IAF’s 114 Jets Procurement Set For a Thrilling Finish

The competition for procurement of fighter jets by Indian Air Force has intensified with the entry of Sukhoi 35. With seven contenders now in the fray, who wins this mega deal will be worth watching

By Ajit Kumar Thakur


With elections entering its final lap and the stage set for the new government to take charge by month end/early next month, momentum has started building up for IAF’s procurement of 114 jets.The initial signs of this momentum were noticed during Aero India 2019, courtesy Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Saab – all indicating the desire to bring in India a specific program for IAF’s jets requirement. Since the issuance of an RFI (Request for Information) by Indian Air Force last month to acquire 114 jets (estimated to cost around USD 18 billion and considered to be one of the world’s biggest military procurement), these three contenders have started providing the finer details to emerge as a front runner.

It may be noted that the selected OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturers) will have to execute the order of 114 jets delivery by manufacturing the bulk of the jets in India, through strategic partnerships or joint ventures with Indian firms.The first 18 jets will come in “a flyaway condition” in three to five years after the contract is signed. With Russian Sukhoi-35 fighter joining the fray, there are now seven contenders. The other six big names being Boeing (F/A-18 Super Hornet), Lockheed Martin (F-21), Saab (Gripen-E), Russian MiG-35, Euro fighter Typhoon and Rafale.

Eyeing the lucrative deal and seeking to sell its Gripen fighter jets to the Indian Air Force (IAF), Saab has already offered to make most of them in India. On the sidelines of “Aero India 2019” Saab India’s Chairman and Managing Director Ola Rignell said that they will consider manufacturing 96 of the 114 jets locally under Make in India, and also make the country an export hub. Here, it is important to note that Saab has tied up with Adani Group as its Indian partner to be considered for the order.

Similarly, Boeing too has offered to build a 21st century aerospace ecosystem in India and co-develop F/A-18 Super Hornet as part of India’s Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA) programme. Boeing’s strategy and plans for ‘Make in India’ has in its core the public-private partnership with HAL and Mahindra, that will produce next generation F/A-18 Super Hornet fighters in an entirely new ‘factory-of-the-future’ in India, delivering performance, affordability, and indigenization for Indian customers. The partnership will create jobs, industrial capacity and a globally competitive Indian supply chain.

In addition, its proposed future defence plans includes the KC-46A aerial refueler, AH-64E Apache attack helicopter, additional P-8 long-range maritime reconnaissance and anti-submarine aircraft, and the twin-engine Airborne Early Warning and Control (AEW&C) aircraft.

Boeing has been delivering exceptional operational capability and readiness for current platforms at a competitive cost structure along with its growing services, sustainment and training footprint in India. As a result of its commitment, the P-8I and C-17 operated by the Indian Navy and Indian Air Force have high mission readiness rates of >85 per cent. Boeing also plans to establish rotorcraft training and support capabilities in India as deliveries commence this year.

Prior to the recent induction of AH-64E Apaches and CH-47F(I) Chinooks, the first batch of Indian Air Force pilots were trained in the United States. Boeing has been contributing to the Make in India initiative, through its 160+ suppliers that provide parts and assemblies covering aero structures, wire harness, composites, forgings, avionics mission systems, and ground support equipment for some of Boeing’s most advanced defence platforms.

Sensing the tough competition ahead and to be a relevant contender with an edge, Lockheed Martin too emphasised its commitment by unveiling the F-21 multi-role fighter for India at Aero India 2019 that has been specifically configured for the Indian Air Force and will not only provide unmatched Make in India opportunities but also strengthen India’s path to an advanced airpower future.

According to Dr Vivek Lall, Vice President of Strategy and Business Development for Lockheed Martin Aeronautics, F-21 will be produced in partnership with Tata Advanced Systems in India and for India. It will not only address the Indian Air Force’s unique requirements but also integrate India into the world’s largest fighter aircraft ecosystem, which is a 165 billion dollar market.

In a move aimed at pitching itself ahead of its competitors, Lockheed Martin recently said that in case it gets the order for 114 planes, it will not sell F-21 to any other country showcasing its significant commitment and importance given to India’s unique requirement. Dr Vivek Lall’s recent media interactions clearly points out that the new combat jet is designed to operate as per IAF’s need, and its key aspects include superior engine matrix, electronic warfare system and weapons carrying capacity.

Taking note of the observation being made regarding F-21’s similarity to its F 16 Block 70 combat jet and India’s apprehension, he emphasised that there are significant differences between the two platforms, as F-21 is quite different in terms of various aspects including its air frame, weapons capability, engine matrix and availability of engine options. He pointed out that F-21 has special electronic warfare system that has been uniquely developed for India, has the additional 40 per cent weapons carrying capability and 12,000 hours of service life air frame.

In addition, the modern cockpit has a large area display along with significant piece of ability to synthesise information and it’s the only fighter in the world which has both the traditional boom-delivered refuelling facility as well as extendable hose-and-drogue refuelling probe. Pitching further, Dr Lall said that it the jet has a Long-Range Infrared Search and Track (IRST), enabling pilots to detect threats with precision and Triple Missile Launcher Adapters (TMLAs) and is the most cost effective (30-40%) when compared to the competitors in terms of life-cycle and operational costs.

The procurement deal gains importance as it’s being considered as an exercise to plug in the ever widening gaps that have opened up by the depletion of squadrons of IAF. Hence, it would be interesting to observe how the Indian government and IAF take this deal forward to its logical end with urgency? Will the final call take into consideration only the immediate requirement of filling up the void in squadron strength with a single winner or will it also look into the futuristic requirements with long term perspective, putting on fast track the much desired self reliance goal and development of Indian defence aerospace industry with finesse and opting out for multiple winners?

Whatever the final outcome may be, as of now the mega deal has great resemblance to a blockbuster suspense thriller. In coming months, with gradual opening of the inherent turns and twists in its well orchestrated script, the setting is perfect for a thrilling finish. Till then, the wait for India’s emergence with global footprint will remain intact in imagination only.