Saturday, October 30, 2010

Scrap the MMRCA, buy US F-35s

The F-35 will comfortably outclass every one of the six fighters that the IAF is currently evaluating

New Delhi: Given the global buzz around the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) ongoing $10-billion procurement of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), my suggestion to scrap the process and, instead, go in for a straight buy of Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening II fighters is admittedly radical. But consider this: when the F-35 enters service, a couple of years from now, it will comfortably outclass every one of the six fighters that the IAF is currently evaluating. Thereafter, through the entire 30-40 year service life of the selected MMRCA, the IAF will fly a second-rung fighter when it could have gotten the best.

The six fighters that the IAF has flight-tested over the last year — Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper; Dassault’s Rafale; the Russian MiG-35; the Swedish Saab Gripen NG; and the Eurofighter — are categorised, even by their manufacturers, as Fourth Generation fighters. In contrast, the F-35 is globally acknowledged as a Fifth Generation fighter. The key to its superiority is stealth, making it effectively invisible to radar at longer ranges. This is a battle-winning advantage in aerial combat, where radars are the only way of “seeing” the enemy; the F-35 will detect enemy fighters and launch missiles at them, well before being detected. While attacking ground targets in enemy territory, the F-35 will remain undetected until it is too late to react. Unsurprisingly, each Fifth Generation fighter is the battlefield equivalent of three-four previous generation aircraft.

Since the IAF knows all this, why is the F-35 not in the MMRCA contest? Because, while framing the specifications for the 126-fighter tender in 2003, the IAF set the bar so low that the F-35 was overqualified. The Ministry of Defence (MoD), still nursing a hangover from the Tehelka sting expose, wanted to avoid potential controversy by having several vendors competing for the MMRCA order. Had the IAF been allowed to keep the long-term in mind, and to demand Fifth Generation capabilities, only the F-35 would have met the tender requirement. With that single-vendor situation an MoD bugaboo, the IAF'’s specifications were dumbed down to bring in a clutch of Fourth Generation fighters.

When Lockheed Martin — one of the four vendors that received inquiries from the IAF in 2003-04 — studied the requirement, it offered the F-16 Super Viper, which it estimated met India’s requirements. Offering the overqualified, and pricier, F-35 made little business sense: India’s procurement rules give no credit for exceeding the tender requirements. The Defence Procurement Procedure mandates that the cheapest of the vendors that meets the technical requirements automatically wins a contract.

Price was just one reason for offering the F-16. With the F-35’s prototype not even having flown then (it first flew in 2006), Lockheed Martin knew that the F-35 would not be available for flight-testing in the time frame that the IAF wanted. Senior IAF officers believe that Lockheed Martin made a strategic decision: to field the F-16 in the MMRCA competition; and later offer the F-35 as a Fifth Generation fighter, a logical follow-on to the F-16. But that offer (which officials confirm was made to the IAF later) was a non-starter: India had decided to partner Russia in jointly developing the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA).

Today, much has changed. The F-35 programme has moved into its production phase and will be flying operationally soon. Senior Lockheed Martin officials confirm that the US is more than keen to sell India the F-35. Meanwhile, a more confident MoD has demonstrated — through its single-vendor purchases of the C-130J Super Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III transport aircraft — that it has the political courage to buy American systems when they clearly outclass the competition.

Senior IAF officers, serving and retired, make two arguments against the F-35. Accepting that the F-35 far outclasses the other MMRCA contenders, they apprehend that scrapping the MMRCA purchase risks losing several years that the MoD will surely take for fresh evaluations and financial sanctions for buying the F-35.

This logic does injustice to the MoD, which has demonstrated in the C-130J and C-17 procurements that it is capable of acting decisively. Having shed its post-Kargil, Pakistan-centric mindset, and focusing on building credible offensive-defence capabilities against China, surely the MoD will not spend $10 billion on fighters that will be outclassed with the inevitable appearance of Chinese Fifth Generation fighters over the Himalayas.

The other IAF concern is that, with the F-35 still under development, there is little clarity on when it will become available or on what terms. But the announcement last week of Israel’s purchase of 20 F-35s (with another 75 likely to follow) has dispelled much of the mist. Israel, which is not even one of the nine countries that funded the F-35 development, will be buying the fighters for $96 million each under the Foreign Military Sales programme, for not much more than the Rafale’s and Eurofighter’s estimated cost. Israel will get its F-35s between 2015 and 2017; several of the MMRCA contenders will need as long.

Significantly, defence analysts believe that Israel has obtained Washington’s okay to integrate a variety of Israeli sensors and weaponry onto the F-35. The US has long resisted this since it involves passing on software source codes to the Israelis. With an order of 126-200 fighters, India too could demand this important concession.

Given India’s deteriorating security environment, it must build a Fifth Generation air force, one that will remain the pre-eminent power in South Asia the next two decades. The Fifth Generation heavy fighter already in the works, in partnership with Russia, will only enter service towards the end of the decade. In the medium fighter segment, a Fifth Generation fighter is as essential, with strategic balance maintained by importing from the US. For obvious political reasons, the initiative to scrap the MMRCA and go in for the F-35 must come from the IAF; and the MoD must assure them of minimal delay.

No comments: