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Monday, August 17, 2015

Of Fighter Aircraft, Indian Air Force and search for Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)

In January 2013 as The Rafale Fighter aircraft was chosen to be the medium multi-role combat aircraft for Indian Air Force (IAF), I wrote down the following article. The article created a minor controversy.

Well, I still hold on to view of making our Air Force structure on Su-30MKI, LCA I and II, AMCA, FGFA and potentially UCAVs.

Posting again the original article for historical reasons.


With the defence cuts, the outrageously visible and comprehensively debated Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal for 126 modern aircraft for the Indian Air Force (IAF) is all set to be delayed. Through a complex, comprehensive and conclusive competition Rafale fighter aircraft came out trumps last year. Although the aircraft has been selected, the deal has not been signed and we were told that negotiations are on. It has also been mentioned that by end of FY 2012 the deal would be signed. Given the cuts now, it is clear that IAF will have to wait for MMRCA for some more time. Considering this delay as a blessing in disguise, can we look at what the genesis of MMRCA and how much do we need a new MMRCA? Also if we acquire a new fighter aircraft, what are the implications?

The Variety of Aircraft with Indian Air Force

The last major aircraft acquired into IAF is the SU-30MKI. India today operates 8 squadrons of Su-30. Mirage-2000 is the next important aircraft, though, not in terms of numbers as IAF operates only 3 Squadrons of this multi-role aircraft, with which IAF is very happy. Besides the above, IAF has Mig-21s, Mig-27s, Jaguars and Mig-29s in its inventory. When the need for MMRCA came into picture it was for filling the gap – as Mig-21s – the real work horse of IAF for many decades – was coming to the end of its extended shelf-life. As is the case with so many varieties of Mig-23s, Mig-27s etc that IAF acquired in 1980s when US gave F-16s to Pakistan. The Mirage-2000 was also an acquisition in response to Pak F-16s. In 1990s, country hoped that LCA-Tejas would be ready in the first decade of 21st century for squadron level entry to replace Mig-21s. With the delay in LCA, IAF said we need to fill an immediate need quickly by getting a Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft in the force. The importance of Medium in contrast to LCA’s Light is easy to distinguish. What could be a medium combat aircraft – definitely which can carry heavier load – may be more “hard points” – better, longer range avionics etc. When it came to choice, we created the competition between the best “Medium” aircraft available.

Is Su-30MKI a Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft?

Everyone agrees that Su-30 MKI is one of the most capable aircraft. It is already been improved and the new lot of 42 ordered last month will have better avionics etc. What is more, we would have our local Hindustan Aeronautics Limited able to absorb and built them as we get into future. Capability wise – will Su-30MKI fill up the role of MMRCA - May be yes, may be no. For one, it is not medium, it is heavy. But cost-wise and continuity-wise may be better if we look at an option of SU-30MKI and LCA for numbers this decade and next.

The Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft/Perspective Multi-Role Fighter (PMF) and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA)

By 2022 India will start receiving the FGFA or PMF being jointly developed with Russia. This is the logical evolution from SU-30MKI. Also IAF should start getting LCA and the LCA mark 2 as well. India will be working on three key aircraft streams FGFA, Su-30MKI and LCA and its variants.

The Unmanned Combat Aircraft Dimension

Many key operations performed by manned combat aircraft are rapidly being performed by Unmanned Air-borne Vehicles (UAVs) and the upcoming Unmanned Air Combat Vehicles (UCAVs). Indian Air Force will be well-served to increase more UAV/UCAV component in its inventory rapidly. Here, Indian Industry can be handy with our vast experience in software. The key to “Unmanned” is mission-critical software that makes these vehicles – unmanned.

Given the above factors and dimensions, it may be prudent for IAF to rethink its future order of battle and design itself on three key streams of Su-30MKI, LCA++ and FGFA. Also, IAF will be well-served with increasing and creating potent “Unmanned” capability – long-range, medium-range and short-range. The transitions will be well-served by the existing MIGs, Jaguars and Mirage-2000s. Rafale, although a fantastic aircraft, will not fit into the long-term requirements of the country. Unless it is being considered to include Rafale as the third leg of the IAF future thereby, making LCA still-born. If IAF take this as the key requirement – then in 2030 we should be giving may be Trillion Dollars for buying the latest Toys that French may create and our adversaries will be laughing continuously as China would have its own stealth fighters and bombers which China will gleefully share with Pakistan.  Hope the defence budget cut proves to be a blessing in disguise and we stop this “Medium” search to focus on real future.
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