A French Navy Dassault Super Etendard carrier borne strike fighter aircraft, executes a touch and go landing on the flight deck aboard the US Navy (USN) Nimitz Class Aircraft Carrier, USS RONALD REAGAN (CVN 76). The REAGAN and embarked carrier Air Wing 14 (CVW-14) are currently deployed to the Persian Gulf as part of a routine rotation of US Maritime Forces conducting Maritime Security Operations (MSO) in the region.

Prior to the acquisition of 36 units by the Indian Air Force (IAF), the Dassault Rafale had established itself as a proficient combat aircraft with a limited global customer base. The IAF’s procurement marked a pivotal moment for the French aircraft manufacturer, catalyzing a surge in orders and elevating Dassault to a prominent position among global aircraft suppliers.

The SAAB Gripen, a formidable contender in the aviation landscape, envisions a significant turnaround in its fortunes. This optimism stems from the prospects of securing the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) contract with the Indian Air Force (IAF). The success of this deal hinges on the assurance of an enhanced and upgraded variant of the Gripen E, a testament to the continuous evolution and enhancement of military technology.

The Indian defense sector is currently abuzz with anticipation surrounding the upcoming tender for 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) intended for the Indian Air Force (IAF). This sense of urgency is exacerbated by the IAF’s declining fighter jet squadron strength. The MRFA contract represents a substantial development, marking a departure from the earlier Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) project, which was discontinued in 2015.

The protracted MMRCA procurement process spanned nearly fifteen years and ultimately met its demise at the hands of the Indian government. In an unexpected turn of events, the government opted to bypass the lengthy negotiations and directly procure 36 Rafale fighter jets from French authorities.

For an extended period, the French omnifunctional fighter aircraft, Rafale, struggled to secure a major buyer. Apart from modest acquisitions by Egypt and Qatar, the Rafale’s order book lacked noteworthy achievements.

Despite its French name, which translates to “gust of wind,” the Rafale faced challenges in securing contracts from countries like Belgium, Brazil, Canada, Finland, Kuwait, Singapore, and Switzerland. The prohibitive cost associated with this military equipment emerged as a decisive factor in these contract negotiations.

SAAB, the Indian subsidiary of the Swedish defense giant renowned for its single-engine Gripen fighter jets, has emerged as a prominent player in the competition since the Indian Air Force (IAF) expressed the need for 114 advanced fighter aircraft. In a recent strategic move, SAAB officially presented its offer to the IAF via its verified account on Platform X, previously known as Twitter, showcasing the upgraded Gripen-E model.

In a statement released on August 28th, SAAB conveyed its readiness to provide the IAF with a fleet of 114 state-of-the-art Gripen E fighters, aligning with its forthcoming response to the impending IAF Request for Proposal (RFP). This deployment of Gripen E is expected to equip India with a next-generation combat air capability, characterized by world-class availability, capable of countering threats from any location, regardless of remoteness, at any given time.

However, there appears to be a noticeable gap, if not a significant discrepancy, between intent and execution. The IAF initiated the Request for Information (RFI) process back in 2018 and received a highly positive response from global aircraft manufacturers eager to participate in this multi-billion-dollar transaction.

In the competitive race for the contract, French fighter jets are perceived as strong contenders, owing to their current operational status. They face stiff competition from formidable rivals such as Boeing’s F-15EX and F/A-18 Block III Super Hornet, SAAB’s JAS-39 Gripen, and Lockheed Martin’s F-21.

A high-ranking official from the Indian Air Force emphasized that the formulation of new Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs) for the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) is underway. Hence, the victory of the Rafale is not guaranteed. In defense acquisitions, the ASQR formulation process holds paramount importance as it significantly influences the quality, cost, and competitiveness of the defense equipment under consideration.

The Indian Air Force’s authority to define Air Staff Qualitative Requirements in the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program has drawn attention from the Indian Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG). In a comprehensive review conducted in 2007, the CAG noted a predominant emphasis on technical specifics rather than functional parameters in the ASQRs. This approach occasionally led to situations where the stipulations of the ASQRs were unachievable by any of the participating vendors.

In-Depth Analysis

Furthermore, the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs) witnessed constant adjustments throughout the procurement process, adding another layer of complexity. This continual alteration of criteria presented significant challenges to the vendors, revealing potential deficiencies in the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) ability to establish clear ASQRs.

Retired Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, during a discussion with EurAsian Times, delved into the intricacies of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, describing it as an exhaustive and meticulously scrutinized endeavor. He pointed out that each contender underwent thorough scrutiny over an extended period of years. Yet, when considering the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), essentially a rebranded version of the same contract, he suggested that the ‘Make in India’ initiative could have a significant influence on the decision-making process.

Air Marshal Matheswaran, a former Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defense Staff at the Integrated Defense Service and later the Senior Air Staff Officer within the Eastern Air Command, played a key role in the MMRCA agreement before its unfortunate and abrupt cancellation.

The Dominance of the Gripen-E

In the fiercely competitive realm of fighter jets, the Gripen E stands at the forefront of modernity, providing the Indian Air Force (IAF) with a distinct advantage. This advantage is further heightened by its formidable weaponry, particularly the Meteor Beyond Visual Range missile.

The aircraft’s cutting-edge sensors, encompassing the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar and Infra-Red Search and Track (IRST) system, along with advanced datalinks and AI-driven decision support, grant the pilot an unprecedented level of situational awareness. This superior battlefield awareness empowers the pilot to detect and respond to threats before their adversaries, embodying the principle of ‘see first, act first.’

Despite the allure of the Gripen-E, attributed to its superior electronic warfare capabilities, integration of potent missiles, reduced radar cross-section, and cost-effectiveness, the fighter jet appears to lag behind its competitors in certain key areas. Notably, these areas include political influence and financial support, both of which carry substantial weight in the defense sector.

Contrary to the prevailing assumption that the Rafale will secure victory, insiders with knowledge of the process maintain a degree of skepticism. “Several other aircraft have undergone significant upgrades, meeting the stringent demands of the IAF. Notably, such aircraft include the Gripen-E, as well as the F-15E and F-21,” the official noted, presenting an alternative viewpoint.

The Gripen E boasts an impressive arsenal, capable of carrying nine missiles and a remarkable 16 bombs, in addition to a wide array of other munitions and payloads. Coupled with the aircraft’s adaptable design, this facilitates the seamless integration of new weapon systems and stores. This flexibility extends across all mission profiles, from air-to-air missile engagements to reconnaissance and the deployment of heavy air-to-ground ordnance.

Analytical Perspective

The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) project has encountered a series of complexities. Initially, in August 2000, the Indian Air Force (IAF) proposed the procurement of 126 Mirage 2000 II aircraft. However, this plan was abruptly shelved in 2004. Subsequently, in 2007, a reevaluation led to a decision to acquire the same quantity of aircraft, 126, under the framework of the MMRCA project.

However, this initial plan underwent a significant shift. Instead of proceeding with it, the IAF opted to acquire 36 Rafale aircraft through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) established with the French government.

Currently, the IAF is actively engaged in constructing a compelling case for the acquisition of advanced fighter jets, eagerly awaiting the government’s official Acceptance of Necessity (AoN). Experts associated with the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program, often referred to as MMRCA 2.0, emphasize the importance of the ‘Make in India’ component. This initiative has been vigorously promoted by the Indian government and holds significant strategic value.

Despite the IAF’s existing squadron strength of 31, a notable contrast to the sanctioned 42, the organization has been awaiting governmental approval for an extended period. This information was conveyed by Air Marshal Narmdeshwar Tiwari, the deputy chief of the IAF at that time, during an address to journalists at an Aero India event. Tiwari expressed expectations of receiving the long-awaited Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) from the government within the next three to four months.

The IAF, despite its urgent requirement to swiftly bolster its diminishing fighter squadrons with 500 new fighter jets, continues to await the necessary approvals. The critical nature of this matter cannot be overemphasized, as the prompt induction of these aircraft is pivotal to national security.

In alignment with the Indian Government’s “Make in India” initiative, the IAF has indicated its intent to prioritize domestic manufacturing in its proposed procurement. Before presenting the proposal for 114 Medium Range Fighter Aircraft (MRFA), the IAF expressed interest in placing an additional order for 90 Light Combat Aircraft Mk1, reaffirming its commitment to this national endeavor.

The IAF official stressed the urgency of the situation, noting that the timeframe extends to a minimum of six to eight years following the government’s AoN. This duration presents a significant challenge considering the IAF’s immediate requirements.


Military Analyst’s Perspective

An authoritative source familiar with the situation shared insights with EurAsian Times, stating, “To establish a robust deterrent against the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), the Indian Air Force (IAF) recognizes the imperative need for a diverse fleet of aircraft. However, the IAF has encountered challenges in convincing the Indian government of the necessity of importing aircraft on such a large scale.”

The entire procurement process, from initiation to the final delivery of the aircraft, is estimated to encompass a timeline of approximately six to seven years. Within this timeframe, there is the potential for the Tejas Mk-2 to become ready for induction. This potential overlap could be a factor contributing to the government’s current deliberations, as indicated by the official.

The official also highlighted potential candidates for import, which include the F-21, F-15E, Gripen-E, and Su-35. However, he emphasized that the government must first grant approval for the importation of these fighter aircraft, taking into account the existing presence of the LCA Mk-2 and Mk-1A in the IAF’s inventory.

LCA Mk-2

The upcoming LCA Mk-2 is designed to enhance range and endurance significantly. This variant will feature notable improvements, including an extended length of 1,350mm, the incorporation of canards, and a substantial increase in payload capacity. The LCA Mk-2 will be capable of carrying an impressive load of 6,500 kg, a significant improvement over the current LCA model’s 3,500 kg limit.

A notable advancement in military technology, the LCA Mk-2 is set to be powered by the formidable General Electric F414-INS6 engine, representing a substantial upgrade from its predecessors, which were equipped with the less powerful F404 engine. Projections indicate that the LCA Mk-2 will achieve a maximum velocity of 1.8 Mach, reaching an operational altitude of 50,000 feet. Furthermore, it is anticipated that heavy weaponry, particularly in the SCALP, Crystal Maze, and Spice-2000 categories, will seamlessly integrate into the Mk-2 platform, enhancing its capabilities.