Originally Published 2012-02-24 00:00:00 Published on Feb 24, 2012
The behind-the-scenes drama had all the ingredients of a potboiler.
How it all played out
Insiders who are privy to the entire process of the MMRCA deal have a fascinating story to tell. The Russians, Swedes and the Americans initially underestimated the tight process laid down by the MoD and the requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF). The Russians were the first off the block in rectifying their error. Long used to being the main supplier of military hardware to India, the Russians had mistakenly assumed that an upgraded version of MiG-29 would make the IAF bosses happy. But they were rebuffed in no uncertain terms and they got back to the drawing board.

The Americans believed their own hype about being the world’s best air force with the world’s best flying machines a little too much. They should have woken up when Indian pilots flying upgraded MiG-21 Bisons with Russian Phazatron Kopyo (Spear) radar, Vympel R-73RDM2 missile and the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) Vympel R-77/RVV-AEE air-to-air missiles licked the formidable F-15C and the F-16 Block 52 fighters of the USAF clean on one-on-one as well as in Dissimilar Air Combat Training (DACT) exercises in the Cope India 2004 in Gwalior. The USAF acknowledged that the Indian pilots displayed ’unexpected situational awareness and tactical maturity’ and said that MiG-21 Bisons and Su-30MKIs were the toughest to counter.

But they didn’t wake up. In the next Cope India exercise in 2005 in Kalaikundi airbase the Indian pilots operating in an AWACS environment for the first time responded to target information faster than their American counterparts. Yet again the Americans found their F-15C/D and F-16 Block 60 fighter aircraft being taken on by MiG-21 Bisons the Su-30MKI air superiority fighters. More often than not the Indians emerged victorious in Within Visual Range (WVR) combat and could hold their own in BVR combat. The subsequent Cope India exercises in 2006 and 2009 and the Red Flag Exercise in 2008 at Nellis Airforce Base in Nevada showcased India’s appetite for high-performance aircraft and the advanced skill levels of its pilots. This was an emerging and confident India and the Americans underestimated the IAF’s strategic insight and depth, requirements and the ability to absorb technology. What Boeing and Lockheed Martin initially offered was F-18 and an upgraded F-16 Block 52 aircraft respectively. Both had airframes which were over 30 years old and, more importantly, were often beaten or held up by upgraded MiG-21 Bisons and the latest Su-30MKIs.

The British and the French were smarter, quickly recognising India’s increasing appetite for a strategic role in the larger Asian context and understanding that the IAF was looking for a top-of-the-line product. In the 2007 Indradhanush joint IAF-RAF exercise the British fielded the Eurofighter Typhoon. The Typhoons took on the Su-30MKIs and a mutual respect was born. In the subsequent Indradhanush exercise in 2010, the RAF specially invited Indian pilots to fly the Eurofighter Typhoon. One senior and experienced Su-30MKI pilot who had flown the Typhoon told this author that the aircraft was the best in terms of cockpit layout and pilot friendliness. It was a big endorsement as this pilot had flown a lot of world’s best fighter aircraft. The French also used Garuda, the codename for the IAF-FAF joint exercise, to field Rafale against top-line Indian fighters and also allowed Indian pilots to fly the aircraft. A pilot who flew Rafale said that the learning curve in adapting to the aircraft was minimal as they had the experience of flying the Mirage.

The Russians tried to undo the damage of MiG-29 OVT by fielding the MiG-35, unveiled for the first time ever in the Aero India show in Bangalore in 2007. Even though the airframe was similar to MiG-29, again an over 25-year-old airframe, the plane had a Phazotron Zhuk-AE Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, the first fighter in the MMRCA competition to offer so, an RD-33MK engine, a variant of the RD-33 infamous for its high-soot visibility, and a newly designed Optical Locator System (OLS). The major problem for the Russians was not the aircraft per se. It was an excellent aircraft with a practically next to nothing learning curve for integration with the existing IAF systems. After all India was the first non-Warsaw Pact country to have been offered the MiG-29. The aircraft had everything going for it, except spare parts, engine overhaul cycles and lifecycle costs. Sweden offered the SAAB produced JAS-39 Gripen. It was always considered the wild card and in every possible way it really was. The design, like the earlier Drakken and Viggen, was unconventional and it had a very high proportion of US-supplied hardware, including electronics, large portions of avionics and weaponry. In the end, only Typhoon and Rafale remained and Typhoon lost out on per unit acquisition cost and over lifecycle cost.

< class="heading11verdana">•  The stubborn man and his flying machines
< class="heading11verdana">•  When strategy was technical
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