FIGHTER PROCUREMENT FOR DUMMIES:
ASHLEY TELLIS DOES IT AGAIN!
Adm. Arun Prakash (Retd)
Amongst the strategic analysts on the Indo-US horizon, few are as incisive and diligent as Ashley J Tellis. In this context Tellis has the advantages of an Indian background and, consequently, a profound insight into India’s security issues. Uniquely, he is as much at home on Raisina Hill as in Foggy Bottom or the White House. I recall, as a middle-ranking officer, reading, with fascination, his laser-sharp analysis of India’s naval build-up of the 1980s accompanied by a compelling, if somewhat surreal, prognosis about our maritime strategy.
In recent times, Tellis has been an influential opinion-maker; his post-26/11 Congressional testimony, as well as his advice and writings during the Indo-US nuclear negotiations have, no doubt, had a deep impact on policy-making in Washington and Delhi.
His latest offering is a January 2011 report, commissioned by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace (where he is a senior associate), on India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) selection process, currently underway. This elephantine ritual, now said to be in its final stages, is being watched with bated breath by six contending international aerospace companies and eight nations straddling the Atlantic.
At the end of the MMRCA competition lies a veritable pot of gold, not only because the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) notional requirement of 126 fighters may actually exceed 200, but also because the winner of the competition will have privileged access to the huge, growing market of a rising power. Just the initial worth of this purchase could be anything from US$ 10-15 billion – with much more to follow. These are lean times, world-wide, and bagging this colossal contract could have a significant impact on economies - especially the smaller ones. For some of the competing European companies it could even spell the difference between prosperity and looming oblivion.
This 140 page monograph is, thus, aptly titled; “Dogfight!”*, and its striking cover could serve admirably as a promo for a Hollywood blockbuster. However, optics apart, this is a well-timed document; meticulously researched, thoughtfully composed and logically argued. That Tellis falters in his gallant attempt at objectivity, only towards the end, should not detract from the value of this report – at least for the cognoscenti. He is, no doubt, rooting for the US industry, but he would have performed a valuable service if he succeeds in his attempt to enlighten the uninformed Indian policymaker- both politician and bureaucrat.
*Available on the Internet at: http://carnegieendowment.org/
Before discussing the substance of this report, the MMRCA competition needs to be placed in its proper context. Peacetime aircraft attrition and creeping obsolescence are the twin spectres which haunt every Air Chief, and make him ask for more. In the case of the IAF the problem has been aggravated by the fact that a significant proportion of its combat strength consisted of Soviet era MiG-21s of which about 850 were licence-produced by HAL. Apart from its high accident rate, the MiG-21 also, had many operational limitations. Its planned indigenous replacement, the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), promised by the DRDO by the early 1990s, has come 20 years later, as a case of “too little, too late.” Notwithstanding the up-gradation of a certain number of MiG-21s to the more capable ‘Bison’ standard, and the induction of some 125 Sukhoi-30MKI, the IAF order of battle has, over the past decade, seen major erosion; in numbers as well as in capability.
The IAF dilemma has been compounded by the ongoing modernization of the air forces of neighbouring China and its ally, Pakistan, which happen to be significantly complementary. By the end of this decade, the PLA Air Force will deploy a formidable force of nearly 2000 aircraft, of which 500 will be air-superiority fighters from the Sukhoi bureau, with an equal number of Chinese-built 4thgeneration machines, leavened with a small number of 5th generation stealth aircraft. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is slated to receive 200-250 Chinese fighters in the next few years, in addition to all the F-16 C/D fighters it can squeeze out of the US. Equipped with airborne early-warning & control (AWACS) aircraft, long-range fighter radar and beyond visual range (BVR) missiles, this 4thgeneration force poses a formidable challenge to the IAF.
Against this opposition, the IAF currently fields approximately 600-700 combat aircraft, only some of which can be classified as 4thgeneration. Operating in synergy with the newly inducted air-to-air re-fuelllers as well as the airborne early-warning AWACs, they represent a substantive capability for homeland defence, close support and limited trans-national operations. In the offing is the PAK-FA, 5th generation fighter to be “jointly developed” with Russia. However, the IAF faces an onerous challenge, and needs to ensure that it can field combat aircraft of appropriate capability in sufficient numbers to fight a simultaneous war on two fronts against well-equipped adversaries.
The initial IAF plan to tackle its problems of obsolescence, attrition and declining strength by inducting substantial numbers of the tried and trusted French Mirage-2000, did not find favour with the Ministry of Defence (MoD). Air HQ was, then, asked to write up the Air Staff Requirement (ASR) for a new aircraft. Six years later, in 2007, emerged a comprehensively drawn up, 211-page Request for Proposals (RFP).
Once the responses to the RFP were examined, the IAF wasted no time in initiating a rigorous 8-stage evaluation process in which each of the six competing aircraft have been assessed over the full range of climatic, altitude and terrain conditions as well as many other environmental, maintenance and operational criteria laid down in the ASR. However an already complex process seems to have been rendered even thornier by the IAF because the RFP cast its net too wide. The six aircraft, short-listed for evaluation, fall into distinctly different categories, but will have to be judged by the same set of criteria.
Firstly, new 4th generation machines, like the, Swedish Gripen, European Eurofighter and French Rafale, have got mixed up with others like the US F-16 Super Viper and the F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet, whose early marks first flew in the 1970s, and whose upgraded versions now on offer, are described as “technologically mature”. The Russian MiG-35, a derivative of the MiG-29K falls somewhere in-between. Secondly, in a “medium-weight” competition, the participants range from light machines like the Gripen and F-16 (17-21 tons), to middle-weights like MiG-35, Typhoon and Rafale (22-24 tons), to a true heavy-weight like the F/A-18 (30 tons). Finally, single-engined fighters like the F-16 and Gripen, are vying with twin-engined counterparts like the MiG-35, F/A-18, Rafale and Eurofighter.
Perhaps a more stringent RFP – one that specified a weight range or number of engines - could have cut down the candidates and simplified selection. But then vagueness has the merit of permitting a lot of flexibility.
As it stands, many of the performance, technical and cost parameters of these competitors are bound to vary hugely, and selecting the “best” will be akin to picking a winner from a mixed box of “apples, oranges and plums”; a difficult and hazardous professional task fraught with pitfalls. At a higher, non-professional, level, intense political pressures – internal and external – are likely to cast their shadow on this exercise, to sway this decision one way or the other.
It is into this, somewhat confused, “dogfight” scenario that Ashley Tellis attempts to bring some order and enlightenment with his monograph. He offers to “help the Indian policymakers and security elites think through the complexities of an acquisition decision with long-range ramifications.”, and in this endeavour, he sets out two broad objectives for himself, namely:
To elucidate the kind of aircraft relevant for the IAF in the foreseeable environment, and
To synthesise the diverse considerations and evolve a cohesive selection matrix.
Tellis offers the sum total of his advice under the rubric of three broad injunctions or Commandments for the consideration of policymakers in New Delhi. He commences his arguments by enjoining upon India’s decision-makers to “Conclude the MMRCA competition expeditiously.” While this may appear to be superfluous and gratuitous advice, we must remember that we have a pretty dismal track-record of slothful decision-making. Projects involving acquisition of the Advanced Jet Trainer, construction of the Air Defence Ship, re-starting of the submarine production line and the artillery modernization plan are just a few recent examples where apathy and indolent decision-making has cost us dearly, not just in financial terms but also in terms of eroded security. To buttress his advice Tellis graphically outlines the developing South-Asian air threat scenario, and the opportunity-costs of delay.
His next injunction, “Do not split the MMRCA purchase”, arises from the, not unrealistic, apprehension that India’s political leadership, might attempt to “satisfy defence and geo-political objectives simultaneously” and to “assuage different international allies” by splitting the lucrative MMRCA purchase and buying smaller numbers of two aircraft types instead of one. A very recent example of such a politically driven compromise was the splitting of a large commercial aircraft purchase between Boeing and Airbus Industrie. However, as Tellis rightly points out, the Indian armed forces are already burdened with the immense handicap of excessive diversity in their weapon inventories, and adding two new types to the IAF stable will be yet another unkind blow.
Subsequently, while providing a balance-sheet of the political pros and cons of each aircraft choice, he offers sound advice for the US administration. In order to overcome the disadvantage of fielding relatively older (albeit equally capable) aircraft for the MMRCA selection, the USA must not only provide assurance of “supplier reliability” but it must “fight and win in the arena of technology transfer.”
It is for the last, and most unexceptionable, of his three Commandments, “To buy the best aircraft for the mission”, that Tellis saves his firepower. In what can only be termed a tour de force, for a person with no aviation background (other than a million miles logged on United Airlines), he defines the operational context in which the IAF seeks a new combat aircraft, identifies the essential performance and hardware capabilities which must be used for evaluating the MMRCA contenders, discusses the technology and cost issues, and finally provides a lucid comparative assessment of the six aircraft in the field.
Tellis examines the “multi-role” aspect of the new induction from the IAF viewpoint and discusses the degree of optimization that can be attained between the air-to-air and anti-surface roles in a single airframe. He concludes that, because of the traditional bias of the Service towards fighter aviation, and the primacy assigned to homeland defence, whichever aircraft is finally selected in the competition, “…its fundamental worth will be assessed, first and foremost by its air-to-air performance, with its capacity to undertake precision strike missions being……somewhat secondary in assessed importance.”
Detailed discussion follows on arcane issues like the air-defence environment, the role of AWACS, as well as the counter-AWACS operations, airborne electronic attack (EA) and within visual range (WVR) as well as beyond visual range(BVR) engagements. Adequate note is taken of land as well as maritime anti-surface mission requirements before concluding that the MMRCA candidate selected will have to be an utterly versatile platform that can shift from air-combat to ground-attack by day or night with felicity.
Having established the future operational milieu in South Asia, Tellis defines six criteria for judging the MMRCA candidates, which may well be identical with those used by the IAF: sensors and avionics; weapons; aerodynamic effectiveness; mission performance; technology-transfer and cost. However, he sensibly adds a seventh criterion which is unlikely to figure in any official Indian matrix; political considerations.
Having done his homework conscientiously, Tellis undertakes an enlightened discussion that would be heard with rapt attention in any fighter crew-room. He dwells, knowledgeably, on a range of complex technical issues including; active electronically scanned array (AESA) and low probability of intercept (LPI) radars, infra-red search and tracking (IRST) systems, defensive avionics suites (DAS), BVR combat, wing loadings, thrust/weight ratios, instantaneous turn-rates and overall mission performance et al.
Acknowledging the great hopes pinned by India on the MMRCA deal being accompanied by substantive technology transfer – both through offsets and direct knowledge-sharing – he compares the ability and willingness of the competing nations in this regard. At the same time he notes the current limitations of Indian industry to actually absorb technology. Significantly, he urges US industry to“bend over backwards to offer the most generous technology transfer packages possible to India, because this component – along with lower fly away costs – could make the fundamental difference to their ability to carry the day in the MMRCA competition.”
The 40 most interesting pages of this slim volume are devoted to a comparative assessment of the six MMRCA contestants. Tellis first makes a tabular comparison of the competing six under the major heads of: engine, airframe, avionics and weapons, and then undertakes a detailed appraisal of individual machines; providing a summary of advantages and disadvantages in each case. It is as fair, comprehensive and professional a comparison of the six diverse machines as one can lay hands on today.
However, at the end of this comparison, he dismisses the MiG-35 for being merely a “souped up MiG-29K” and a“developmental platform”; the Gripen for being overly dependent for its vital systems on “third parties including the US”, and the Typhoon and Rafale (in spite of their other merits) for being too expensive!
The last word is, understandably, kept for the US duo of F-16IN Super Viper and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet. Tellis sees them as the best possible bargain for India, both financially (they claim, by far, the least expensive fly-away cost) and politically. He skillfully wields the availability of a fully developed AESA radar (which finds specific mention in the RFP), offered by both US candidates, as a useful tool to counter common Indian perceptions of their older provenance.
The political carrot is dangled rather blatantly by Tellis in the following words: “The political benefits of buying the F-16IN (or F/A-18E/F) would be unparalleled because of the gains accruing to New Delhi from a stronger partnership with the US. Such a development would … send important signals to all of India’s neighbours – especially its adversaries, China and Pakistan.”How well this far from subtle message actually goes down in South Block, remains to be seen.
In the concluding section of his report, Tellis makes an attempt to rationalize the IAF’s contemplated force structure, taking into account the 5th generation fighter, MMRCA selectee, LCA and other known inductions. He goes so far as to offer a few alternative force structure models circa 2020 and 2030.
The MMRCA contract will be amongst the biggest arms deals ever inked. India’s keenness to “get it right” at last, to bring transparency to the selection process and to maximise benefits to the indigenous aerospace industry has also, arguably, made it one of the most convoluted selection processes ever.
The motivation behind the Carnegie Endowment commissioning Ashley Tellis to write this report is obvious; to buttress the case for US industry in the MMRCA competition. However, as bewildered as India’s civilian decision-makers may feel in the unfamiliar and arcane jungle of hardware performance issues couched in military jargon, the US bureaucrat and industry executive is equally at sea in India’s complex geo-political scenario, with its unique operational compulsions, and Byzantine rules, regulations and procedures.
Tellis has therefore rendered a public service by compiling and analyzing most of the factors that have a bearing on the MMRCA selection process, in one slim compendium which can be read in one sitting. While the eventual decision in the MMRCA selection may not be based on any of the logic put forth by him, “Dogfight!” would have achieved its purpose if it serves to educate all the actors involved in the MMRCA competition; Indian and foreign.