The $10 Billion Dogfight

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The world’s top guns are scrambling to win the Indian Air Force’s tender for 126 combat aircraft. Who’ll grab the flying colours?

The world’s top guns are scrambling to win the Indian Air Force’s tender for 126 combat aircraft. Who’ll grab the flying colours?

At the recent air show in Bangalore, an F/A-18 Super Hornet performs a stunning rolling loop. The fighter jet is on the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) shopping list. And it’s not just another list doing the rounds. In these times of recession, $10 billion spells a massive business opportunity. This amount is the cost of acquiring 126 multi-role combat aircraft that India needs for upgrading its air force. And it explains why aircraft firms turned up in full strength at the biannual air event in Bangalore.

The IAF is looking to solve a twin crisis of quality  and quantity. To stay fighting fit, it needs a minimum of 40 squadrons. Currently, it has only 33. “This is the biggest ever IAF contract,” says Air Vice Marshal (Retd) Kapil Kak, additional director of Centre for Air Power Studies, a New Delhi-based think-tank, “The winner will need to have three essential attributes. It will have to possess true multi-role fighting capability that includes air-to-air and air-to-ground superiority. It will need a powerful Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar that can simultaneously track 400 targets and engage at least 50. Lastly, the aircraft will need to have technological modular upgradeability that will allow the IAF to develop it [further] technically over the years.”

There are several reasons for the IAF’s depleted airpower. First is the age of its existing fleet. India has not bought any new fighters over the last decade, except for 40 Su-30MKIs. During this period, however, it has had to retire its MiG-23 fighter bombers as well as its MiG-25 supersonic interceptor and reconnaissance aircraft.

Air crashes are the other major reason. The force has lost over 200 fighter jets in the last decade. These include all types of fighters, but the largest number have been from the ageing fleet of its mainstay—the MiG-21. It is largely to make up for the resultant shortage that India is looking to acquire 126 multi-role fighter jets.


The F/A-18 Super Hornet, a fifth-generation fighter plane, appears to be the odds-on favourite for the contract. The fighter is designed for air dominance and has all-weather, day/night strike capabilities. “The Super Hornet will provide the IAF with a tactically superior and combat-proven, multi-role combat capability,” says Dr Vivek Lall, vice-president and country head, Boeing Integrated Defense Systems.

However, two factors could keep this fighter away from the IAF. First is the Indian policy of defence ‘offsets’; by this semi-swadeshi measure, the country can procure only those arms that deliver at least half the contract’s value worth of business to Indian firms by way of return outsourcing deals (for inputs and suchlike). Effectively: we buy foreign if you buy Indian to make the weapons. The hitch, from the supplier’s perspective, is that this could let key technology slip away, something the US has traditionally disallowed even vis-à-vis client states.

Also, the US has strict usage rules, which could mean not only stiff end-use agreements and control regimes, but possibly even equipment wired to suit the Pentagon. Regardless of the IAF’s resistance to intrusive foreign inspection, such rules could make it difficult for the IAF to tweak this fighter for nuke delivery capability, for example, thus cramping Indian autonomy.


Among those who fly, the F-16 is a legend. Across the world, it has a 72:0 kill ratio—it has shot down 72 fighters but has never been shot down in combat. The problem, though, is that Pakistan Air Force has its older version. This deprives the IAF of any surprise advantage yielded by its technical specifications and operational capabilities. However, aviation experts say that the F-16s being offered to India are a Block 60 variant and are more advanced than those in Pakistan.


The MiG-35 is a dramatic improvement on the MiG-29, the Soviet fighter which IAF has flown for many decades. At the Aero India Show, the buzz was that it scored over rivals in acrobatics, even though it is heavier than them. Says Mikhail T Globenko, regional director for marketing, Russian Aircraft Corporation, “It [MiG-35] can also be a compatible platform, given that the MiG-29 is already in service with the IAF.” The MiG-35 has a powerful Zhuk AESA radar and can fire an impressive range of weapons. However, India’s relationship with Russia on arms delivery has recently turned rocky, with its record of adherence to contracts in question.

A case in point is the purchase of aircraft carrier Admiral Gorshkov; the Russians have reportedly hiked the asking price thrice after agreeing to sell it to India. Unless India’s diplomatic equation with the Russian Federation is sorted out, defence analysts feel it is pointless to pursue further armaments from the Russians.


The Typhoon has an edge in that it is the most modern of the planes on offer. This translates into an advantage in air-to-air and air-to-ground roles. The European Aeronautic Defense and Space Company has worked with India before, and is likely to be more flexible on end-user agreements and offset deals than the US companies. The company has sold over 300 Typhoons to several countries, including 72 to the Royal Saudi Air Force.


This Swedish beauty is last in the race, but it has the attributes of a modern, multi-role fighter aircraft. This new bird is well known for speed and manoeuvrability, and can reach speeds of up to Mach 1.2 without afterburners. It also has powerful radar and advanced avionics suits.

So, as the world places its bets and the fighters roll, may the best wings win.