India’s Combat Aircraft Procurement System is Well & Truly Broken

The IAF is yet to learn from other countries’ decision to reduce air combat assets.

4 min read

The net takeaway of India's latest combat aircraft quest is that India's procurement system is well and truly broken. What started off as a repeat purchase of light mirage 2000s to replace the MiG-21s, mutated into a competition to surreptitiously replace the Sukhoi, which then got cancelled.

Soon after, it resuscitated with a tiny purchase at a whopping cost, and has now restarted again for a paltry number of aircraft that makes no strategic, tactical, industrial or economic sense.

IAF Hasn’t Learnt Its Lesson Yet

As things stand, well into 2030, India will have 7 combat aircraft types: Sukhoi 30, MiG- 29, Rafale, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, Tejas and the AMCA. Each one of these uses a different engine, and weapons mostly incompatible with each other. Now, should the current aircraft competition choose a different kind, then we will add an eighth aircraft to this mix, thereby compounding our misery.

Given that every other country has reduced its air combat assets to one or maximum two kinds with a few hyper-specialised aircraft here and there, one would have thought the Indian Air Force (IAF) had learnt better. Clearly not!

The latest Request for Information (RFI) issued is a compound for virtually everything that has gone wrong with the procurement system over the last 20 years, learning nothing from mistakes and in fact worsening others.

For example, in which part of the world would 110 aircraft amount to ‘viable transfer of technology’? From the 1900s-1970s, vintage aircraft were relatively crude and made almost 60-80 percent by one manufacturer. Given the extraordinary division of labour that has happened since the 1980s, this is no longer feasible, with manufacturer- branded products often containing up to 90 percent of the product manufactured by small and micro industries.

So, in 1978, 110 aircraft amounted to large enough bulk for a technology transfer to take place. In 2018, it’s a bit like an electronics store owner who purchased 11,000 units, going to Apple asking for a technology transfer of 80 percent of the iPhone X, critical parts of which Apple itself has no clue how to manufacture and are not its to give away.

A Bumbling Indian Military

What is funny is that there have been several expert inputs saying just this, explaining the complex nature of a plane, the limitations of technology transfer and the fluid nature of technology with a obsolescence rate of less than 3 years today, to the military. In short, even if technology is given, forget setting up manufacture, even before the technology is mentally absorbed by domestic engineers, it is obsolete.

This is merely the tip of the iceberg, with the entire RFI reading like a veritable compendium of “100 worst procurement mistakes of the Indian Military: A new joke book”.

The problem, however, is deeper. How do we reconcile purchasing the highest quality for the lowest price, or buying a Bentley Mulsanne for the price of a Tata Nano?

This needs two things: Bulk to drive down costs and going in for a ‘bang for the buck’ assessment, where total effectiveness is divided by total cost. Bulk involves determination to replace the entire fleet and cutting it down to a 1 or at most 2-type fleet.

The numbers involved alone will create economies of scale and act as a huge stimulus for our manufacturing and intellectual capital, even if we accept the technology replacement rate.


Thorns in IAF’s Path & Solutions

A bang for the buck involves something more radical: the military must no longer be empowered to dictate numbers, the manufacturer should. The problem set for the air force is two-fold:

Problem A: high-end is a full fledged two front war.

Problem B: At the low-end, it involves punitive strikes in retaliation for terrorist actions, while maintaining sufficient menace to dissuade similar retaliation, and in doing so, break the tit-for-tat cycle.

What must be done is simply to give the manufacturer this problem set. The manufacturers response will do two things:

  • It will quantify the threat for us, giving valuable insight into how each supplier nations’ intelligence perceives China and Pakistan military capabilities.
  • Amounts to a tacit acceptance of the principle of conventional retaliation to Pakistan-sponsored terrorism.

What the manufacturer then does is come up with a calculation of:

How many of its aircraft will be required to fulfill problem sets A and B. This could be as little as 100 F-35s, 200 F-15s, or 300 Rafales or 500 Gripens (this is not a scientific calculation, merely a random example). Should one manufacturer want to tie up with another (Boeings F-18 hornet at the high end with Saab's Gripen at the low-end to offer a two-type mix), that should be allowed. They also determine what are the weapons mix and stocks to be kept for a sustained 30-day war as well as the eventuality of busting sanctions, that their country may impose.

Their calculations are then stress-tested vigorously, including life-cycle maintenance costs, and forensically audited maintenance stats from their own air forces to be provided.

Finally, based on their calculations, they should give exact figures of what technologies will be transferred and what the costs and gestation periods of those technologies will be and how the absorbers of those technologies will be integrated into their global supply networks.

This calculation then is offset against the costs of the aircraft, logistics and weapons. In some cases, the cheapest bid may not offer any technology at all, However, even this may work out to be far cheaper for the Indian taxpayer with maximum operational efficiency for the air force.


In short, like Deng Xiaoping said "it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice". What we are doing is dictating not just the colour of the cat, but its whisker size, tail length, pedigree, fertility, meowing characteristics and ending up with 7 cats – none of which can catch mice. What we need to shift to is defining the number of mice and how prolifically they adapt and reproduce, and find one or at most two cats, irrespective of whiskers, meows, or colour – one that does the job.

(Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is Senior Fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets at @Abhijit_Iyer. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for the same.)

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