Are F-16s a good choice for the Indian Air Force?
By Sumit Walia In 2007, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) issued a tender to purchase 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA procurement programme). The objective of this procurement was to bridge the gap between a light fighter (Mig-21, Mig-23, Mig-27 etc and LCA Tejas) and heavy duty fighter Su-30.
Six fighter aircrafts (F-16 from Lockheed Martin (USA), F/A-18E/F Super Hornet from Boeing (USA), Mig 35 Mikhoyan (Russia), Rafael from Dassault (France), Eurofighter Typhoon and SAAB JAS 39 Gripen (Sweden)) came to participate in the MMRCA race. Out of these six, JAS 39 Gripen and F-16 were unofficially out of the race before it even began for them. Because one of the conditions of MMRCA was that aircraft should have two engines and these two aircrafts are single engine.
In January 2012, Dassault Rafael was declared as the winner of the competition. Negotiations went on with Dassault for years and the total `expected cost of the procurement` went up from $10 billion to $16-20 billion. The government could not strike a deal with Dassault for 126 Rafales and on 30 July 2015, the defence ministry withdrew the MMRCA tender because the Government decided to purchase 36 Rafale in fly away condition from France with weapons, training, and support package.
In September 2016 a deal was signed for 36 Rafales for roughly $7.87 billion. As per the deal, deliveries must start within 36 months (i.e. from September 2019) and must be completed within 67 months (i.e. by March 2022).
Now it would be interesting to see how, in the long run, these 36 Rafales will help IAF. The IAF will have a separate maintenance line for just 36 Rafales. Though IAF has been operating Mirage for long time and Rafale’s maintenance chain would be benefitted from Mirages’, it will still increase IAF’s maintenance pain.
While the Rafale deal was being finalised, Defence Minister Parrikar had announced that the Government will soon take a decision on a new line of fighter aircraft. In June 2016, IAF Chief Arup Raha went to Sweden on a five-day tour and flew in Gripen. After ACM Raha’s trip, Defence Minister Parrikar went to Sweden on a scheduled trip in Sep 2016. This showed that Gripen was being considered seriously by India.
Within weeks after signing Rafale deal, MoD issued another RFI for a single engine fighter aircraft under `Made in India` initiative. Both Lockheed Martin and SAAB got another chance and they made lucrative offers. Both have promised to setup production lines in India with complete `Transfer of Technology`. How much ToT happens actually, is to be seen carefully.