Monday, August 3, 2009

Indian MMRCA competition in new economic reality

The start of comparative trials on the Indian Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender have pulled a lot of attention. First fighter under testing is American F-18 Super Hornet. While F-16 (US), MiG-35 (Russia), Rafale (France), Eurofighter (EU partnership) and Grippen (Sweden) are following it in yet known sequence.

However, the principal question is: whether the huge deal remains as actual as before? Didn’t it loss its importance or\and financial weight? Are Indian's tops still ready to pay for foreign customer that huge sum: $10.5 billions, as was planned early, prior to the world financial crisis was started?

Common sense suggests that nothing could run just as before, while the crisis shown its unhandsome face. Countries like USA, Great Britain, France ponder significant reduce of their military spending. The most ambitious programs, like American stealth-fighter F-22, were cut. Although India happens to be between the less suffering (economically) countries, the behavior of its decision-makers cannot be untouched. The economy gross of India will be significantly lower this year if not negative. The prognosis for 3-years perspective is mostly gloom for World economy, while second wave of crisis is rather possible. Being economy professional the Indian PM Mr. Manmohan Singh would be well aware of consequences for the country's over-stretch in running for too ambitious targets.

In 'liquidity hunger' context the Indian government has already started recalculation and re-consideration of its current military purchase line with clear accent on indigenization and domestic production. Now the recession-induced fall of price on metals and labor has already allowed India activation of its domestic ship-building efforts. Recently a number of new ships for Indian Navy were launched along three country's shipyards.
There is lot of recommendations around, about what could be the best choice for India in this tender. Should be fruitful to discuss something different question too: what candidate will most probably be the winner? More one interesting question: whether MRCA tender will be cancelled at all, and, as the Indian Air Force tops already hinted, the addition number on Su-30MKI fighters would be bought to keep depleted number of fighters.

In such case India instead of medium size aircrafts could buy 'of-the-shelf' or in 'semi-knocked down condition' 60-100 heavy Su-30MKI, $45 each bird – i.e. slightly above the current Mirage-2000 upgrade program, recently signed with French ($40 each plane). In this case the number of 'Rambha's (Su-30MKI) could exceed 300+ in IAF in 2013-2015 and the continuing fall in squadron number (now 32 instead of 39,5 minimal and 44 recommended), the progradient loss of superiority against Pakistan and the growing lag with China could be reversed. Such step could also become a 'security belt' too for the Indian long awaited LCA program, which suffers with new delays contributed to more ambitious requirements of the Indian generals for its engine power.

However, MMRCA tender cancellation would be a heavy blow for Indian image as a serious military stuff buyer, and evident 'lost of face' for Mr. M. Singh personally. So, the other way is not inducing totally new aircraft with unfamiliar service, new infrastructure and new line of weapons but purchasing something known (partially at least) for current system. There are only two contenders which fighters can be plugged in contemporary IAF infrastructure and logistic chain: MiG-35 and Rafale. The first is naturally the deep modernization of well known for IAF MiG-29 air-dominance fighter. The main difference – is its multi-role capability (for ground strikes) much longer airframe and engine life and less intensive service. I don’t think any totally new for India plane has a chance as a MMRCA contender.

The strong side of MiG-35 in this competition is seriously under estimated. First I don’t think, those who said MiG-35- is a 'paper plane' are right. Currently demonstrated model is indeed the produced in serial MiG-29K airframe with thrust-vectoring engine nozzles and new AESA radar, capable to use new long range missiles. The most tech risk has the radar, although all other competitors with except of Americans, have same problem with their AESA. However, more deeply reworked variant with lighter, more composite dense airframe is possible too. It's for Indian side to evaluate the tech risk and risk of delay that are accompanied the most ambitious configuration or third part involvement.

Is need to say, the IAF is yet to decide whether it needs thrust-vectoring on MRCA or not. Also is unclear, if government of India is still ready to pay for superb quality (AESA, 5th gen engine), or concerning recession has changed its preferences. Now India is involved in too many ambitious programs for its Air Force (FGFA, LCA, MCA, massive upgrades of old planes) and recently GoI has already signalized for generals and R&D men about its intention to reduce the number of programs and intensifying efforts on the most important of them.

Considering all such circumstances the probability for least expensive but still decent aircraft to win MMRCA is going to grow. The estimated price of MiG-35 in its most advanced configuration is ~$40 mil or even less considering falling ruble. Therefore, in my humble opinion MiG-35 has the best chance to be chosen. The current conditions - number depletion and recession - don’t allow for IAF to decide between 'good and excellent' but rather between bad and decent.

Other contender with non-zero probability to be chosen is Rafale. Its chances to win are rather good if the recalculated preferences of the program are indeed calculated as I do predict. With its price slightly above $60 mil each it's logistically and operationally similar to well known to the Indian pilots Mirage-2000. Without any doubts this will reduce the cost of introduction significantly. According to some estimation, the cost of fly is 30,000 EUR per hour and it's cheaper than MiG-35 has. Rafale (just like MiG-35 in form of MiG-29) is in serial production, thus if the customizing ambitions of the Indian side are not very high, the purchase could run very quick. The partnership with France (just like with Russia however) promises for India more friendly environment for transfer of technology, but in current circumstances, I think, it's became less important then a year ago.

Only a year ago I personally thought the American 'Super Hornet' had real chance to win if not was the leader. India then 'ought' to US to give something in turn of known 'nuclear deal'. However, now the time is different, there are some signs, that GoI has chosen another way 'to satisfied' the Americans well apart with MMRCA contest. The last out of tender contracts for P8l marine recco aircrafts and transport planes is a clear indication, which says the American birds will not win MMRCA… 


  1. Hi Igorr,
    Your posts on BR provide invaluable insights. Really admire you being so pro-Indian.Hope Mig-35 wins but
    1)Engines are old though it has been upgraded with more thrust
    2) Radar - Still very weak.

    If you can provide more info about the radar it will be great.

  2. Thanks Mukunda!
    1) Agree with you about the engine. RD-33MK still 4th gen. engine, allthough very good and reliable, while all other contenders can offer 5th gen engine for MRCA if needed. I'm sure if 'Klimov' could offer 5th gen engine right now, they whould win contract for intermediate engine for LCH (till Kavery is ready) too, but you know...)

    Despite all these RD-33 vulnerabilities I'm not sure IAF and especially GoI are ready now to pay amount of money for 5th gen engine on 4th gen fighters (MMRCA), partly because supercruise isn't something achievable (and worth) on plane with external load.

    On other hand India allready bought ToT for RD-33 ser 3 , so to upgrade this deal up to RD-33MK level could be more easy (in terms of realizing) and cheaper (by number) than buying ToT for a totally new engine. I guess it could be an important reason in the eyes of Indian tops for choosing MiG-35.

    2) The AESA radar for MiG-35 is not so 'weak' as risky. It's not mature enought product , as like as any other AESAs with except of Americans. They promised however 1000 element AESA antenna, but it yet to make the device mature of course. Then I expect (as a possibility) some 'low profile deal': quick and aggressive induction of MMRCA winner in its proved and mature 'avatar' with castomization remained for future.

    If MiG-35 is chosen it could be just MiG-29MK's overland variant, only slightly different, with slotted radar Zhuk-M (the upgraded version has been allready offered). In Rafale case it could be Rafale B with standard RBY2 that is PESA (not AESA). Both - with minimum adds like Indian avionics, radios, EW etc.

    Shell try to write next post about Zhuk AESA with my original photos. Be in contact!

  3. Hi Igorr,
    I have some more questions about Mig-35. Let me research a bit more and then post it here.Keep in touch.
    with best wishesm

  4. Hi Igorr,
    As promised earlier here are some questions pertianing to Mig-35 AESA radar

    Does the Mig-35's AESA Radar exhibit all these functionalities
    1)Ability to interleave Air and Ground targets simoultaneously
    2)Resolution of Synthetic Aperture radar
    3)Network with other Airborne radars and trasmit radar/imagery(datalink)
    4)Is the radar designed to accomplish a wide range of electronic warfare tasks simultaneously with air-to-air and air-to-ground functions?
    5)Number of target it can detect/track
    6)The # of T/R elements- Oputput power of each element
    7)Can the radar detect a cruise missile and from what distance?
    8)Does it LPI charactersitics
    9)Does it have GMTI/NCTR modes
    10)In what way does it dissipate heat?
    11)In what way it is immune to Jamming?

  5. Hi Mukunda! Right now I'm working on a some review about contemporary fighters' AESAs. The most of your questions if not all will be answered there. Sorry about last delay and thanks for your patience...

  6. Hi,

    Good is my thought. I accept your argument about recession.

    1. Recession is not going to be there forever. May be another three years. GOI wants these planes for another 30-40 years

    2. You already accepted the Mig 35 is between bad and decent and not superior

    3. Since the Ruble is might make sense to go for it. But what if the Ruble goes up again. GOI already burned its hands with Admiral Gorskov.

    So GOI should for F-18 for longterm sense. Thanks

  7. to anon 21:46

    would it be a choice for next 30-40 year, f18 was just as bad as Mig35. 5th gen fighters will dominante over 20 years. So MRCA is relevant in next 20-25 years max. If one really think about next 30-40 years he should go for F-35 as MRCA, but India has its own MCA program in this class.

  8. In the next 20 years rivalries between India and China will further increase leading to a "hot" border. What will be Russian govt. role if there is a war between India and China
    1) Support India
    2) Pull back support like in 1962 when Russia offered no support?
    That should decide MMRCA

  9. to mukunda

    I'm personally far from decide what fighter India needs. I only try to predict what most probably be the GoI decision. Whether the Indian top is going to be supported in its decision making on military alliance factor? Hardly. If India as an out-of-block state doesnt take obligation to support Russia in case of US or China agression, then how it could expect it from Russia or say France? I think Delhi more expects for help\cooperation in strategic weapon development, than bets on direct mil alliance with any state or block.

  10. Hi Igorr,
    [If India as an out-of-block state doesnt take obligation to support Russia in case of US or China agression]
    We have definetly shown not much interest in SCO, but if you look at the record, post FSU India has placed massive orders that caused the present Russian MT industry to rise. We could have joined USA in the America's quest for supremacy in CAR but have we? What is of more concern if tomorrow there is India-China war will Russia cut off military supplies?

  11. to mukunda

    Certainly Russia isnt interested in India defeat in case of direct Sino-Indian clash or any other scenario. I think even more: Russia cannot allow to itself Indian defeat, since next day it will face Sino-American block ringing Russia.

    A yeah ago I remember on BRForum were those, who laugh when I told them about a possibility of new Sino-American honeymoon. Interesting, what they think now after G2 started to bloom...

    I think US was more tolerant to India than China in last two decades not because it's 'the biggest democracy blah-blah' but coz India is weaker than China and could be seen theoretically (in Wash DC) as a counterweight to it.

    However, while India becomes stronger it can become even bigger problem to US, than China, since Indian policy is more assertive and nationalistic (partly due its democratic competitive political system). India is also very close geografically to ME oil, and historically has bad relation with sunni kingdoms (Brit\US allies) and good relation with Iran. Then in long run US can try play Chinese card against India's ME activity and energy diplimacy as well. Whether GoI understand such a danger? I think yes.

    Russia - is something different. Its relations with China and India arent symmetric too, but Russia cannot be comfortable with gigantic super-power on its border (China), while with Delhi it just cannot have any strategic problem due to geografic isolation. So its help to Delhi doesnt lead to military risks, while with China Moscow must behave with double caution. Unlike US, Russia has no cause to fear from Delhi's rising economic and financial power. The growing Indian energy\commodity consumption doesnt bother Moscow too.

    I think, in future 20-30 years we would see 'very strange' global and Asian configurations. I cannot exclude even quazi Cold War configuration coming back like 'G2 +sunni states vs. India-Russia +Iran' or 'BRIC versus old economics' etc. After resolving of crisis we will see the coming picture with better sharpness...

  12. Hi Igorr
    [Then in long run US can try play Chinese card against India's ME activity and energy diplimacy as well.]
    Can you expand more on this? I got confused?

    Sino-US bonhomie was expected since the new US admin. has taken charge in DC.On BR many young folks have
    joined while experienced and knowlegeable people have left. That does not mean young guys do not have
    a soft corner for Russia. I was surprised when one day ,one of our friends in a reputed software company
    stongly advocated India Russia relations. My only worry is:- If china attacks us across our NE border
    Russia should not off military supplies.

    I am still awating your update on Mig-35 radar.

    [India-Russia +Iran' or 'BRIC versus old economics' etc. After resolving of crisis we will see the
    coming picture with better sharpness...]

    India-Russia-Iran triangle can be successful in Afghanistan and be useful for containment against
    pakistan also Iran will be helpful in getting access to CAR markets(economically speaking). Beyond that
    India cannot make money out of Iran. We need money very badly for our social and infrastructural projects.
    This nucelear deal gives us money power that India deserves so badly and at same time ensures
    security from Russia.It is more like milking tom to pay peter.

  13. Oh, you're right! it's just like milking Tom and pay Peter, so India can avoid total dependence from US otherwise military dependence would be added to economic one.

    Methink, Russia will not cut mil supply to India in time of crisis especially coz it expects reciprocity from India in case of crisis in its own relation with China. In such a case i think Indian stance will be clear pro-Russian, and anti-China activity is expected, mil move too.

    But I'm still not sure about India position in case of NATO-Russia crisis (new war with Georgia or involvement in Ukraine). What do you think? Would India take Russian side, at least politicaly or not? Now Indian position on South-Osettia conflict was very indifferent.

    PS About Russian AESA I prepare some text bigger than was initially expected with comparative information about western and Israeli AESA programs. Then, need more time.

  14. Hi Igorr,

    [But I'm still not sure about India position in case of NATO-Russia crisis
    (new war with Georgia or involvement in Ukraine). What do you think? Would India take Russian side,
    at least politicaly or not? Now Indian position on South-Osettia conflict was very indifferent.]

    USA/NATO V/S Russia war are taking broadly on 3 fronts

    1)Along Afghanistan-Pakistan
    2) CAR
    3) Gerogia,Ukraine,South Ossetia

    1)On Afghan-Pakistan front India/Russia are following are very sophiticated strategy of luring NATO/US
    to there own doom. Both of them are on the same page. If the supply lines in Pak were not harassed continously how do you think USA would have approached Russia for help in transporting supply materials along CAR? think more closely(connect the dots , you will get a clear picture). Prior to Benazir Bhutto
    assasination MMS/MKN travelled all the way to Russia for a one to one discussion with Putin. The discussion were described as so so sensitive that even MKN was not allowed. What do you think the MMS/MKN may have had to briefed Putin? Why do you think Russia hosted Kiyani?

    2) On CAR Russia is very cautious so as not to allow American entry into riding on India's back. And India is also careful. Here two our interests meet. Some one from our foreign team said we need to pay Russia to access ONG resources there. Why should we upset Russia and support USA when everyone knows that USA follows a policy of winner takes all?

    3)Georgia, Ukraine, South Ossetia- AFAIK what role do we have to play there? Will it more of a strategic overreach when so many pressing issues surround us? Mind you our diplomacy is still not geared for big league of diplomacy that P-5 practice. even on IPI we have tried to get Russian involvement.

    4) Lastly apart from the right wingers in our country there is no ill will for Russian policy makers.

  15. Hi,
    Even on S.Ossetia some of our diplomats were outraged over the way US(rather roman administration) behaved. Some of us were absolutely delighted over the fact the Putin kicked the Georgia. Some of us admire Putin for what he has done for Russia. We have not responded that way putin did when Moscow was attacked(remember cinema theaters were attacked and Russian special forces cleaned the chechens)
    2) Very happy that child killer Shamil Basayey was cleaned. We were aghast as to what happend to little children. Sadly our govt. has shown none of the spine that Putin has to defend ordinary citizens.

  16. I think, the Russian help for India in strategic systems development is a long term strategy aimed for 'growing' India up to the level it could play in high league and help Russia in case of mil. crisis. Of course it's all in reciprocal manner. Otherwise it would be just a waste of technology secrets and leakage channel. I hope too India's participation in UN SC is only a question of time.

  17. Hi Igor,
    A recession in India also means a recession in France, Europe, Russia and US. Recession is deflationary. Shouldn't deflationary forces cause the sticker price of aircrafts also to decrease?

  18. to anon 7:41 PM
    Yes, of course, but since dollar and euro in rise, ruble lost 20%, the price change still in Russian favor.

  19. Excellent analysis Igorr of the MMRCA tender.It mirrors my views entirely.Costs,capital and life-cycle in current conditions is going to be a very major factor apart from the capabilities of the contenders.Having suhc a legacy and familiarity with MIG aircraft,it would be the mosts ensible decision for the IAF to acquire the MIG-35.If it wants to also acquire a western fighter,acquiring,plus replacing all older Mirage-2000s with the Rafale could be the answer in a parallel programme,instead of upgrading the MIrage-2000s and wasting money.