The Indian Air Force reportedly is set to formally reboot its plans to purchase nearly 115 fighter jets within weeks, but it may tie any final contract to a demand that it also receive technical assistance for its domestic fifth generation fighter project. This decision would seem to confirm ongoing reports that India is not happy with the progress of its existing stealth fighter deal with Russia, might again give Lockheed Martin an upper hand since it is already building the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, and could just further complicate the already protracted attempts to get any new aircraft.
On March 11, 2018, The Hindustan Times reported that India would begin sending out official requests for information to companies looking to submit bids on the fighter jet tender by the first week of April. In February 2018, it emerged that the India Air Force would halt an existing plan to buy 114 single-engine fighter jets and rewrite the requirements to open the deal up to twin-engine designs, as well. The revised deal will now include the winning firm to transfer potentially sensitive technology to support the Indian military’s fifth generation fighter program, known as the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).
“We have asked the Defense Research and Development Organization (DRDO) to prepare a list of technologies they need help with for the AMCA,” the unnamed individual told The Hindustan Times. “There will be clear clause on the transfer of those technologies in the contract.”
India’s efforts to procure new fighter jets have already been a saga spanning more than decade. This new tender will be the third formal attempt to purchase the aircraft since 2007. Hindustan Aeronautics Limited has been officially working on the AMCA project since 2010, with a goal of having a flying prototype by 2025.
With immediate contract field now open to both single- and twin-engine designs, the competition will most likely including American manufacturers Boeing and Lockheed Martin with their F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and F-16IN Viper respectively, the French Dassault Rafale, the Eurofighter Typhoon, Sweden’s Saab Gripen-E, and at least one Russian aircraft, such as a variant of the MiG-35 Fulcrum-F or Su-35 Flanker-E. The F-16IN appeared to have the lead over the Gripen-E in the previous-single engine tender.
As we had noted in the past, there were a number of good reasons why a twin-engine design might turn out to be the new favorite. Most importantly, the Indian Air Force is already buying 36 Rafales. French authorities have been pushing India to begin negotiating a new deal for a second tranche of 36 more jets, but so far India has not made any official announcement about any additional purchases.
The French jet and the F/A-18E/F are also emerging as the front-runners in an Indian Navy competition to purchase new fighter jets for its presently planned fleet of short-takeoff but arrested recovery (STOBAR) aircraft carriers, as well as the catapult assisted takeoff but arrested recovery (CATOBAR) types it wants to build in the future. If both services were to operate the same aircraft, or variants with a high commonality in basic components and mission systems, this could cut logistics and sustainment expenses and offset the typically higher costs of twin-engine aircraft compared to single-engine types.
As such, it looked initially that Boeing and Dassault had the most to gain from the changes to the Indian tender. But the inclusion of the stealth fighter technology transfer requirement could change the calculus yet again.
If nothing else, this could be a signal that India will be less inclined to consider any offering from Russia. The Indians and the Russians have been working together on fifth generation fighter jet development for some time, there have been repeated reports that the Indian Air Force is frustrated with the lack of results from the Su-57 stealth fighter project and more recently there has been the suggestion that authorities in New Delhi might finally scrap that work altogether. It was possible that the Kremlin’s otherwise curious decision to send a pair of its prototype jets to Syria in February 2018 was in part to try and demonstrate more significant progress with that program.
Of the remaining likely contenders, only some are actively working on low-observable aircraft. Not all of them are doing so at the same level or are developing a fifth generation fighter specifically.
Boeing has been working on some limited low-observable upgrade options for the Super Hornet, as well the latest models of its F-15 Eagle, such as fully-enclosed weapons pods or conformal add-on bays. This level of technological knowhow may not be enough satisfy the DRDO’s desire for broader help with the ACMA.
While Dassault has been working on stealthy unmanned combat air vehicles (UCAV), European aviation consortium Airbus – which supports production of the Typhoon in various countries – has been the firm more actively working on France’s future fifth generation fighter project. Regardless, French stealth fighter and UCAV programs are also in partnership with Germany and the United Kingdom, respectively, which could add another hurdle in sharing any appropriate technical information with the Indians.
Saab has been quietly working on the Swedish Air Force’s Flygsystem 2020 stealth fighter project for at least a decade now, but the exact status of that development is unclear. In 2013, the company did sign a deal to support Turkey’s fifth generation TFX project.
Lockheed Martin is the only competitor actively producing a fifth generation fighter jet, the F-35, which could give it a leg up again in the competition. The Maryland-headquartered company had already made a particularly appealing pitch in the last iteration of the competition, stating that if its F-16IN won, it would establish a joint production line with Indian manufacturing conglomerate Tata to build jets for the Indian Air Force and use that same domestic assembly line to churn out additional aircraft for export elsewhere. On top of that, it said it would consider working with Tata to build Viper components even if the contract fell through.