Saab Gripen, Russian Checkmate Biggest Challengers to Rafale Jets for India’s Multi-Billion MMRCA 2.0 Tender – EurAsian Times Survey

Business Wire IndiaThe tender for 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) or MMRCA.20 is a program that Delhi attaches utmost importance to. In 2018, the Indian government issued an RFI for the procurement of 114 fighter jets under MRFA. The new fighters are expected to replace the aging MiG-21s, Mirage 2000s, and the Jaguars of the Indian Air Force.

The contenders for MMRCA 2.0 deal include Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18 E/F and F-15EX, Dassault’s Rafale, Saab’s Gripen JAS-39 E/F, Russian MiG-35 and SU-35, and Eurofighter Typhoon. In order to make sense of the MRFA race and the potential winner, The EurAsian Times collates the viewpoints of some of the finest defense analysts and military veterans.

An Indian-Canadian digital venture, The EurAsian Times is a global & virtual online publication sharply focused on defense, geopolitics, and international affairs. Officially launched in 2014, EurAsian Times has been actively covering the global defense developments. Highly trained journalists, defense experts and think tank professionals contribute to the news portal.
Picking The Right Aircraft

Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd), an author and military analyst told the EurAsian Times, “We require more modern planes because the Chinese will go from MiG 19 to J-20 5th generation fighter which they will buy these jets in hundreds. Then, we also need to have numbers. We certainly need 4.5 to 5th generation planes- so MRFA is required.” 
“Whosoever we contract with should be able to get us critical technologies that will support our 5th generation aircraft- the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA). This requirement is beyond the simple technical consideration of how good or bad the aircraft is. Since it relates to national capability building, the one we select should be willing to give us the technology to support the engine and the other aspects of the AMCA.”

Rafale In The Lead?

Air Marshal Pranab Kumar Barbora (Retd), former Vice Chief of Air Staff, spoke about the Air Force having too many types of jets. “The IAF feels that it must not have too many types of eggs in its basket. If we go for something new now, we might end up in a situation where we have various types of aircraft in our inventory. The IAF may try to convince the government to perhaps get more Rafales since we already have 36 of those. This might be an issue that might come up if we now go ahead and select whatever aircraft we want.”
He said the ultimate contest is again between the two aircraft that were the finalists last time (MMRCA) — Rafale and Eurofighter — along with the Swedish Saab Gripen which may spice up the race this time around.

Colonel Ajai Shukla (Retd), a columnist, commentator, and journalist covering military technology and India’s defense economy, noted that the IAF is already operating seven different types of fighter aircraft, which leads to multiple logistical hurdles.

“These challenges relate to spares management, repair and overhaul, and operational support. Given this, acquiring yet another type of fighter is to compound an already big challenge. From that perspective, choosing the Rafale, which the IAF already operates would not create additional logistical problems,” according to Shukla.

Highlighting the Navy angle, Shukla said, “Another fact that the defense ministry would consider is the simultaneous purchase by the Navy of 57 deck-borne fighters for its aircraft carriers. It would make logistical sense for the air force to choose a fighter that could also be operated off an aircraft carrier. It would also be cheaper to do that.”

He noted that the French jet again scores points here due to the Rafale Marine, which is already a part of the French Navy and operates off carrier decks. “Finally, there are always politico-economic factors at play in big arms purchases and, here again, the Rafale has well-known advantages. Thus, Rafale has three very hefty advantages,” Shukla added. 

Vice Admiral Shekhar Sinha (retired), former Chief of Integrated Defence Staff & Commander-in-Chief, Western Naval Command, and a member of the editorial board of The EurAsian Times, seems to have endorsed this view.
“With Rafale M shore-based demonstrations over, the Naval Air Staff should be satisfied that basic requirements of preparation are well on the way. Naval Test Pilots must be burning the midnight oil to draw graphs to explore the unexplored limits. They need to be ready for Super Hornet trials sometime in March. Not to be left far behind, Boeing may even be contemplating advancing their demonstration,” Sinha said.

“In the end, my sense is that ease of fitment in the aircraft carrier lift and economy of scale could tilt the decision. For the government, the outgo is important whereas for the manufacturer economy of scale. It will be prudent from the buyer’s point of view to choose an aircraft for IAF and IN from the same stable to keep the costs, logistics, and life cycle cost within a manageable budget. That is one in hand is better than two in the bush,” he added.

Amit Gupta, Associate Professor at Air University, Maxwell AFB, Alabama, USA, also endorsed the French jet, saying “India should go with the Rafale. It will lead to economies of scale, make logistics and maintenance easier, and give the country more aircraft that can be used as nuclear delivery systems.”

Drawing upon the fact that most of the aircraft participating in MRFA are the same as the ones that contested in MMRCA, Gupta said, “if, for instance, there were a fresh choice, we would have had another option to look at. But in today’s scenario, following the procedure of technical evaluation and costing, if one doesn’t want to have a large number of fleets, one could just use Rafale because the IAF already has two squadrons and the infrastructure for two more squadrons. In this scenario, one would just buy the Rafales and then focus on the LCA and AMCA.”

Prakash Nanda, veteran journalist, author, and the Chairman of the EurAsian Times’ Editorial Board, said that India would take into account, among other factors, the nuclear weapon delivery capability of the MRFA.

“In choosing the next fighter, India will take into account not only the much talked about aspects of technology transfer, prices, and performance but also the latent factor of its reliability and usefulness as a potent platform for delivering the nuclear weapons against the enemies…It is an open secret that at the moment the best delivery platforms for nuclear weapons happen to be the French Mirages, which were modified by the Dassault (which also manufactures Rafale) in the 1990s at India’s request by keeping nuclear weapons in mind.”

“Other than France and Russia, no country, because of their respective domestic laws, will allow their supplied or co-produced platforms to be used by India for nuclear weapons delivery. And here, given the Mirage-experience, Rafale has an edge over even the Russian competitors like Su-35, not to speak of others.”

Squadron Leader Vijainder K Thakur (Retd) also spoke of the Russian jets. “The most cost-effective choice for the IAF would be the Su-35. It features all the sensors & capability enhancements that would eventually go into the Su-30 Upgrade. Additionally, with the local manufacturers, the risk of being overly dependent on Russia would be greatly mitigated.”

Nitin J Ticku, a defense analyst and co-founder-cum-Managing Editor of EurAsian Times, believes that Rafale fighters are the favorite of the Indian Air Force. “The problem is that India cannot afford 126 Rafales. If India goes ahead with more Rafales, I think it should not be more than 36 for the Air Force and 57 for the Navy. Swedish SAAB Gripen fighters are an attractive option but Sweden lacks the political clout like France. India would be keenly evaluating the development of Russian ‘Checkmate’ which is touted as a fifth-gen aircraft and if it meets the Indian specifications, the deal could go to the Russians.”

Commenting on single-engine aircraft, Air Marshal Barbora, who was serving as the Vice Chief of Air Staff during the time of evaluation of the fighter jets for the MMRCA tender said, “the [Saab] Gripen will not be at a disadvantage due to being a single-engine aircraft. This is largely because the technology has advanced to such a large extent that the reliability factor of the aircraft has improved many, many times.”
Abhijit Iyer-Mitra, a Senior Fellow at IPCS said – “The best will always be the cheapest and lightest – ergo single-engine – the Gripen and F-21. This was always meant to be a light fighter replacement for the 400+ MiG 21s that we had. And we desperately need superlative single-engine fighters that can be thrown into combat in bulk.”

Speaking about the Gripen, Shukla pointed out that it “is built primarily to operate off ground runways. But it can also be configured to operate off aircraft carriers and so also has a dual-role capability. This is a lighter, easier aircraft to maintain – and comes with fewer hassles for maintenance crews. In that regard, it would present qualities that the Indian Navy and the Air Force would find attractive.”

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