An IDC Analysis 

(With inputs from Sayan Majumdar)


New Delhi, 09 March 2004

The Chief of Air Staff ACM S Krishnaswamy was in Singapore for AA 2004 for just two days and the media grilled him on 25th February on the unnecessarily large number of accidents and the age of the MiG 21s, which were now over 35 years old in design and engine technology. The CAS had no option but to defend the MiG 21’s accident figures with mathematics. He quoted probability of accidents compared to civil aviation accidents and deaths, which is an oxymoron in logical terms, as civil and military flying cannot be compared. He stated he was an Engineer and a test pilot and he also stated that the Bisons, the upgraded MIG 21, had done very well against the US F-15C, in dog fights during ‘Exercise Cope India’ at Gawlior. The F-15Cs are also over 12 years year old.

Experienced MiG 21 pilots like Wg Cdr Harish who flew Defence Minister George Fernandes, took part and the US Air Force said they no more encourage dog fights or ‘flying by the seat of your pants’, except for some trials, as all action these days was beyond visual range (BVR) in JUDY engagements. Maybe we should learn a lesson and not push the IAF MiG 21 rookie pilots into dog fights, as even in the Navy we had prided good ship handling capability and in the bargain had many accidents to show for it! This was stopped some years ago and though some egos were hurt, IN ships now use tugs and Captains still get good reports!

Fighting the ship is more important but the CAS stated he had over 300 MiGs and so must fly them. The Americans of course were impressed with the SU 30s and the level of plane handling of the IAF.

However just one day after CAS left Singapore the crash of Wg Cdr Khanna in a Jaguar sortie at Pokhran near Pune, was devastating as he was a Top Gun and some reported his weapon caused it and at the Air Show there were over 120 IAF Officers and men to discuss this in hushed tones and the world's aviation experts were present. It was a little dark cloud and the IAF has to debate its accident rate, at least of the aging MiGs. In Tehelkha the MiG Corporation issues had come up too.

Surprisingly on 9th March Claude Arpi who carries the French torch in India wrote in Pioneer that there was US pressure to delay and scuttle the six Scorpene type 75 (with 36 SM 39 Exocets) and 125 Mirage 2000-5 ambitions of India. So the following analysis is all the more relevant.

It was also reported in media that the IAF was in hectic negotiations with French, Russian and United States bidders to purchase 125 frontline multi-role fighter planes to partially replace nearly 300 MiG-21 aircraft on the verge of being phased out. French aircraft manufacturer Dassault appears to be the current frontrunner with its offer of upgraded Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 aircraft, a formidable machine in its own right, with technology transfer arrangements, to set up an assembly plant at HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited).

The Russians had proposed an upgraded MiG-29M1/M2 with perhaps a high degree of commonality with IAF Sukhoi-30s in terms of weapons and electronic systems. Of special interest, United States Aerospace giant Lockheed Martin was offering technology transfer of its runway bestseller F-16 Fighting Falcon.

The proposed sale was projected as a medium term replacement of MiG-21s in the IAF fleet. Lockheed Martin stressed on the technological sophistication of its product, as only three to four squadrons of which perhaps can replace a significant portion of the MiG-21 fleet, as "replacement on one to one basis is not necessary".

The exact version of F-16C offered was not clear, but the offer is worth considering if it turns out to be F-16C Block 60 upgrade now referred to as F-16E/F “Desert Falcon”, that won an export order to United Arab Emirates for eighty machines. Significantly it secured its order in face of tough competition by Eurofighter Typhoon and French Rafale. F-16E/F upgrade including all-weather precision targeting and strike capability with extended range and enhanced air-to-air performance.

Since Lockheed Martin may already have informally interacted with HAL it seems it has promised full technology transfer to India to facilitate domestic license production, and the Indians will be able to access certain key technologies not immediately available from elsewhere, the most important being the Northrop Grumman AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Arrays) capable Agile Beam Radar. When configured with the combat-proven AIM-120 AMRAAM (Advanced Medium Ranged Air-to-Air Missile) BVR (Beyond Visual Range) AAM and AIM-9X or the Israeli Python5 NBVR/WVR (Near Beyond Visual Range/Within Visual Range) AAM the IAF will look formidable.

The AESA radar is capable of interleaving air-to-air, air-to-ground and terrain following modes so they appear simultaneous. Details are classified but the new AESA set has almost twice the detection range of the APG-68(V)7 on board F-16C Block 50 and provides high resolution SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) ground imaging. Moreover ASEA radar, have tremendous growth potential and the capacity to detect enemy radar transmissions at extended ranges and jam them with "transmission bursts". F-16E/F in addition is capable of automatic terrain following using the radar or passively using the digital terrain system. Hosted in data transfer unit this terrain data also provides ground collision avoidance capability and is also used to generate moving map and threat inter-visibility. Other sensors of F-16C Block 60 are of extremely high standard which include IR (Infra-Red) detection kit and a formidable EW (Electronic Warfare) suite.

Integrated FLIR (Forward Looking Infra-Red) and targeting system consists of a turret-mounted navigation sensor on top of the nose and a targeting sensor attached to the engine intake. Both are mid-wave focal-plane array infrared sensors. The internal EW suite performs the traditional RWR (Radar Warning Receiver) functions, plus ESM (Electronic Support Measures) and electronic intelligence gathering and provides targeting for anti-radiation missiles. The countermeasures use digital technique generator, onboard jammers and fibre-optic towed decoy. A large supply of chaff and flares is carried in up to fourteen dispensers in the fuselage and pylons.

It also has uprated General Electric F110-132 turbofan engines with 32,500lb of thrust while Pratt & Whitney is offering an uprated F100. The engines as usual with all American types are top class in performance and reliability, a critical requirement for single-engine fighters. A modern digital FCS (Flight Control System) written in C++ utilises Motorola Power PC microchips.

As a part of the package the IAF could well receive Raytheon developed AIM-9X Sidewinder that arrived with a revolutionary 'staring focal plane array technology', that has inherently better IRCCM (Infra-Red Counter Counter Measures) and is readily programmable for new IRCCM techniques in future. This particular staring focal plane array technology provides greater ability to reject flares and other countermeasures. As stated above the nearest non-Russian competitor of this missile is the Israeli Python 5 that has an improved seeker, motor, and better immunity to countermeasures than its predecessor the Python 4.

Another “strong” technical feature is the carriage of “aerodynamic” aluminum CFT (Conformal Fuel Tanks) that “blend” nicely with the upper fuselage to provide long-range and endurance while the aerodynamic performance remains unaffected. The aircraft remains free to carry its 9g flight.

From a technological standpoint the American offer is worth considering. But at the same time it will be foolish to ignore the whimsical attitude of the United States administration that frequently puts the dependent nations in a fix especially in terms of foreign and defence policy.

In sharp contrast both the Russians and French are reputed for their wholehearted support to India during the times of crisis, the latest being during Pokhran 2 in 1998. It is reasonable to assume that both political and technological considerations will play a part during selection of the fighter type.

But Lockheed-Martin has its own set of advantages. Indo-United States cooperation after “9/11” is at an all time high with all branches of the Armed Forces of both the nations striving hard to attain inter-operability and joint-cooperation on a grand scale. Under such a backdrop a common inventory of F-16s is highly desirable for both the nations. Moreover it was stated that IAF had immediate an requirement for some 125 “light-weight” fighters, a vital need that may be best fulfilled by the American Aerospace production machinery in aspects that range from timely production through delivery, technological transfer, to high quality after-sales service all within a time-schedule.

Both French Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 and Russian MiG-29M1/M2 will prove to be strong competitors, but under present geo-political circumstances Lockheed-Martin F-16s may turn out to be the “dark horse”. More than 4,000 F-16A/B/C/Ds serve 19 nations and the assembly line is slated to remain busy at least until 2009. Still Lockheed Martin is pushing hard to “gather” an order of another 500 “units” of these all-time classic F-16 design, lovingly referred to by American fighter pilots as the “Viper”.

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