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India begins search for MiG-21 replacement
September 18, 2019
An Indian Air Force MiG-21. Photo credit: Indian Air Force

India begins search for MiG-21 replacement

The Indian Ministry of Defence has initiated the process of evaluating three prospective fighter platforms to replace the Indian Air Force (IAF)’s legacy MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters (IHS Jane’s).

Although India inked a $8.8 billion U.S. deal for 36 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters from France, this new requirement – which strongly emphasizes the need for a single-engine fighter – will resume the objective of the ill-fated Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement.

A retired IAF Air Marshal told Defense News that of the offers provided (which IHS Jane’s listed as the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16V, and Saab JAS-39E/F Gripen NG), single-engine platforms will take priority. In effect, the competition would be between Lockheed Martin and Saab.

Notes & Comments:

The procurement process has only begun and it could be a matter of at least several years before India selects a system and successfully finalizes an agreement.

That said, the Dassault Rafale purchase, as well as Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ initiative, will impact the nature of each contestant’s offering. Commercial offsets and deep transfer-of-technology concessions will be key aspects of the Indian government selection.

Every one of the platforms on offer is configured with an active electronically-scanned array (AESA) radar. The F-16V is offered with the AN/APG-83 radar and the Super Hornet is configured with the APG-79. For the U.S., these are highly sensitive pieces of technology, and the Department of Defense (DoD) may be reluctant to be flexible in terms of transferring critical know-how and expertise in these areas. In fact, Lockheed Martin had promised the release of this technology to South Korea in exchange for its inputs in Seoul’s KFX next-generation fighter program, but this offer fell through due DoD reluctance.

It is also worth noting that by virtue of the Rafale, India will be investing in Thales AESA radar technology, not only in direct terms (via importing an off-the-shelf solution) but also through the Rafale’s offset benefits flowing in to support Indian research and development initiatives in the area. India also has strong ties with Israel Aerospace Industries (IAI) and Elta. These factors could result in a customized fighter solution, one that pairs the airframe and engine prowess of foreign vendors with hybrid domestic or jointly-developed sensor, electronic warfare, and munitions solutions.

While the IAF did note it is pursuing a single-engine fighter, the reality of Boeing’s relationships with the Indian armed forces and private defence sector should be acknowledged. While the Super Hornet would be redundant in some respects to the Rafale, the fact that the platform has benefitted from the scale of economies (by virtue of U.S. Navy orders) could enable Boeing to position it as a more affordable system (in comparison to the Rafale). The same argument could be made for the F-16, but Boeing already has the industry groundwork and end-user trust to build upon in India.