With a planned purchase of 126 Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) valued at more than USD 7 billion still undecided, the Aero India in Bangalore this Bangalore is expected to attract major players. Officials say that Lockheed Martin’s US Air Force staple F-16, Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornets, C-17 transport carrier, P-8A armed maritime surveillance planes, mid-air
refueling tankers, and T-45 Goshawk trainer jets, and Chinook heavy-lift helicopter, Sweden's Grippen, and Russian advanced MiGs are expected to be featured. It is unclear if France will feature Rafael or Indian Navy’s favorite Mirage for the show.
Some suspect that the Indian Air Force (IAF) is delaying the Request for Proposal (RFP) to ensure that all vendors feature their planes for this air show.
All eyes are expected to be on Boeing’s Super Hornet, a plane that is available only with the US Navy. With US President George Bush agreeing to allow the sale of this prestigious plane to India, Boeing is expected to feature it on this show for the first time outside the US. The Super Hornet has been collaborative effort with airframe from Boeing IDS and Northrup Grumman, the engine by General Electric, and the radar by Hughes which is not unusual for US companies typically collaborate as in the F-22 Raptor Stealth Fighter was developed by Boeing and Lockheed Martin together.
The Super Hornet is a highly evolved fighter jet borrowing from many older aircraft such as the F-5 Freedom Fighter and YF-17 Cobra lightweight fighter. It weighs 7000 pounds heavier at empty and 15,000 at maximum weight than the original Hornet aircraft. It carries more fuel and weighs less than the long-range strike aircraft F-15 Tomcat. With a much larger wing capable of carrying more precision-guided weapons, an extended fuselage capable of carrying 5 1,700 liter external fuel tanks, and a “buddy share” feature allowing one Super Hornet to fuel another, the Super Hornets presents a powerful case. Besides, upgraded avionics capable of carrying AIM-120 Advanced Medium-Range Air-to-Air Missile (AMRAAM) systems and ability to play a tactical airborne tanker role are all compelling features of the aircraft. However, the involvement of so many companies in the manufacture of the aircraft, dependence on mid-air refueling because of its non-efficient wing, and specialization to work off an aircraft carrier may major hits against this aircraft for its role in India.
On the other hand, the other major contender from the US, Lockheed’s F-16 is not preferred because of its sale to Pakistan and also due to the lack of financial viability of the company.
The Russian Advanced MiGs and Sukhoi are already featured in the IAF and are highly respected. But, spare parts issues, availability of servicing facilities are major issues surrounding those aircraft. The French Mirage is reportedly the hot favorite of the IAF but France wants to retire that plane in lieu of the next generation Rafael. This means that the IAF would have to restart the evaluation of the Rafael from scratch thus rendering it out of the running. The Swedish Grippen is not seriously in the running.
The IAF can derive great economies of scale if it goes with one large order in terms of costing, servicing, training, maintenance, etc. At the same time, it also increases the risks of depending on a single vendor or nation for supply of spares, ammunition, compatibility, etc. Ultimately, the nation may have to make a choice of fine-tuning requirements to separate roles and thereby compromising economies of scale for heterogeneous best of breed technology from multiple sources capable of filling in, albeit inefficiently, when one lot fail.