During the visit of the new Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi to France, it was announced that an agreement in principle had been reached on the direct purchase of a consignment of 36 Rafale fighters, which was declared the formal winner of the tender back in 2013. Since then, more than two years have been commercial negotiations for the conclusion of the contract, which have not led to a mutually acceptable compromise on the entire program. The scale of the purchase turned out to be much less than originally anticipated, and the production of cars in India itself at this stage is generally excluded from the agreement reached.
For some time, there was uncertainty about the further plans of the Indian government and the Air Force to organize licensed production of Rafale. It was unclear whether the purchase of 36 vehicles is a separate project that will be implemented on top of the MMRCA program, or if this purchase is the first tranche of a total of 126 units. And if the second is true, then how many aircraft will be built under license in India: 108, as it was originally assumed (and in this case, the whole program increases by 18 units - up to 144 aircraft), or 90 (that is, the total volume of the program remains the same , but its structure changes in favor of direct purchase, and licensed production is reduced)?
A few weeks later, Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar made a sensational announcement that 36 cars are the final amount of Rafale that India is going to buy from the French. And the released funds, which were supposed to go to licensed production, will be redistributed in favor of the procurement of 200 units of the light national Indian Tejas fighter.
True, in early August there were reports from the Indian press that the government was going to announce a new tender for the licensed production of 90 medium multi-role fighters in India, but the reliability of this information is still questionable.
If the minister's statement reflects the real intentions of the Indians, and is not an element of bargaining with the French, this means the actual cancellation of the ambitious project "mother of all tenders." In fact, the Indians returned at a different, higher quality and lower quantitative level to where they started - to the direct purchase from the French of a fourth generation multirole fighter. How did it happen that it took fifteen years to complete this circle?
The plot of "Santa Barbara"
In general, the program, known today as the MMRCA tender, began back in 2000 with the idea of a direct, uncompetitive purchase by the Indian Air Force of 126 light French Mirage 2000 fighters, which showed themselves well a year earlier during the armed conflict in Kargil. At that time, it was the most modern fighter of the Indian Air Force and the only multi-purpose vehicle in their composition. The Su-30MKI, which today forms the backbone of the Indian Air Force fleet, was still in development at that time, the first deliveries of these extremely powerful and efficient machines began only in 2002. The main and only motivation for the project during this period was simple and understandable - to quickly obtain a large number of effective fighters, to support the numerical strength of the Air Force, which already then faced the need for a quick mass decommissioning of hundreds of MiG-21, MiG-27 and Jaguar. That is, purely military considerations dominated with all certainty. The purchase of Mirage 2000 would have allowed the deployment of a well-balanced air force, where the niche of heavy vehicles was reserved for the Su-30MKI, the middle class was represented by the MiG-29, and the segment of light fighters was occupied by the Mirage 2000. At the same time, the task of diversifying the sources of combat aviation technology: Russia would lose its dominant position, and the Indian combat aircraft market would be controlled by the Russian-French duopoly.
It seems that from the point of view of meeting purely military needs, such a choice was at that moment optimal, if not ideal. Had the project been implemented then, the Indian Air Force would have received one of the best-in-class fighters with minimal political and zero technical risks. Perhaps the only drawback could be the cost of the program - $ 4,5 billion, but the French and, in a broader sense, European weapon generally has a high cost.
So, the initial plan was distinguished by simplicity, directness and the presence of one and only motivation - military. However, in this form, the idea existed for only a couple of years, and then, under the influence of internal Indian and external factors, it began to become more complex and transformed, which ultimately led the entire project to a dead end.
Already in 2002, in accordance with Indian law, instead of a direct purchase, a tender was started, the terms of which, however, were clearly spelled out for Mirage 2000. According to some reports, the program was then called LMRCA, that is, it was supposed to purchase a light multi-role fighter. However, abandoning the idea of direct purchase and starting a tender, the Indians opened a Pandora's box: outside forces intervened. Some time later, under the influence of the Americans, with whom the Indians were just beginning a stormy political romance, the terms of the tender were reformulated so that the F-18E / F Super Hornet could take part in it. But this immediately opened up the opportunity for the participation of other twin-engine medium fighters - the European Typhoon and the Russian MiG-29. In addition, the lighter single-engine F-16 and the Swedish Gripen entered the competition.
The second radical transformation in comparison with the original idea was that instead of direct purchase, the requirement was now put forward to organize licensed production of 108 out of 126 cars. It was planned to buy only 18 aircraft directly from the manufacturer. Accordingly, the motivation for the program has become much more complex: along with the military imperatives, the program has a technological and industrial dimension. This complication of the project led to the emergence of political considerations: such a large-scale and complex project, by definition, should fit into India's geopolitical maneuvering on the world stage.
These two factors - the launch of a tender instead of a direct out-of-competition purchase and the intention to organize licensed production instead of purchasing a consignment - ultimately led to the paralysis of the entire project, which had become much more complicated. The ineffective Indian bureaucracy, the emergence of a pronounced political factor, the complication and complication of procurement procedures - all this caused the competition to be dragged out so strongly that in the end it simply lost its meaning.
It took the Indians five years from the start of the project and at least three years after the decision to hold a tender to send out a Request for Information (RFI) in 2005. Two more years passed, and in 2007 a Request for Proposal (RFP) was sent out, which is traditionally considered the point of formal start of the tender. Seven years have passed since the inception of the project itself for the acquisition of a light multi-role fighter, but it is even more amusing that it was in 2007 that Dassault stopped production of the Mirage 2000, with the intention to purchase which the entire история... After completing deliveries under the last export contract of these aircraft to Greece, the French designer and manufacturer of military aircraft dismantled the Mirage 2000 assembly line and focused on marketing the more modern, but heavier and more expensive Rafale fighters. It will be another eight long years before this machine finds its first export customer in February 2015, which will be Egypt.
At the first time of the tender, the American F-18E / F was still the favorite, but by the end of the decade, the preferences of the Indians turned towards European cars. The most likely reason for this change was Indian frustration with Americans' willingness to transfer technology. The American approach to this topic is traditionally distinguished by extreme restraint, the United States does not trust even its closest allies and most obedient satellites, and India does not yet belong to the former and will never enter the category of the latter. Meanwhile, Indian technological and industrial ambitions, as well as the experience of cooperation with the Russians on the Su-30MKI project, of course, ruled out the very idea of refusing to transfer technology. And the scale of the project itself, unprecedented for modern standards of the world arms market, gave the Indian side the legitimate right to insist on the organization of licensed production with the deepest localization in India.
And so, in April 2011, four years after the formal start of the tender and more than ten years after the start of the project, the Indians finally decided on a short list of winners. Two European proposals made it to the final - the French Rafale and the pan-European Typhoon. The main sensation of this decision was the departure from the competition of the recent favorites - the Americans. The Swedish Gripen, which is in the same weight and size category with the national Indian fighter Tejas, was never considered a real contender for victory, and the Russian proposal will be discussed below.
This was followed by a surprisingly short, considering how slowly things were going so far, the stage of choosing a finalist. In January 2012, Rafale was announced as such. The official stated reason for choosing in favor of the French is the proposed lower cost of the project. However, political and industrial factors were also undoubtedly on the side of the French. Their aircraft technology is already well known to the Indian Air Force. In addition, the Indians have well-established long-term industrial ties with French engine engineers and avionics manufacturers, which arose during the organization of the licensed production of Jaguar attack aircraft and were developed during the project to modernize the Indian Mirage 2011 fleet at the factories of the HAL corporation, which began in 2000.
After that, it would seem, it remains to make the last leap - to conduct commercial negotiations and conclude a contract. Considering that most of the technical and commercial issues were discussed and agreed upon at the tender stage, it could be expected that the final chord would not take more than one to one and a half years. But it was here that paralysis came. The two main stumbling blocks were the price of the project and the modality of organizing licensed production.
As for the cost of the program, it is possible that the Rafale can indeed be exported cheaper than the Typhoon, but it still remains a very expensive aircraft. Already at the time the French won the competition, it was obvious that, although the cost of the project had grown to $ 10,5 billion, it would be impossible to fit into this amount. In 2013, Dassault President Eric Trappier admitted that the contract value for the purchase of all 126 units should exceed 20 billion euros. Meanwhile, the Indian economy entered a period of less robust economic growth than before, and the rupee slumped. It soon became clear that an astronomical sum of 1 trillion rupees would have to be allocated from the Indian budget to satisfy Dassault's appetites.
The issue of organizing licensed production of Rafale in India has not been resolved. From leaks in the Indian press, it is known that the French side allegedly refused to take responsibility for the quality of future fighters produced in India. Translated into understandable language, this means that India simply lacks technological and industrial capabilities for high-quality production of this French aircraft, and their creation will require inadequate time and money. Before Dassault's eyes was the example of another French company, DCNS, which faced enormous difficulties in organizing the production of its Scorpene non-nuclear submarines in India. Apparently, India, with all its economic successes of the last one and a half to two decades, still has a long way to go to be able to absorb Western technologies. Unlike Russian ones, which, albeit with difficulty and delays, are still being mastered by the Indian aviation industry.
In addition to the difficulties in the negotiation process itself, which are generally understandable and natural in such a complex and multifactorial project, another reason for the delay was the unsuccessful imposition on the Indian electoral cycle. From the beginning of 2013, the election campaign for the election of a new parliament began in India. The conclusion of large contracts for the import of weapons has been used in India in the internal political struggle since the mid-80s to accuse political opponents of corruption. Moreover, the main target of attacks is the Indian National Congress (INC) party, which headed the government before the 2014 elections. Signing the giant deal, which was increasingly criticized, on the eve of the elections was too risky, if not suicidal for the Congress Party. As a result, there was a pause until April 2014, which still lasted due to the victory of the opposition party BJP and the formation of a new government. Actually, after the victory, it became obvious that it would be impossible to sign a contract before 2015. 15 years have passed since the beginning of the project.
It is because of this incredible fifteen-year delay that the MMRCA project has largely lost its meaning. Even if the parties reached a mutually acceptable compromise on the organization of licensed production in 2015, the first Rafale Indian assembly would have entered the Indian Air Force no earlier than 2020. Based on the precedent of the Su-30MKI program, we can confidently assume that the entire project for the production of 108 Rafale would have been completed approximately in 2026–2028, that is, forty years after the first flight of this fighter! Moreover, the car should serve in the Indian Air Force for at least 30-40 years.
Meanwhile, the market is already under the tangible influence of fifth and quasi-fifth generation machines. Directly for India, the most important is the fact that China has begun and is actively testing the medium fighter of the quasi-fifth generation J-31. While the Indian Air Force would deploy the entire Rafale force, China and Pakistan would already have the first combat-ready J-31 squadrons in their air forces.
In general, in 2015, only a fifth generation project can be considered as a long-term strategic military, technological and industrial solution for a country like India. The idea of quickly sourcing the proven Mirage 2000 was excellent in the early 2015s and remained perfectly acceptable, albeit less obvious, by the mid to late XNUMXs. But to purchase licensed production of any fighter, the platform of which conceptually belongs to the fourth generation, in XNUMX looks like nonsense. Rafale is arguably the perfect solution for Egypt and the Gulf monarchies. But for India, taking into account its specific military-political environment, this combat aviation complex as a strategic long-term solution is morally obsolete. The Air Force of the world's third economy today can only target the fifth generation. The purchase of a new type of fourth-generation fighters can only be viewed as an intermediate solution to reduce the rate of decline in the fleet of combat-ready vehicles.
The decision to direct purchase of 36 Rafale, if implemented in practice, is far from ideal, but it looks like the least bad under the circumstances. The Indian Air Force will get two new squadrons relatively quickly, India retains its face as a large and attractive arms market, France is getting minimal satisfaction after years of grueling negotiations. In the end, the Indians came to where they started in 2000, only now they buy fewer aircraft (albeit more modern and efficient) and spend more money on it.
On the other hand, the military and industrial component of the MMRCA project, as a result of the purchase of 36 Rafale, remains without a satisfactory solution. The purchase will provide two squadrons with new modern equipment, but taking into account the imminent massive disabling of the MiG-21 and Jaguar, it will not bring the Indian Air Force much closer to the coveted goal of reaching a quantitative composition of 44 squadrons instead of 34 existing ones. Of course, this purchase directly contradicts the Make in India strategy announced by the new Prime Minister of India Modi; the problem of loading the HAL remains unresolved.
Finally, this solution does not respond in the most satisfactory way to the military challenges that India will face in the coming years. At the moment when the Indian Air Force will receive, after Yelipt and Qatar, who have already signed contracts for 48 Rafale, their vehicles, in China, it is quite possible that combat-ready Su-35s will already be deployed, and, perhaps, fighters of the quasi-fifth generation J-31. Moreover, there is a non-zero probability of the appearance of the Su-35 in Pakistan, which, moreover, will have built dozens of FC-1s by this time. Two squadrons of obsolete fighters are not the most convincing answer to such an increase in Chinese and Pakistani capabilities.
In this regard, it can be assumed that the purchase of 36 Rafale will be only part of a larger and more complex solution. Firstly, it is quite possible that, contrary to the statements of Defense Minister Parrikar, after receiving the ordered 36 Rafale, the Indian Air Force will continue direct purchases of these fighters. Moreover, Parrikar himself may not be in this post by that time. Secondly, the opportunity remains open for Russia to promote licensed production of another batch of Su-30MKI and, perhaps, a batch of MiG-29UPG to the Indian market. Thirdly, as already mentioned, the released funds will be partially invested in the production of the national fighter Tejas.
Announcing a new tender with the same line-up would be too exotic even against the backdrop of the bizarre practice of the inimitable Indian procurement policy. There can be only one justification for the new competition - the choice, as a result of its holding, of the world's only fifth-generation medium fighter, the American F-1, which did not take part in the MMRCA-35. But such a purchase would become incredibly expensive, can be carried out only after 2020, and is unlikely to meet the Make in India requirement even to a minimum. Finally, such an acquisition does not require a tender at all, just as it was not required to conduct a tender for the purchase of American military transport and anti-submarine aircraft.
Opportunities for Russia
The current situation with the actual cancellation of the MMRCA tender theoretically improves Russia's chances on two positions. First, there is a chance to sell another tranche of Su-30MKI fighters to India. The decision to buy Rafale directly is in the military's interest, but does not address the issue of new orders for HAL. By the beginning of 2015, this company had produced 150 licensed aircraft, and Indian aircraft manufacturers had to build several dozen Su-30MKIs. At the current pace of production, HAL will complete this task within a couple of years and will remain unemployed. It is logical to assume that in anticipation of the start of licensed production of Rafale, if the corresponding contract is nevertheless concluded, or, more likely, the production of the fifth generation fighter FGFA will need to load HAL with work for another two to three years, that is, to purchase the right to licensed production for another just over 40 Su-30MKI. From a military point of view, this will allow the formation of two more squadrons and cover the losses of these vehicles as a result of accidents and disasters. At the same time, it was advisable to build new machines already in the new technical person of the modernized Su-30, which is sometimes referred to as the Sukhoi Super.
Secondly, and this is the main thing, the direct and immediate threat to the Russian-Indian project of the fifth generation FGFA fighter is removed. The danger of the MMRCA, which became an absurdity, was, first of all, that the purchase and organization of licensed production of an obsolete and insanely expensive French fighter would deprive India of the resources necessary for the implementation of the fifth generation fighter project. Rafale is a vampire capable of killing FGFA and denying India access to fifth generation technology. De facto, in the last two or three years, the real competition in the Indian military aviation market has been between Rafale and FGFA. Among other things, it is reliably known that the campaign in the Indian press against the FGFA was initiated and funded by the French. Now the Indians have found a compromise (which does not satisfy either the French or the Russians, and this is the best indicator that this is a good compromise), which leaves the opportunity to develop both directions - and buy Rafale, and not kill FGFA.
Did Russia have a chance?
The answer to this, at first glance, a purely speculative question is of quite practical importance, because it will help to find organizational and industrial solutions to increase Russia's competitiveness in the world combat aircraft market. It seems that the Russian MiG-29/35 was never the favorite in the competition. Technologically, the MiG-29 platform is half a generation behind all other contenders, except, perhaps, the F-16. As a combat aviation complex, this fighter in the form in which the Indians would like to see it, has not yet taken place. Unlike other participants in the tender, the MiG-35MMRCA is not serially produced.
Politically, given the massive purchases and licensed production of the Su-30MKI, the launch of the FGFA project and the choice of the Indian Navy in favor of the MiG-29K, it was difficult to expect that the Indians, with their emphasized policy of diversifying weapons sources, would launch another large-scale project with the Russians. there is a feeling that the political leadership of Russia, traders and industry did not do everything possible to win this competition. After all, one can recall that when the Su-1993K was first offered to the Indians in 30, their initial reaction was discouragingly negative. At that time, they simply did not understand why they needed such a large and powerful aircraft. But just three years later, a contract was signed, and during this time the parties managed to agree on the technical parameters of an actually completely new, not yet existing military aviation complex. Against the background of the fifteen-year MMRCA saga, it seems that then, in 1993-1996, the head of the Irkutsk plant Alexei Fedorov and the head of Sukhoi Mikhail Simonov performed a miracle. If you managed to convince the Indians once, then there was a chance with the MiG-35MMRCA.
There seem to be two sets of purely internal Russian reasons for the relatively weak performance of Russians in the MMRCA project. First and foremost, there is a relative weakness in the lobbying potential of the MiG scientific and industrial system. At the time of the start of the MMRCA project, it was generally in a ruined state, there was not even a single economic entity uniting the design bureau and industrial facilities. RAC "MiG" in its current form was created, paradoxically, by a native of "Sukhoi" Nikolai Nikitin. However, later, after 2004, the company was in turbulence for a long time due to chronic personnel leapfrog in the management. The final stabilization of the financial and production situation took place already in the current decade under Sergei Korotkov, who also came to the MiG from Sukhoi. However, during the key period, the moment of confrontation in the MMRCA competition, MiG was clearly not among the favorites of the United Aircraft Corporation. The economic entity that represented Russia in the largest tender in history for the purchase of military aviation equipment remained the Cinderella of the aviation industry.
The second, connected and largely following from the first, is that in Russia an attractive offer has not been created in the segment of medium fighters of the fourth plus, or better, the fifth generation. This is partly due to the aforementioned attitude of the state and the UAC leadership to the MiG as a secondary company in comparison with the Sukhoi company. But the very interesting single-engine projects of the Sukhoi - the Su-37 strike aircraft (the first with this name, equipped with the R-79 engine) and the S-54/55/56 line (under the AL-31F). In hindsight, this now seems to be a marketing mistake. In the end, the MiG-29 platform was lifted ten years earlier than the Rafale and by the time it exited the tender, it was as obsolete as a proposal for the MMRCA tender as the French aircraft. If Russia had a fifth generation platform in the middle class, the result of the competition would almost certainly be different. The managers of MiG, especially Nikolai Nikitin and the director of the Engineering Center Vladimir Barkovsky, have always raised the question of the need to develop such a platform, but the resources for such a project have not been allocated ..
Russia needs a promising middle class fighter. It is needed to maintain its position in the world market of combat aircraft, it is needed to ensure a balanced combat strength of the Air Force, it is needed in order to be able to more rationally and flexibly spend funds when purchasing fighters in the interests of the Russian Air Force. The need to launch an appropriate project is the main conclusion and lesson that Russia should learn from the history of the MMRCA.