And then, to my left at about 11 O'Clock, I saw the sinister shape of an F-22 stealth fighter as it did a gentle victory roll and went on its way. Thats right, I got intercepted by a stealth fighter, possibly another first for an Indian civilian wannabe pilot! Nobody in the formation seemed to know what was lurking, certainly not my AESA equipped bird - we had the radar on alright !
This just reinforces my point that the performance differences in these aircraft are inconsequential. With the FGFA and then MCA coming online, they're ALL going to be hopelessly obsolete.
It's like arguing the merits of the P-51 vs the Fw-190 when the F-86 and MiG-15 are rolling off the line.
Who cares if the P-51 had a slightly higher climb rate or the Fw-190 had a slightly better dive speed? They were both equally dead.
You can then say that there's no point in the MRCA at all, and while I certainly wouldn't argue with you, I am going to assume that it will move forward as planned with the current crop of competitors (ie no F-35).
So given that the IAF is going to be buying a whole bunch of soon-to-be-obsolete fighters, what should they be looking for to maximize their ROI?1. Immediate availability
IAF forces have declined dramatically. The LCA Mk II, FGFA and MCA aren't ready yet, but the fleet keeps shrinking. Only the MKI is being added. There is an immediate need to stop the bleeding. If the induction takes so long that the FGFA is coming online too, it just makes the whole endeavor that much more wasteful.
The IAF doesn't need another development project, they have plenty of those. What they need is something that can be ordered 'off-the-shelf' (or close too it) and has a manufacturing line ready to go.2. Cheap
Given that it will soon be obsolete, it would be wasteful to spend more than you have to. Buying extra bells and whistles won't actually gain you much.3. Diversification
MKI, FGFA and MCA will all be heavily Russian. No matter how things look now, the political or economic reliability of any country over the next 40 years can't be guaranteed. Also you already have access to Russia's best technology. If you're going to spend the money anyways, it would make sense to acquire someone else's best. Then you can have the best of Russia AND the best of the west.
Besides there is always potential for conflicts of interest. Would they sell the secrets to penetrating the S-300? 4. Future
After all my talk about how the planes will soon be obsolete, it must seem strange to judge them on future capability. Nevertheless, the IAF plans to keep them for 30-40 years. So what will
they do in the latter part of their career when they can't be used for frontline work?
Well all sorts of things spring to mind. Routine patrol, COIN, tactical tanker, escort jammer, standoff cruise missile launcher, drone controller, etc.
There are actually two parts to this question, growth potential
and guaranteed upgradesGrowth potential
If you look at the F-16, it is clear that it has been plain maxed out. Every subsequent iteration puts a new bump or hump on it's already horribly disfigured fuselage. There is simply no room for new equipment to be added.Guaranteed upgrades
(ie State support)
In a future where stealth is the norm, the non-stealthy will need top-notch electronics to even be invited to the party. Radar, jammers, comm, imaging, etc will all need to be constantly updated to deal with new threats. This is a difficult and onerous task, so it would be far better to have someone else
doing all the development work so you can just buy a kit off-the-shelf. If you are the only customer of a plane, there is no one else and you have to create all updates yourself.
Given these considerations, here are some quick thoughts on the contenders:Gripen-NG
- Biggest development risk, likely to be too late. Uncertain market means India could be the only operator.Rafale
- Nice plane, but WAY too expensive. Simply not worth spending that much on a plane that will soon be obsolete.MiG-35
- Need to keep some eggs out of the Russian basket, it doesn't gain you anything technology-wise, India might be only customer, and it also faces significant development risks and delays. F-16
- Has clearly been maxed-out and the US will not be funding any future upgrades for it.Eurofighter
- It has no glaring weakness but likewise it has no great strengths. It is somewhat expensive but not outrageous. It is in production now, but there are questions as to when its full capabilities will be available. Its governmental support should
be solid, but all the partners are rushing to cut orders and the difficulty even getting an AESA for it does not bode well for future critical upgrades.
In case you hadn't figured it out yet (
), that brings me to the SuperHornet
It is clearly the most ready of the contenders with a mature design and a full-speed production line.
It is quite cheap.
It is the most flexible to provide the most future capabilities. It is has enough growth potential to handle just about any future upgrade or capability. It can be an excellent tactical tanker. The Grizzly/Growler configuration allows it to be very valuable as an escort jammer. It has a 2-seat cockpit to better coordinate ground strikes or possibly future tasks like drone control. It can operate off carriers. It is big enough to carry even quite large missiles.
It has the most solid backing of any contender. The USN just ordered over 100 more of them and they will remain in service well into the 2030s and probably beyond. The SH is forced to be flexible because it is THE tactical plane available to the USN. Whether it's fighting flankers, penetrating hostile radar, or plinking insurgents, the SH has to be able to do it all. And the USN has shown a very strong commitment to developing and fielding upgrades to keep the fleet relevant.
The SH comes with the most advanced radar of any contender and the SH has also been cleared for most every weapon in the US arsenal. From bunker busters to SFWs that can wipe out an entire column of tanks to future weapons like JDRADM, the SH buys you access to a lot of options.
In light of these considerations, the SH seems to be the best match for India's needs.