MRCA – still a Challenge
It is an old saying ‘we learn from our mistakes”. IAF has shown (or say the decision makers) have remained totally ignorant of this saying.
We always knew the mig-21’s inducted in mid 60’s would last only till 90’s. So the process of identification and process of procurement should have commenced in early 80’s. We started hearing about floating an RFP for this famous 126 aircraft deal only during “TP’s’ time. After that “Keecha” continued to make enough noise for 3 years and “Bundle” also did not spare any forum during his 27 months. No body heard even his loud and articulative statements. Finally it was left to poor hepter pilot “Fali” to make a break through and a RFP was floated during 2007-2008.
Six foreign companies were short listed –Russian –Mig – 35 , US (Lock heed) F-16 , US –Boeing–F-18 super hornet , EADS –Euro flight Typhoon, Swedish –Grippen and the last entrant French Rafael . It may be of interest that “Keecha” during his tenure had insisted only on single tender selection of “French Rafael’, based on IAF’S good experience of flying French –Mirage -2000 (May be this was one of the factor that RFP never found its place during his tenure).
Interestingly the hurdle of RFP was over during “Falis” tenure and finally six fourth generation aircraft were short listed.
The process of trials and technical evaluation has just commenced. One has to remember that IAF operates all types of aircraft (Transport, fighters, hepters) to their ultimate limits. Some of the Air Forces who came in operational contact with this author were amazed and overawed when they landed with us, the IAF crews at high altitude airfield like Leh and Thoise . Once an aircraft is flight tested and technically evaluated in “Indian Environment” this establishes its absolute supremacy in any part of the ‘Globe’.
The nodal agency for any such trials and technical evaluation is ASTE (Aircraft Systems and Testing Establishment). A house for “Test Pilots” and “Test Engineers”. The process demands training of these test pilots and test engineers with the OEM’S in their country to assure and establish basic parameters. Training at each of the OEMS, is this complete for all the six? A big question mark remains. Once the teams have completed their training they are to be at Bangalore ASTE for formalizing a testing plan under humid conditions, (nothing better than South and North East ), for very hot conditions deserts of Rajasthan and for High Altitude trials at Leh –not only during winter but summer as well (May to Aug). Summer at high altitude throws in different challenge (e.g. at 250 C surface temperature An -32 and IL -76 aircraft carry ‘0’ payloads while returning from Leh & Thoise. What kind of payloads, rotation speeds, approach speeds, touch down speeds there fighter aircraft would experience, one would have to evaluate carefully. It may be possible that OEM’S have no performance graphs available above 3 km elevation. (This happened when IL-76 aircraft were inducted in mid 80’s).
The process of evaluation is to be designed for each of the aircraft type meticulously and standard performance parameters are to be designed. Not only that different teams assigned this task are to be on the same performance level.
Air Chief giving details of “Field Evaluation Test” (FET’S), he said that in the first round, Indian pilots would visit the country of manufacture of each aircraft to see the facilities, in the second round, two the three aircraft from each manufactures would be flight tested in Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh; and in the third round actual weapon firing test would be conducted in the manufactures or in another country as designated by the manufactures (not all European countries have firing ranges).
There would be a common leader but two or three different teams under him. The aircraft would go to Bangalore for performance system and humidity trials and to Leh for high attitude and cold weather trials.
The process of flight testing trials and evaluation is most demanding and time consuming. Comparing the data against common denominators with different set of trial teams is likely to bring in subjective assessment. To make the trials be absolutely successful in different environmental condition and them short list the contenders would be a Herculean task. One should not be surprised that all six may end up equally worthy of induction into the IAF.
What would decide them the selection:-
a. Life Expectancy
b. Life Costing
c. Maintenance support.
d. Strings Attached
e. Bilateral agreement on production and maintenance facilities in India.
f. Technology Transfer
g. Price negotiations
h. Political Considerations
j. Old friendship syndrome.
We are in a serious business of short fall of numbers which is equally important to technology. The total process (Trials – and short listing 24-36 months, PNC and Contract finalization 24-36 months, commencement of delivery 36 months). By the time aircraft gets inducted could be another 7-8 yrs, we have to shorten this period between 4-6 years, just keep the target of inductive 2014 before the next General Election. Congress Govts have a great deal of achievement of finalizing defence deals. Let that be Jaguars in 70’s Mirage-2000 in 80’, IL-76 in 80’s. Decisions makes are to be reminded again and again be quick and decide before the IAF’s Mig 21st close their wings in entirety.