The Light Fighter Debacle: A Case Study Of Dysfunctional Procurement.
Among many other things, the new Defence Minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, would do well to study the long-running procurement of a single-engine, light fighter for the Indian Air Force (IAF) to understand how dysfunctional procurement hamstrings the military. Friday’s announcement by Swedish company, Saab, and the Adani Group to build the Gripen E single-engine fighter in India; which followed a similar tie-up in June between US major, Lockheed Martin, and Tata Advanced Systems Ltd to build the F-16 Block 70 fighter and has brought the wheel full circle from 1999 when the IAF demanded 126 combat aircraft to replace its fleet of MiG-21 and MiG-27 light fighters.
It was originally hoped that the Tejas light combat aircraft would replace the MiGs. However, it was nowhere in sight during the Kargil conflict (1999). So the IAF decided to supplement its three-squadron fleet of Mirage 2000 multi-role fighters, which had performed well during Kargil.
French vendor, Dassault, proposed shifting the Mirage 2000 production line to India. The idea was that if, after building the IAF’s immediate requirement of 126 fighters, the Tejas was not yet available, it would be easy to build more Mirage 2000-5s.
But in 2002, burnt by the Tehelka sting, the government shied away from single-vendor procurement and ordered a global tender. Washington, driving for a closer relationship with India, cleared the F-16 for sale to New Delhi, the Russians offered their new MiG-29M and Saab of Sweden jumped in with its Gripen light fighter. With the simple Mirage 2000-5 solution scuppered, the IAF took two years to issue a Request for Information (RFI) to these four fighter vendors in 2004. Three years later, when the IAF issued its tender, the original plan to build an affordable, single-engine, light fighter was officially dead. Boeing had joined the fray with an offer for its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, and the Eurofighter GmbH consortium had offered the Typhoon, both heavy fighters. Dassault, furious at losing out on an assured order and having to compete in a global procurement, dropped its offer of the Mirage 2000-5 and fielded the Rafale instead. This was now the “medium multirole combat aircraft” (MMRCA) contest between a smorgasbord of dissimilar fighters – heavy, twin-engine fighters competing with medium, single-engine ones.
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