India’s MRCA (Multi-Role Combat Aircraft): Changes
The original intent of India’s fighter purchase was to replace hundreds of non-upgraded MiG-21s that India will be forced to retire, with a complementary force of 126 aircraft that would fit between India’s high end Su-30MKIs and its low-end Tejas LCA lightweight fighter. While plans to develop a “fifth generation fighter” in conjunction with Russia
have received a lot of press, they are uncertain at best, address a different requirement, and offer no solution to the immediate problem of shrinking squadron numbers as existing aircraft are forced into retirement.
India is a large country, with coverage needs over a wide area (see map of airbases in “Order of Battle”
) and on several fronts. One of which is Pakistan, whose JF-17 joint fighter program with China
has India’s attention. The IAF currently has 30-32 squadrons worth of serviceable aircraft, depending on which report one reads. This is well below their target of 39 1/2. The number of IAF squadrons still flying MiG-21s of one vintage or another has now dropped to 12, and overall squadron strength is projected to plunge to 27 during the 2012-2017 period.
Lightweight multi-role fighters that could make up for declining aircraft numbers with broader and better capabilities would appear to fit that need, and India’s initial shortlist followed that template. The Mirage 2000
were already in service with India in this role, and the JAS-39 Gripen
offered a 4th generation aircraft whose costs and profile place it firmly in the lightweight fighter category. These aircraft served as a hedge against the potential failure of the Tejas lightweight Combat Aircraft
project, and also offered a more immediate solution to plussing up numbers as existing MiG-21s and MiG-23s/MiG-27s were forced into retirement.
Since those early days, sharply improved relations with the USA have introduced a pair of American planes into the competition, and India’s view of its own needs is changing. Official sources told Jane’s in February 2006
that RFPs would be issued to France’s Dassault (Mirage 2000-5 and Rafale
), BAE/Saab (JAS-39 Gripen
), EADS/BAE (Eurofighter Typhoon
), The American firms Lockheed (F-16
Block 70) and Boeing (F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet
), and Russia’s Rosonboronexport (MiG-29OVT
with thrust vectoring, aka. MiG-35).
That proved to be the case, creating a 2-tiered competition that includes both lightweight and medium fighters. This trend got a sharp boost in March 2006, when the Press Trust of India (PTI) reported a surprise pullout of the Mirage 2000, even though India already flies 40 Mirage 2000Ds, and its senior officials have touted standardization as a plus factor
. Its place would be taken by the heavier, more advanced, and more expensive Rafale.
India’s changing requirements have also created delays to an already-slow process. For instance, both Jane’s Defence Weekly
and Defense Industry Daily
have covered India’s wish to ‘significantly’ augment their strike capability and range to deal with out-of-area contingencies. That delayed the MRCA RFP, until India’s view of its own needs solidified. Another contributor to these delays has been the need to refine and clarify the new industrial offset rules
introduced in 2005, amidst lobbying by American defense firms