The Indian air force (IAF) is entering the final stages of selecting a new medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Eight countries and six companies eagerly await the outcome of the selection process, as the winner will obtain a long and lucrative association with a rising power and secure a toehold in other parts of India’s rapidly modernizing strategic industries. In a new report, Carnegie’s Ashley J. Tellis evaluates the technical and strategic advantages of each competitor in the context of South Asia’s changing patterns of air warfare, China and Pakistan’s airpower modernization, and force structure transformations in the Indian air force.

The Honorable Ashton B. Carter, U.S. under secretary of defense for acquisition, technology, and logistics, spoke about the logic and momentum behind the U.S.-Indian relationship. Tellis and RAND’s Benjamin Lambeth discussed the report, the competitiveness of the American contenders, and the importance of this fighter purchase to the future of the Indian air force.

India’s Growing Importance

Carter noted India’s importance to regional and global U.S. interests. The United States and India enjoy a strong history of defense cooperation and collaboration, which continues today, but also includes great potential for growth.

  • Exercises: Joint military exercises enable members of the two nations’ armed services to become familiar with each other and to practice the logistics of joint operations. The United States and India participate in regular exercises across all services, and India conducts more exercises with the United States than with any other country, Carter noted.
  • Armaments Cooperation: There has been substantial activity in armaments sales and cooperation between the two countries, including the sale of the LPD Trenton, C-130Js, P-8s, harpoon missiles, and other pending deals, including the MMRCA purchase.

Defense Cooperation and the MMRCA

India’s choice of an American company to win the MMRCA contract would add momentum to bilateral relations, but Carter asserted that relations will continue to be strong no matter what company India selects. He described three reasons why India might be inclined to choose a U.S. company:

  • Technology: Both of the American entrants in the MMRCA competition, the F-16 and the F/A-18, offer the best technology, Carter said. Furthermore, the United States has been and will continue to be forthcoming with technology transfers and industrial participation, which helps draw the two countries closer together.
  • Transparency: The United States can promise the Indian government an open and transparent acquisition process.
  • Long-term Concerns: Lifecycle sustainment and upgrade issues are very important when judging combat aircraft. Seventy percent of the total lifecycle cost of an aircraft comes from maintenance and upkeep, not the initial development or purchase. Considering such long-term costs, India should consider buying into a global base that is both affordable and has the capacity to keep up with upgrades over time, Carter said.

When asked in questions if the choice of an American aircraft would eventually be a bridge to the F-35, Carter said that there was nothing on the American side that barred their participation in the Joint Strike Fighter program, but that that was up to the Indians to decide, and they are at the moment focused on these top-of-the-line 4th generation aircraft.

The Importance of the MMRCA

Tellis cited three reasons why the MMRCA contract is significant.

  1. The new aircraft will be important to the evolution of the Indian air force; the contract is designed to account for at least one-third of the nation’s aircraft over the course of thirty years.
  2. The contract winner will enjoy a large economic boost, which could affect the viability and longevity of the European competitors.
  3. The United States has a strong stake in winning the competition for both financial and political reasons.

Tellis also explored several factors that will shape the outcome of the competition:

  • Regional Context: Despite the rising importance of the air force in a strategic environment where the potential for limited conflicts is the critical security challenge, the force capabilities of the IAF have been steadily dropping. This has real implications for regional strategic balances with China and Pakistan.
  • Nature of Air Warfare: The model for air-to-air combat has changed in the past decades, from fighters engaging in within visual range combat directed by ground control stations to beyond visual range engagements supported by tankers and AWACS. This longer-distance combat puts an emphasis on having superior sensors.
  • The Indian Government’s Thinking: Tellis identified criteria for the aircraft that the government should use when considering the contract:

    • The quality of sensors, avionics, and integrated systems;
    • Weapons suitable to the strategic environment India faces;
    • Aerodynamic maneuverability;
    • Range and readiness;
    • Both initial purchase (flyaway) and lifecycle costs;
    • Transfer of technology to revitalize the combat aviation base; and
    • Political considerations.

The Six Competitors

  • MiG-35: Tellis identified the Russian MiG-35 as the weakest of the competitors, with inadequate sensor suites, no new weapons, average aerodynamics, and significant maintenance.
  • Gripen: The Swedish Gripen is a very impressive aircraft, Tellis said, and is light enough that the Indian government should consider it as a replacement for the indigenously produced Light Combat Aircraft. Its primary downsides are cost and the lack of political advantages gained by choosing a Swedish aircraft.
  • Eurofighter and Rafale: The two other European aircraft are extremely impressive machines, Tellis noted, but their biggest limitation is the lack of an operational active electronically scanned array radar as well as their flyaway and lifecycle costs.
  • F-16 and F/A-18: Both American contenders are mature designs. Although they are notionally older, they are just as good, if not better, than their European counterparts, Tellis argued. They have superior AESA radars, as the United States is a full generation ahead in AESA development. They also are significantly cheaper, offering great value, and would offer political upsides in terms of an improved U.S.-Indian relationship. The U.S. government can assist the American companies bidding for the contract by engaging in serious conversations with the Indian government about the transfer of technology, fifth-generation fighter aircraft, and other geopolitical benefits the United States can offer.

The MMRCA and the U.S.-Indian Relationship

Lambeth noted that only the two American entries offered the opportunity to recapitalize India’s fighter fleet and the ability to forge a closer strategic relationship with the United States.

  • Closer Military Ties: If an American aircraft is chosen, Lambeth noted, India could develop closer ties with either the U.S. air force or the U.S. navy, which operate the F-16 and F/A-18, respectively.
  • Strategic Side Benefits: Both sides stand to gain from the potential for American basing, the spare parts infrastructure for repairing and maintaining the aircraft, the knowledge base that the United States possesses, and regular opportunities for cross training between the two nations’ militaries, all of which are part of a serious, consequential defense relationship with the United States. The other competitors, Lambeth added, can only offer a good business deal.
  • Technology Transfer: Lambeth acknowledged one hurdle to the purchase of an American airplane concerns access to the source code of the data bus, computers, and avionics, which the U.S. government controls. The Indian government will not tolerate excessive constraints on this access. Washington must consider the best way to both protect American secrets and interests and help India obtain the airpower it needs.