters and unmanned combat aerial vehicles (UCAV). India is currently in the process of developing such platforms while China is already fielding a next generation manned fighter and has begun flight testing UCAV demonstrators. Next generation Indian programs are expected to fructify around 2035 (unless we take into account the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project whose status is currently unclear) and will add to IAF strength. Therefore, shortfall concerns in the near term (2020-2035) will also need to take into account the expense that such advanced platforms will entail by the mid-2030s in terms of capital as well as operations & maintenance (O&M) costs. And going by the experience of the United States (US) with the F-22 & F-35 programs, both capital and O&M costs are likely to be greater for advanced platforms than they are for 4th generation fighters. Nevertheless, till such time India begins inducting 5th generation fighters, we believe the desired 42 squadrons could well consist of 20-22 ‘light’, 5-7 ‘medium’ and 15 Su-30 MKI type ‘heavy’ squadrons.
Now the necessity of greater numbers of light squadrons in lieu of a top-heavy force of twin-engined fighters is obviously due to the considerably higher operational and capital expenditures incurred on heavy fighters. Thus, given the need for around 400 light fighters in the IAF, having a single fighter type will result in considerable savings due to commonality. Once again, as the IAF grows from its current size back to authorized size, the importance of doing so in a cost- effective manner cannot be understated. Now owing to the depleting strength of the IAF and the slow ramp-up of Tejas production, the process to procure 114 units of a single-engine fighter that will be license produced has been initiated under the Strategic Partnership policy of India’s Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP). Proponents of this tender also say that it will help in creating a wide aeronautics ecosystem in India, introduce Indian workers to a modern, state of the art production system and even lead to exports. But will it really? It is time to examine these issues in some detail.
Show me the technology
Major sub-systems of both aircraft,the so called F-16 Block 70 and Gripen E, on offer as part of the single-engine tender, such as avionics, radar, engines, and electronic warfare (EW) systems will likely continue to be manufactured in their countries of origin even if a manufacturing line is opened in India. Transfer of any technology, as offered by SAAB and Lockheed Martin, is likely to remain limited to production (i.e. some know-how) alone and not offer any insight into design processes commonly referred to as know-why. This has been India’s experience with previous such offers leading to a situation whereby OEMs have milked the IAF for subsequent customizations and upgradation, such as the integration of new weapons and sensors. IAF upgrades to its Mig-21s, Mirage-2000 and Jaguar aircraft bear testimony to the peculiar behavior of various OEMs. Depending on OEMs for keeping imported or licensed produced aircraft viable clearly increases the life-cycle cost of the platform besides leading to major time penalties in terms of availability rates.
Today, India is developing a plethora of indigenous missiles and munitions, and what has been delineated above with respect to OEM support is a significant issue to consider while bringing in a new foreign platform. Integration time and cost will greatly increase if OEM personnel have to be brought to India for such purposes or aircraft have to be flown to another country to achieve the necessary modifications. The Tejas in comparison offers significant advantages in this regard since its source code is completely indigenous and therefore allows the IAF to basically plug and play upgrades, subject to aerodynamic and other issues, naturally.
Moreover, there is no guarantee that OEMs will even cooperate with the IAF for integrating any and every weapon system, the latter deems necessary. Take the case of the UAE for example. Despite funding and owning the so-called ‘Block 60’ variant of the F-16, the UAEAF was refused support when it sought to integrate the ‘Black Shaheen’, a variant of the British Storm Shadow cruise missile, onto its F-16s, with the US citing MTCR regulations. UAEAF had to seek help from France to integrate the missile with its French-built Mirage-2000 aircraft instead. Judging by the UAE’s experience it is very likely that India will be nudged to procure mainly American weapons for the F-16, citing existing commonality with the platform, and will have to incur exorbitant costs for the integration of homegrown weapons, and that too if the OEM agrees. The Gripen E will of course be capable of carrying weapons of both of European and American origin and SAAB explicitly offers integration with arms from other countries. While some munitions like the Paveway kits might be common, integration of other armament meant for usage with the rest of the IAF fleet will need to be done. Needless to say, such costs will add to any expense calculation as part of a purchase.
Once again looking at the UAE as a recent example, one finds that it spent some $3 billion on the design and development of the F-16 E/F Block 60 variant alone to create a customized aircraft to address its needs. This customization included adding features such as conformal fuel tanks, integration of internal forward looking infrared (FLIR) and electronic warfare (EW) systems, a new General Electric F110-GE-132 engine and a Northrop Grumman AN/APG-60 active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar to the baseline F-16 C Block 50/52 aircraft that forms the backbone of the USAF fleet. However, source codes for the new radar and the ability to integrate or carry weapons systems that are export-restricted by the USA citing ITAR are not available to the UAE thereby circumscribing the latter’s ability to project force in its region. The technology that went into making the specific variant of the engine developed by General Electric was also not available.
The same sort of situation is likely to take place in India’s case as well. No cutting edge technology will be transferred, any marketing talk about ‘technology transfer’ notwithstanding. As, Keith Webster, Senior Vice-President (Defence and Aerospace), US-India Strategic Partnership Forum (USISPF) in an interview with The Hindu BusinessLine said “It will never be full ToT. It is not in the national interest or industry’s interest. Certain technologies are not transferable to anyone in the world. Billions of dollars are spent over decades to make military-grade engines and what makes military-grade engines unique in the world is hot-sectioned technology and codings and those are crown-jewel technologies. No one is going to hand that over. So anyone who says they will is not being honest. They will not.” 
Nevertheless, the UAE is on track to yet again upgrade its F-16 Block 60 aircraft and buy a further 30 F-16 ‘Block 61’ aircraft which will feature advanced weaponry and spares and maintenance support. The subsystems, maintenance and spares are estimated to cost $270 million while the aircraft themselves are estimated to cost nearly $2 billion. Upgrading existing Block 60 aircraft to Block 61 standards is expected to cost another $1.63 billion. In addition to this, the UAE has also requested purchase of various munitions and associated spares, training and logistical support to the tune of $4 billion (2013) . These include 5000 GBU-39/B SDB, 8 SDB Guided Test Vehicles, 1200 AGM-154C JSOW, 300 AGM SLAM-ER, 30 Data Link Pods etc. India has similar weapons systems under production or development at the moment. However, initial flyaway aircraft will need to be equipped with American munitions adding significantly to the cost of such a purchase apart from the very real need to integrate Indian munitions. UAE has also expressed an interest to procure 3250 GBU-31V1, 750 GBU-31V3, 1000 GBU012, JDAM kits and bombs for an estimated cost of $300 million. All these sales to the UAE carry a note of not altering military balance in the region while contributing to the foreign policy and national security of the United States . Apart from the high upfront outlay of any significant purchase of F-16 Block 70 aircraft, India will also incur significant recurring costs for type specific ammunition, spares, training and maintenance. It is worth pointing out that Indian precision guided munitions development has matured, and training and maintenance costs will be reduced by having greater numbers of the Tejas, that will sport these indigenous armaments, apart from reducing overheads related to maintaining multiple types of fighter aircraft.
Now Brazil’s $5.4 billion (2014) deal with SAAB for just 36 Gripen E/NG aircraft also includes transfer of technology clauses . However, technology to which SAAB does not hold IPR will be difficult to obtain without striking a separate deal with each IP rights holder. Any technologies that are transferred in the case of the Gripen E/F will be essentially restricted to those that are lower down the totem pole in terms of importance.
The UAE which funded development of the F-16 Block 60 variant is supposed to get royalties if any of the IP that was generated in the process is used for future production and sales. However, such an option is irrelevant to India because export possibilities for any putative F-16 Block 70 variant appear very limited, if at all. The sad fact is that major F-16 customers the world over are switching to the advanced 5th generation F-35 fighter. The Lockheed Martin offer to shift the production line to India is therefore similar to the French offer of moving the Mirage-2000 production line to India when France was itself embarking on manufacture of the more contemporary Rafale fighter.
Meanwhile, license production of the Gripen E at the Sao Paulo facility in Brazil, will include the domestic fabrication of the aircraft’s wings, as well as front and rear fuselage . Given that Brazil alone expects to end up procuring a total of 108 Gripen Es, it is likely that India will need to compete against Brazil if she expects to export Made-in-India Gripen E aircraft.
Fig 1: Performance Comparison of Aircraft Under Consideration
Any two aircraft of contemporary design with similar airframes, thrust specific fuel consumption and fuel capacity usually have similar range and combat radius. The Tejas MK1 and the Gripen C/D are aircraft with similar dimensions, internal fuel, engine and weight. Therefore, their performance such as combat radius is more or less the same for similar loadouts. At a thrust specific fuel consumption rate of 84 kg/KNhr at maximum dry thrust, the GE-404 engine would consume nearly 4600 kg of fuel per hour. Thus, at max internal and external fuel (approximately 5100 kg), the Tejas MK1’s combat radius is estimated to be over 275 km for a lo-lo-lo strike mission.
Strike missions with low level flying throughout are the most demanding fuel wise and hence shorten combat radius considerably. Once we consider mission profiles that involve flying at higher altitudes, there will be a marked increased in the combat radius, something which is now likely with the advent of several indigenously developed high speed low drag (HSLD) and stand-off glide bombs with extended ranges between 30 km – 100 km. Thus, with these new munitions the typical combat radius for the Tejas MK1 is estimated to be much higher and easily comparable to the Gripen C/D which is the precusor to the Gripen E on offer. A combat strike load-out of 2 X 500 pound HSLD bombs, 2 X 1200 litre external fuel tanks and a LITENING pod is well within the maximum take-off load of the Tejas MK-1. It is worth noting that the Tejas Mk1 IOC-2 version has a ferry range of 1700 km.
For high altitude missions such as fighter sweeps/air superiority combat air patrols and high altitude PGM delivery strike missions, the Tejas Mk-1 is estimated to have a greater than 500 km combat radius owing to the flight profile under consideration. The Tejas MK-1 will also sport an in-flight refuelling probe and aerial refueling will naturally increase loiter time and combat radius. To see why the Tejas Mk-1’s combat radius performance makes it quite useful in the Indian scenario, refer to the Fig 2 below which depicts distance bubbles of 250 km radius each from various IAF air bases under Western Air Command, South Western Air Command and Eastern Air Command.
Fig 2: 250 km Radius Distance Bubbles From Major IAF Bases Facing Pakistan and China
To belabour the point, one could say that the Gripen E variant which is being offered is a larger and more capable aircraft than the Tejas MK1 and Gripen C/D. Here it should be noted, that the Gripen E flew for the first time only earlier this year and is still some distance away from type certification. Moreover, a more capable and heavier Tejas MK2 is also under development and that too will become available in the years ahead for production.
Now, the F-16 is an aircraft with a larger airframe and higher thrust than the Tejas or Gripen family of aircraft and for a variant similar to the Block 60, conformal tanks would enable it to carry greater internal fuel besides freeing up hardpoints to carry weapons or indeed more drop tanks. Naturally its endurance will be higher than the Tejas MK-1. However, its greater empty weight negates the additional thrust to an extent however.
As far as weaponry is concerned, all three fighter families are rated to carry modern beyond visual range air to air missiles (BVRAAMs) with the Tejas Mk1 using the I-Derby-ER AAM, the Gripen being equipped with the METEOR and the F-16 carrying the AIM-120 AMRAAM in this category. The Israeli Elta I-Derby-ER costs nearly a third of the METEOR which costs 2,000,000 GBP (2016)  while the AIM-120D AMRAAM costs $1,76 million (2014) . The indigenous Astra MK1 BVRAAM will also be soon integrated with the Tejas MK1, and is expected to be cost competitive with imported missiles.
All three fighters are also capable of using laser guided bombs (LGBs) while on bombing missions. The Tejas MK1 proved its bomb load capability when a trainer variant took off from the very high altitude Leh airfield in Ladakh with 2 pilots, 2 x 1000lb LGBs and 2 x external fuel tanks at a take-off distance that was much shorter than expected. Incidentally, take-off distance at Leh airfield was among the test points for the MMRCA competition evaluations in which one contestant fighter reportedly failed. While the F-16 utilises internal FLIR and external LANTIRN systems, the Gripen C/D and Tejas MK-1 make use of external Litening laser designator pods to lase ground targets and for infra-red imaging and reconnaissance. The Gripen E however has an integral Skyward-G infrared search and tracking (IRST) sensor.
Nominal performance comparisons notwithstanding, it is undeniable that significant dependence on imported arms has led to a critical reduction in platform availability across the armed forces at various points in time. Arms sales have always been and will continue to be a tool for foreign policy objectives. Strategic considerations, national security, economic and foreign policy interests drive arms sales from the US and countries in Europe. India has had many painful experiences of falling afoul of the interests of foreign powers that any blind trust in future acquisitions is rather misplaced and will need a thorough cost benefit analysis.
It’s a Numbers Game
The IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 fighter aircraft squadrons to deal with a two-front war possibility. By the early 2030s, all legacy aircraft and the upgraded Mirage-2000 and Mig-29 aircraft will be retired from service. The IAF is planning a deep upgrade of its Su-30 MKI fleet , which will be 15 squadron strong at the least. India has also signed a deal to buy two squadrons (36 aircraft) of the Rafale from France. While a follow-on deal for 2 more squadrons is possible, it isn’t definite yet. Therefore, some 23 squadrons of new fighter aircraft (assuming that 36 more Rafales are given the go ahead) will need to be inducted by the early 2030s, if IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa’s recent assertion that the IAF will reach its sanctioned strength by 2032 has to be valid.
Deliveries of the entire first squadron of 20 Initial Operational Clearance (IOC) standard Tejas MK-1 is expected to be complete by the end of 2018 and the second squadron of 20 Final Operational Clearance (FOC) standard Tejas MK-1 aircraft is projected to be built by 2022 . HAL is all set to increase its annual production rate to 16 units soon (for which it is investing a sum of Rs 1331 crores) and can even increase production to 24 units per year if larger orders are placed and the delivery of outsourced sub-assemblies can be synchronized better . FOC for the Tejas MK-1 is now expected by the middle of 2018. Manufacture of 83 Mk1A variant AESA equipped MK-1A aircraft will commence once the so called Standard of Preparation 2018 (SoP-2018) Tejas prototype is ready.
So, it seems that at current rates of production, the IAF will see the addition of another 2 squadrons in the form of Tejas MK-1s by 2022. If the subsystems’ suppliers to HAL stabilize delivery, and production rates increase to 16 per year by the time Mk1A production begins (airframe structures are not being changed for this variant), 5 more squadrons (assuming that 16 aircraft will be used to form a squadron) will enter service by 2027. At this rate, the IAF will require a further 16 new squadrons by 2032 to reach its desired squadron strength.
By 2027, the Tejas Mk2 is expected to receive certification and be ready for production if its development is not discontinued. If production of the Tejas MK2 also commences at a rate of 16 units per year and continues at that pace, then by 2032, the IAF will still have a shortfall of 11 squadrons from sanctioned strength barring other acquisitions. And if production takes place at 24 a year, the shortfall will be for around 8.5 squadrons.
Clearly, if Tejas variants have to by themselves fill the requirement for the 23 new squadrons mentioned above, production rates will have to be increased beyond 24 units per year and that too quite soon. To put this in perspective, note that if the production rate is increased to 24 units per year by 2022 itself, with a production run of 120 Tejas MK1A aircraft during 2022-27 and 120 Tejas MK2 between 2027-32, the IAF will have on hand some 17 new squadrons of Tejas variants by 2032, which would still leave it 6 squadrons shy of the 42 squadron mark. So obviously even a 24 unit production rate (from 2022 onwards with more Mk1A than currently cleared being built) will not do the job of reaching sanctioned squadron strength adequately. But what it could do, is make the job of reaching the desired level of squadron strength in 2032 much simpler, boost India’s aerospace industry considerably and prepare it for the future, reduce operational costs and create real potential for exports. And if annual production can be increased to 32 units by some point in the mid-2020s, then the IAF could actually get around another 3 squadrons of Tejas aircraft by 2032 with some units even exported to a friendly country.
What is being suggested therefore is that 20 new squadrons of Tejas aircraft be projected for induction till 2032 (with commensurate investment into augmenting annual production to 32 units per year) and that this will in turn free up financial resources in addition to various other benefits, for the IAF to bring in capable aircraft in the medium and heavy categories, not just by 2032, but later as well. The other ‘solution’ i.e of license producing an imported single engine fighter to make up squadron numbers alongside Tejas variants is in our opinion an inferior option due to the various reasons delineated earlier.
HAL which produces the Tejas MK1 is expected to achieve 69 percent outsourcing in the near future. Major fuselage sections will now be built by Tier-1 private firms to be integrated by HAL. These Tier-1 suppliers in turn, source systems from Tier-2 suppliers and so on building an entire aeronautical ecosystem due to the LCA Tejas. Further ramp up to 80 percent outsourcing will enable HAL to increase production to 25 per year. Having variants of a single type of aircraft and a domestic one at that will also result in enormous operational cost savings in the form of spares, training, and maintenance and weapons integration. Such a process will also lead to greater job creation within the country satisfying Make-in-India goals in high-technology fighter aircraft production. Increasing the rate of production of the Tejas family therefore appears to be a more prudent and cost effective method to address squadron strength shortfall than importing and license building a foreign fighter.
The LCA program has brought enormous benefits for India since its inception. Design and development of a frontline fighter aircraft from scratch is no easy feat. Derelict infrastructure, nascent technology and manufacturing ecosystem, testing and certifying mechanisms and facilities have all been upgraded and created to such an extent that India can now realistically attempt making a next generation fighter aircraft in the AMCA. Major subsystems of the LCA are now produced by private firms with HAL acting as lead integrator (see Fig 3 below).
Fig 3: Major Tejas MK1 Sub-assemblies Outsourced by HAL and their Suppliers. Image Credit: Gagan (Bharat-Rakshak Forums, Wikipedia Commons)
With firm commitment for greater orders and higher production rates as suggested above, more firms will come forward to take part in the production of this aircraft. Financial viability is the chief concern for MSME units. Such units can be brought into the program if orders are assured for long durations in numbers that make financial sense. The MSME sector contributes to the bulk of job creation in India and boosting them will truly enable the Make-in-India program. ISRO and DRDO both have handheld firms through such processes and created a wide ecosystem over the years. It only behooves the powers-that-be to continue and expand this process to create a strong India.
Sriram Thiagarajan is Delhi Defence Review’s Photo Editor
- “Full Transfer of Tech in defence aviation is non-negotiable” http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/news/world/full-transfer-of-tech-in-defence-aviation-in-non-negotiable-us-india-strategic-partnership-forum-official/article9968794.ece
- United Arab Emirates – Equipment in Support of a Direct Commercial Sale of F-16 Block 61 Aircraft http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/united-arab-emirates-equipment-support-direct-commercial-sale-f-16-block-61
- United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Various Munitions and Support – http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/united-arab-emirates-uae-various-munitions-and-support
- United Arab Emirates (UAE) – Joint Direct Attack Munitions (JDAM), Sustainment and Support- http://www.dsca.mil/major-arms-sales/united-arab-emirates-uae-joint-direct-attack-munitions-jdam-sustainment-and-support
- Sweden lowers loan cost in Saab fighter deal for brazil https://www.reuters.com/article/brazil-sweden-saab/update-2-sweden-lowers-loan-cost-in-saab-fighter-deal-for-brazil-idUSL1N1091UT20150729
- SAAB details progress on Gripen NG program http://saabgroup.com/Media/news-press/news/2017-04/saab-details-progress-on-the-gripen-ng-programme-at-laad-2017/
- Report exposes fresh cost increase to Nimrod, delay on METEOR https://www.flightglobal.com/news/articles/uk-report-exposes-fresh-cost-increase-to-nimrod-mra4-delay-on-meteor-320294/
- Aim-120-D cost http://comptroller.defense.gov/Portals/45/documents/defbudget/fy2015/fy2015_Weapons.pdf#page=53
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