Impacts of the Indian Fighter Competition


by Dr. Robbin Laird

05/16/2011 India is clearly a key player in shaping the future of Chinese power, globally and in the Pacific.  At the same time, the significant 2nd and 3rd world fighter market will be dominated by exports from China, Russia, India or Brazil.

Neither the U.S. nor Europe is planning a lower cost export fighter.  Indian leadership when they saw the Chinese role out of the J-20 understood its impact on global markets.  This is an advanced aircraft, which will have implications for upgrades for customers of Chinese fighter aircraft.

The Bush and Obama Administrations have seen the Indian fighter contract as a cornerstone of building military relationships as part of the curtailment of China.

U.S. commentators have largely interpreted the elimination of the US aircraft as due to the inability of the U.S. to transfer advanced technology to India, the US lost. This is at best a generous interpretation.

These are 40 year old air frames; and the uncertain technology transfer process surrounding the U.S. offerings certainly raised questions in the Indian minds about the ability moving forward to upgrade its new franchise combat aircraft.

Either Eurofighter or Rafale promise a much newer airframe, with upgrade paths.  And a merging of India with European combat aircraft expertise could provide a significant boost to exports into the 2nd and 3rd world.

And this puts the Europeans dead center into the question of the evolution of Chinese military capabilities.  They will be part of the effort to constrain China, whether they want to or not.

The Geopolitics

The Indian leadership has made it quite clear that one has to choose between Pakistan and India.  And the recent findings from the elimination of Number 1 in the most famous global terrorist organization – Osama Bin Laden – have not helped.

Indians believe that the Pakistani military and government are harboring terrorists and the long stay of Bin Laden in Pakistan certainly seems to be puzzling.

The U.S. is engaged in a campaign with no end in Afghanistan, what a colleague called a permanent IDIQ for the US Army; continues raids into Pakistan which both result in, from an Indian point of view, downplaying the significance of India.  The elimination of U.S . aircraft is surely part of this process. And also raise questions about the other programs in play, the P-8 and the C-17.

One could note as well the absence of focus in Europe on what it means if Europe and India get joined at the hip on building new fighter aircraft for the indefinite future.

First, Europe or at least part of Europe, now has to back India in any fight with China.

Second, the EU commission’s notion of lifting Arms Embargos against China is certainly challenged by Europe’s own actions.

Thirdly, the balancing of China and India now becomes a core European priority.

Fourth, and how will European labor unions respond to the transfer of the future of European fighter combat construction to India?

And for the U.S. it is also clear that Eurofighter or Rafael will not be the last manned combat aircraft built by Europeans.  The European engagement in JSF is significant and will continue.

But now there is an alternative track being generated by the prospects of a Euro-Indian combat air project.  Of course, potential is not actuality.  And many challenges have to be met on the path of a new combat aircraft coming from the Indian-European partnership, but certainly there is a distinct possibility.

Potential Impacts on the Global Defense Industry

But the Indian decision to downselect European combat aircraft does raises a number of core questions about the potential impacts on the global defense industry.

First, whichever European company or consortium wins will be in a key position to build a new manned fighter for Europe itself in the future.  There is significant potential for India and Europe to sort through a collaborative effort, which will not just be about SELLING a fighter TO India, but rather reshaping European offerings to Europe in the future.

Second, assuming the Indian collaboration can yield a cost effective and capable product, such a product could become globally viable with significant 2nd and 3rd world sales opportunities.

Third, perhaps the Euro-Indian team could also anchor a version of the SAAB global offerings.  SAAB has offered a combat aircraft and a command and control aircraft and would clearly wish to add a UAV to the mix.  There is a potential to take the Euro-Indian team into such waters whereby sensors and weapons can be distributed across three platforms, unmanned, manned and C4ISR.

Fourth, the Chinese-Indian competition just ramped up in the aerospace field.  Now Europe will have an interesting problem managing the competition.  India would clearly like offsets from whomever will win which will embed European aerospace further into a partnership with India.  How will China respond to all of this?

Fifth, and not forgetting the United States: Will its offerings in India make it through the Obama Administration’s policy machinery on technology transfer issues.  And let us be clear it is not about transferring technology it is about having a timely, transparent and well managed PROCESS to work with partners.

The Eurofighter Factor

What are the strategic potentials of a Eurofighter in India from an industrial point of view?  Much depends on what India is able to do and can re-organize itself to do.  If properly organized, India could shape a significant aerospace future and Eurofighter could become a key stimulant to such a future.

The collaboration necessary to make Eurofighter work in India – with significant local support – requires more than simply transferring technology. It requires in effect a European and Indian concurrent engineering process.  If such a process can be shaped in the period of constructing, enabling and supporting an Indian Eurofighter then several other possibilities emerge.

An Indian-European congruent engineering capability could shape the future of exports from India to the second and third world combat aircraft markets.  Here European engineering excellence combined with Indian manufacturing capabilities and IT excellence could create a global gamechanger.  Not exactly Tata Nanos for the aerospace market but you get the point.

The congruence could craft the next generation of manned European combat aircraft as well.  Such an aircraft could be designed with the other innovations in mind with significant impact, namely 5th generation aircraft and remotely piloted aircraft (RPAs).

Then the possibility of working a sensor and processing enterprise across manned assets –combat aircraft and command and control aircraft – as well as RPAs can be envisaged.  For different clients, different mixes of sensors and communication and management assets could be placed on the combat versus large aircraft versus UAV platforms.  Such mix and match possibilities could drive serious innovation.

And finally, EADS as key Eurofighter company has other assets of interest to India, such as Airbus commercial and military Airbus platforms.  A400Ms and A330 tankers could be in play, and notably related to the sensor enterprise discussed above. The air tanker is an especially interesting platform to include in the mix because of all the space inside the A330 tanker, which can be used for C2 and related options.

And of course, Airbus, unlike Boeing, has demonstrated a willingness to build overseas final assembly plants.  The US after turning down the opportunity to build tankers in Mobile, Alabama, and freighters and future Airbus commercial products may be shocked to see such facilities some day in India.

The Rafale Factor

The French Rafale is one of the two European aircraft downselected in the Indian fighter competition.  Although the plane has yet to win an export order, the flagship Dassault combat aircraft has progressed to the point that India as well as Brazil could seriously select it as their next generation combat aircraft.

A major advantage vis a vis Eurofighter is that the Indians already have in their Russian aircraft a higher altitude combat aircraft and in this way similar to Eurofighter.  And when the Indians did not select the engine for their light combat aircraft from the consortium supplying the Eurofighter engine, many analysts assumed this meant that Eurofighter would not be downselected in the fighter competition.  A GE engine was selected for the LCA.

The Rafale is a multi-mission aircraft closer to the F-16 or F-18 class aircraft than to the F-15 or the Eurofighter.  Several Indian sources have made it clear to SLD that the class of aircraft, which the F-16 represents, is in the sweet spot of their needs.

As such, the Rafale has advantages.

The French Air Force and Navy have evolved the aircraft over the past few years in actual operational settings; as such the aircraft has demonstrated its multi-mission capabilities and ability to be supported in relatively austere settings.

The Rafale has been used effectively in combat operations, and demonstrated its ability for flexible operations.

Rafale has a naval version, which is clearly of interest to the Indian Navy and its evolution of carrier aviation.

There is a common concern of those countries, which have NOT selected Rafale, and that is the belief that the plane is underpowered. And this certainly is not the case with the Eurofighter.  Might this mean that the SNECMA engine could be replaced in favor of a GE-Snecma variant yet to be determined?  Or do the French and Indians work on a new engine?  Or that simply the aircraft continues as it is in the competition and if it wins, continues the course?

A Dassault-Thales team would be at the heart of any alliance with the Indians in shaping the future of Rafale.  Thales as a global company could become significantly enhanced in its ability to shape price competitive products with such an alliance, and be well positioned in the next decades both for products in the second and third world as well as working a new basis for R and D and manufacturing in their European operations.


The Indian downselect has the distinct possibility of reshaping the global competition in global combat aircraft, and indeed in shaping the future of air operations for years to come.  So why ignore it?

There is a shift in the tectonic plates going on and the Washington crowd is missing in action.  After all, inside the beltway is not the center of the universe.  I think the flat earth society would love the Washington fixation with itself.