Friday, November 4, 2011

Place your MMRCA bets: Rafale, Typhoon or (surprise!) F-35?

Two days before the MMRCA bid opening ceremony in New Dehli, the US State Department released a congressionally-mandated report on US-India Security Cooperation with this statement tucked into the penultimate paragraph:

"The U.S. F-16 and F-18 competed, but were not down-selected, in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition in April 2011. Despite this setback, we believe U.S. aircraft, such as the Joint Strike Fighter (JSF), to be the best in the world. Should India indicate interest in the JSF, the United States would be prepared to provide information on the JSF and its requirements (infrastructure, security, etc.) to support India's future planning."

It's not the first time India has heard the F-35 soft-sell.

Since 2007, US emissaries from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to Lockheed vice president Rob Weiss have reminded India that the F-35 is available to them if they only wait a few more years to replace those aging MiG-21s.

The concept implies that India is missing out on Lockheed's trademarked "fifth-generation" fighter technology by considering only the Rafale and Typhoon. Of course, India has other ideas about how to acquire such technology. The IAF has partnered with Sukhoi to develop the FGFA, which includes one- and two-seat versions of the Russian PAK-FA. The Ministry of Defense has also launched the advanced medium combat aircraft (AMCA) programme, which seeks to develop a stealthy fighter in the class of the F-35, Rafale and Typhoon.

Given India's weapons procurement history, which included a 23-year development cycle for the Hindustan Aeronautics Tejas light combat aircraft, the prospects for the successful, timely delivery of the FGFA and AMCA can be debated.

If US officials could dream, the perfect scenario would perhaps unfold like this: The IAF official opens the Rafale and Typhoon bids on 4 November, and instantly passes out from sticker-shock. After the official is revived with a nasal blast of cumin powder, the MMRCA acquisition process is put back on hold. The next two or three years pass uneventfully, and finally the IAF decides to buy the F-35 sole-source as the only available fighter on the market possessing a combination of stealth and sensor fusion.

It's time for India to place its bets, and so can you. What do you think will happen:

a) IAF buys Rafale
b) IAF buys Eurofighter
c) IAF immediately or eventually suspends MMRCA and selects F-35
d) none of the above.

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