It’s the $15 billion dollar question. From where will India—a rapidly-growing economic power in a dangerous and competitive neighbourhood—source its military combat aircraft over the coming decade? The answer represents not just an enormous windfall for one or more major military suppliers, but a decision that has important implications for India’s development as a regional military power, its geopolitical orientation, and the stability of its relations with China and Pakistan.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) is full of curious contradictions. Boasting the fourth-largest fleet of combat-capable aircraft, the IAF remains qualitatively behind many western air forces, but among the most advanced in the developing world. Indian pilots have earned rave reviews from their American counterparts in joint exercises. But the IAF is perhaps most unusual for the sheer variety of combat aircraft models at its disposal: a slew of Russian MiGs, many of them refitted with Israeli assistance; European-designed Mirage-2000s and Jaguars; and advanced Sukhoi-30s.
For years, India was constrained in its ability to acquire world-class fighter and ground attack aircraft by international sanctions that resulted from its development of nuclear weapons and conflicts with Pakistan. It was forced to rely heavily upon Russian suppliers. But as a result of its growing economy and major diplomatic breakthroughs, India is no longer limited either by resources or politics. Additionally, a mixture of acquisition roadblocks and delays in India’s indigenous defense development programs mean that the Indian Air Force finds itself well short of its objective of over forty squadrons. This necessitates a major shopping spree.
Among other initiatives, India is developing several indigenous combat aircraft. It is also in the process of jointly developing, with Russia an advanced fifth-generation fighter that is in the midst of testing. But the centerpiece of Indian combat aircraft acquisition – the great race – is a competition for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), in which six leading international producers are jostling for a rare opportunity to establish themselves firmly in the Indian market. The six competing models are Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16, both American; France’s Dassault Rafale; the Russian MiG-35; Sweden’s Saab Gripen; and the Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a Europe-wide consortium.
For the past few years, observers have speculated on the odds of each bid. The single-engine Gripen is considered too similar to India’s indigenously-developed Light Combat Aircraft. The French bid has already been threatened several times. Because a decision of this magnitude is ultimately political, India sees few benefits to picking a Russian supplier, given their already robust defense commercial relationship. Selecting the F-16 would, rather unfairly, be seen as settling for parity with Pakistan, which has flown older models of the plane for years. There are worries about the Eurofighter’s cost, while some Indians remain concerned about the reliability of American suppliers, thus casting a shadow over the F-18. All this means that there is no clear frontrunner. Political leaders and defense contractors the world over are left waiting with bated breaths.