There have been comments recently on the MMRCA 2.0 acquisition program from the IAF top brass in light of changing economic calculations due to the coronavirus. It is worthwhile revisiting the contending aircraft in this contest, and its most noticeable absentee, the Lockheed Martin F-35. The F-35 is the only fighter jet available for purchase that is 5th generation and features stealth.

This must be seen in the context of the standoff between India and China, which continues to escalate across several points across the Line of Actual Control ( LAC). It is becoming apparent that, whatever aircraft gets “down-selected” in this contest, will have to provide answers for its most probable high threat scenario.

The MMRCA 2.0contest has to produce an aircraft with capabilities relevant to this theatre. It must be capable of penetrating Chinese airspace from a high altitude. Given that China now fields the Russian S-400, the MMRCA aircraft must have stealth capabilities to evade advanced radars. The limited airfields that India has in the north and northeast India are vulnerable to a pre-emptive Chinese missile barrage. To mitigate the risk of loss of most airfields, the aircraft must have vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) capabilities enabling it to take off from short or damaged runways.

In addition to its 5th generation stealth features, the F-35 also has a Vertical Take-Off and Landing ( VTOL) version, is capable of command and control functions and has an ISR platform which relays targeting information to the pilot. The F-35 has the best sensor fusion of any aircraft. It is a veritable flying computer with a top speed of Mach 1.6 and a combat range of 670 miles.

F-35 can provide a leading-edge component to the Air Force and Navy. Its stealth capability will create a major deterrence for China (and Pakistan) from threatening India either conventionally or sub-conventionally.In the event of a conflict with China, Indian airstrips will be the primary target to disable the IAF. The F-35B can overcome this threat by allowing VTOL operations. The F-35B can form a multi-task aerial asset that can act as a force multiplier for the IAF and Indian Navy. For the Airforce, the F-35 can fly in contested India-China border airspace and provide targeting to 4th generation IAF assets and surface-to-surface missile batteries for targeting.

India is likely to exclusively fight on its country borders and the nearshore in the Indian Ocean. A mix of the Airforce and Naval variants of the F-35 will best suit its needs. The F-35’s VTOL capabilities will enable the Indian Navy to convert its projected Landing Helicopter Docks (LHD’s) into Aircraft carriers. This will practically double the number of aircraft carriers it can field in the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). With its 1,239 km combat radius on internal fuel, the F-35 will be able to choke the pressure points for China in the Malacca straits as well as the energy supply lines for both China and Pakistan in the Persian Gulf. It will also give flexibility to the IN to reinforce the IAF as the tactical nature of war changes within the timeframe of limited conflict.

The Balakot operation, for the first time, lowered the threshold for an Indian air-to-ground response to a terrorist attack. It raised the stakes for the retaliation Pakistan can expect, in the event of another attack. The F-35 will reduce the risk for the IAF going into another such operation. With its stealth, it will allow the IAF to take out anti-aircraft assets both from within the neighbor’s airspace and at standoff ranges. Given the asymmetry in capabilities the F-35 will bring, Pakistan will be dissuaded from pursuing sub-conventional misadventures within Indian borders.

Given that the Indian AMCA program will produce a stealth fighter as soon as 2030, it is a valid question whether India can and should afford two stealth platforms after 2030. Currently, only America and China do so and both are 10+ trillion-dollar economies. To answer this, we must take into account the level of threat the F-35 will bring to its belligerent neighbors. By extension, the relative peace it will create will allow for the Indian economy to grow under a defensive umbrella. With a large enough order, India can join the F-35 global supply chain, albeit late. It will also take a close look at the capabilities and roadmap of the F-35 as it evolves over the years. This will feed into its own development of the iterations of the AMCA.

There is general fatigue associated with the second iteration of the MMRCA. The rationale for its existence has never been self-evident. Looking at the timeframes, the Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. ( HAL)Medium Weight Fighter (MWF)will be in production in 2026 at the earliest. The MWF is the newest iteration of the Tejas LCA, although in a new weight class. It will only be a year or two later than when the MMRCA winner will begin production. Any 4th generation jet such as the Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, F-21, Grippen, or Mig-35 will only provide an incremental range, payload, and avionics relative to the MWF. What the IAF needs is game-changing capabilities, ones that will be relevant to its warfighting needs for the next two to three decades.

If the selected fighter is other than the Rafale, India is looking at additional costs in modifications at fighter bases, aircraft customizations, logistics, training, and support costs. The additional costs running into hundred into billions of dollars will cannibalize finances. Other Indian aircraft programs such as the TEDBF/ORCA will be impacted and timelines delayed. If operational requirements demand, a reorder for 24 to 36 Dassault Rafales can be made. The MMRCA must either pave the way for a disruptive 5th generation aircraft or make way for the HAL MWF.

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