India’s air strikes this week targeting suspected terrorist hideouts in Pakistan and subsequent air battles comes at a time of growing concerns about sharply declining strength of India’s fighter squadrons. The number of aircraft presently stands at 31, against the authorised level of 42.

The future of the fighter procurement program appears somewhat bleak at the moment.

In April last year, India issued a call to potential suppliers for the acquisition of 110 fighters, under a process known as a request for information (RfI) – essentially to gather all manner of information required for formulating a procurement proposal for approval, relating to cost, maintenance, technical details and other associated aspects, just to name a few.

Seventeen of these fighter aircraft are to be acquired in a fly-away condition, with the remaining 93 being licence-built locally through a strategic partner from the private sector selected by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Six original equipment manufacturers – Boeing, Dassault, Eurofighter, MiG Corporation, Lockheed Martin, and SAAB – responded to the July 2018 deadline, while a seventh – JSC Sukhoi – was permitted to enter the race afterwards. In a recent development, Lockheed Martin has offered its under-development F-21 aircraft in place of the earlier F-16.  

The RfI is, in effect a re-run of the 2007 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender for 126 fighters. This tender, however, was scrapped in 2015 and replaced by the MoD’s decision to acquire 36 Dassault Rafale fighters off-the-shelf.

But with the imminent announcement of the next general elections, not much progress is expected in the fighter procurement over the next several months, though this may not be the only factor complicating the issue.

Dassault Rafale fighter at AeroIndia show 2015 (Photo: Bikash Das/Flickr)

First, the strategic partner scheme is predicated on two parallel selection processes to be undertaken by the MoD: shortlisting foreign equipment or platforms that meet India’s requirement and domestically choosing indigenous manufacturers capable of making it locally via a transfer of technology.

The scheme requires the shortlisted Indian companies – designated as strategic partners – to collaborate with the selected original equipment manufacturers to respond to the tender or what is termed a request for proposal (RfP). The resultant collaborative or joint venture awarded the contract thus becomes the MoD’s primary contractor and long-term strategic partner for a given project. It would also be responsible for providing technical support for the duration of the equipment or platform’s entire operational life.

However, the process of shortlisting Indian companies for the proposed fighter program is yet to begin. Prescribing pre-qualification criteria for this purpose remains a challenge and all criteria that omit any potential local manufacturer are, in competitive domestic circles, unlikely to go unchallenged. This seems to be one of the principal causes for delay in shortlisting domestic strategic partners.

In any case, the strategic partner scheme is riddled with bureaucratic imponderables. Hurriedly introduced in 2017, it failed in tying up loose ends, notably the assorted criteria for shortlisting. It would not be inappropriate to state that these processes are a needless attempt to micro-manage the collaboration between the original equipment manufacturers and domestic Indian companies. Its introduction is all the more inexplicable as existing procedures permit the easier and less complex option of permitting original equipment manufacturers to choose their Indian partners themselves to respond to the MoD’s RfPs.

An Indian Air Force Mirage-2000 fighter of the type said to have bombed near Balakot (Photo: Jaskirat Singh Bawa via Getty)

Second, the strategic partner scheme was introduced in 2016 to enable participation of private sector companies to boost the government’s “Make in India” policy to indigenously construct fighter aircraft, helicopters, submarines and armoured fighting vehicles in a bid to reduce import dependency. To further confuse matters the MoD also hinted that it would consider involving state-owned companies in this venture, defeating the purpose of boosting India’s defence industrial base by private sector involvement.

And though no decision seems to have been taken in the matter, the possibility of the MoD being pressured to keep the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited – the only Indian company with the aircraft construction capability-– in contention for the proposed fighter program, cannot be ruled out.

Third, despite all talk about “jointness” between the three Indian services, each one continues to operate in its individual silo. In January 2017, for instance, the Indian Navy issued an RfI for 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters in a flyaway condition to operate off its Indigenous Aircraft Carrier-2 that it aims to build by 2030–32.

The RfI followed rejection of the naval variant of the under-development Light Combat Aircraft and attendant problems with the 45 MiG-29Ks acquired as part of the air group for INS Vikramaditya – the navy’s only aircraft carrier in service – and the under-construction INS Vikrant, scheduled for commissioning around 2021-22.

At a time when the necessity for acquiring a second aircraft carrier is yet to be formally accepted by MoD, the proposal to acquire 57 multi-role carrier borne fighters is questionable, particularly on grounds of cost. More germane is the argument that it would be economically and operationally practical to club the Indian Navy’s requirement with that of the Indian Air Force. In short, it would be operationally valid for the air force to acquire a fighter which also had a naval version on grounds of “commonality”.

INS Vikramaditya with British Royal Navy frigate HMS Monmouth (Photo: Ministry of Defence, UK)

Fourth, India’s procurement procedure mandates trials before shortlisting original equipment manufacturers platforms. However, six of the seven platforms on offer have already been tested by the air force as part of the aborted 2007 MMRCA program; both the MoD and Indian Air Force could face pressure from the original equipment manufacturers to evaluate each platform’s newer features rather than opt for laborious trials. Air force officials concede that this makes “imminent sense” as a time saver, but whether MoD will take this unprecedented step remains to be seen.

And, last, with reports of the MoD facing a severe financial crunch, and there being little or no certainty of any imminent hike in the budget outlay for acquisitions, the future of the fighter procurement program appears somewhat bleak at the moment.