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India Wants A New Single Engine Fighter Jet

October 25, 2016

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In what could again prove a long and anti-climactic saga for the Indian Air Force (IAF), during the first week of October foreign capitals–reportedly Moscow, Stockholm, and Washington, DC–were informed about a possible joint venture to build a proven single engine fighter jet. It’s expected the probable winner must conform to the usual caveats: joint production and technology transfer.

But today’s market for single engine fighters isn’t what it used to be 50 years ago. Even just 25 years ago. Barring trainers and old Mirages, there are close to no options. Or, to be specific, just two options. As the journalist Ajai Shukla pointed out when he broke the news in Business Standard, only two viable models end up competing against each other. These are Saab’s Gripen E and the Boeing F-16 Block 70.

A little irony enters the picture when Russia no longer qualifies in the same competition for the simple reason all its current fighters are twin engine models. To think the IAF wants this program to replace its surviving MiG-21’s. Described as the “back-bone of the IAF” the MiG-21 did enjoy a long career in the subcontinent. But, as with the Chinese J-7, the Indian MiG-21 is an ancient platform that puts lives at risk.

The IAF adopted the MiG-21 in 1963 and operated a total of 872 by the 1980s. Although Indian fighter pilots are renowned for their professionalism it was revealed in 2012 more than 400 IAF MiG-21’s have been lost to crashes across 50 years, a reputation that earned it a surplus of critics.

This latest acquisition program for the IAF comes hardly a year since the Indian government finalized a deal to buy 36 Dassault Rafale’s–the face-saving remnants of the bizarre MMRCA program. (The Indian and French defense ministers signed the contract on September 23 with 15% of the total cost paid for.)

The MMRCA, which was supposed to equip the IAF with fourth-generation nuclear-capable multirole fighters, nearly collapsed as problems dogged the winning bidder. There remains speculation what caused both Dassault and Delhi to almost scuttle the contract. Some believe it was the total cost of maintaining 126 Rafale’s in the long-term. Another less known quibble were French reservations about Indian demands for full technology transfers and maintenance requirements.

It’s rumored Dassault’s own people didn’t trust Indian technicians with taking care of the expensive Rafale’s without their supervision.

This new requirement for a single engine fighter, on the other hand, is saddled with its own set of problems. First, it highlights India’s continued reliance on imported military technology. Even with no shortage of domestic efforts at building weapons and equipment, buying global remains Delhi’s safest bet.

Second, its relation with the Tejas program is unclear. The single engine light attack aircraft co-developed by France is slowly entering service, with the IAF and the Navy expected to fly a hundred of these jets. But it appears there’s a leftover capability gap to warrant importing foreign models.

Third, unforeseen problems with the bidding process could drag the whole program through years and years of indecision. So even its outcome isn’t certain.

Fourth, the need for a large order of foreign aircraft to replace an almost useless MiG-21 fleet is glaring proof the whole Indian military is stuck with obsolescent equipment. This is terrible in the face of an intense rivalry with Pakistan and China, who both maintain rapidly modernizing air forces.

Despite how clear-cut this acquisition appears at the moment it may have a few surprises in store for everyone.

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