The Weekly Wire: For Your Situational Awareness 5/22/20
India and the saga of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA)
Hamilton Cook, Research Associate
Conflicting reports have emerged out of India over the past week regarding the status of the latest attempt by the Indian Air Force (IAF) to procure over a hundred modern fighter aircraft from international vendors under its MMRCA program. It began on May 15, when the Chief of the Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat said that “The Indian Air Force is switching that to the LCA [Light Combat Aircraft or Tejas] … The IAF is saying, I would rather take the indigenous fighter. It is good.” It was then reported by a variety of news sources that India had scrapped the MMRCA proposal in exchange for purchasing 83 additional Tejas Mk 1A aircraft.
That was not the case.
On May 19, The Hindu conducted an interview with Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria which seemed to be aimed at clearing up Rawat’s statement. Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria stated that, “the global responses to the tender were being analysed after which they would go to the government for the grant of Acceptance of Necessity. We will finalize the way forward on the 114 (aircraft) tender.” Air Chief Marshal Bhadauria seemed to indicate that the 114-aircraft deal was a “different class” of fighter than the Tejas. It was also mentioned in the interview that India’s current large slate of defense imports could not be executed on and had to be staggered, which meant that the Tejas procurement had now become a “high-priority.”
All of this seems to be a hodge-podge of conflicting information, but it makes sense in context. The Indian government was already facing an economic slowdown before the country entered lockdown due to COVID-19. This meant that the Ministry of Finance had to issue draconian spending limitations to the different ministries in the Indian government, including the Ministry of Defense (MoD). These regulations will only allow the MoD to spend up to 20 percent of its total budget in Q2, with strict month-by-month limits of six percent in both May and June, while still being required to meet all pension obligations. This is putting monumental strain upon the MoD’s procurement accounts, and would force the delay or restructure of many programs if it were to continue beyond June.
The Indian government is acting as if it will. The IAF alone is planning on cutting its expenditures by 20-25 percent. Prime Minister Modi has, according to official sources, stated that indigenously developed and produced defense equipment would be given the “highest priority” to help forestall the worst of the coming economic recession. This, in turn, tracks with the statements made by both the Chief of Defence Staff and the Air Chief Marshall: the IAF has granted priority status to the already announced order of 83 Tejas Mark 1A, and a new timeline for MMRCA will be developed.
While the prioritization of indigenous projects over imports isn’t surprising, it was further enhanced by Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who stated in a press conference on May 18 that the government was expanding the list of weapons that could not be imported, which Air Chief Marshall Bhadauria noted included some radars, networks, and electronics along with basic trainers. However, seemingly to balance this, the Indian government is also raising the foreign direct investment limit on defense manufacturing joint ventures from 49 percent to 74 percent to incentivize localization and technology transfer. For the MMRCA, it means that the program has been delayed again in favor of indigenous production.
On May 15, Airbus delivered the first two A330 Multi-Role Tanker Transport (MRTT) under NATO’s Multinational Multi-role Tanker Transport Fleet program to the Netherlands. The MRTT are being procured via NATO’s Support and Procurement Agency, though six NATO allies will be sharing the aircraft and the costs associated with flying them. Luxembourg and the Netherlands were the first to sign a memorandum of understanding with NATO and Airbus to acquire two A330s with the option for five additional aircraft in November 2012. Since then, four other NATO members have joined the program and expanded the number of MRTTs to acquire. Germany, Norway, Belgium, and the Czech Republic joined the program between 2017 and 2019, with NATO now acquiring eight A330s with the option to purchase three additional aircraft once the initial acquisition is complete. The anticipated completion date for the program is 2023. The purpose of the NATO program is to mitigate air refueling capability gaps across European countries, which was first identified during the 2012 NATO summit.
On May 15, it was reported that Northrop Grumman was in talks with the government of Norway over the potential sale of an undisclosed number of MQ-4C Triton unmanned aerial vehicles. Norway is looking for ways to provide more comprehensive surveillance of the northern reaches of its territory, and MALE/HALE unmanned platforms could viably fill that niche. Additionally, the Triton is meant to be paired with the P-8 manned aircraft, which Norway is currently integrating into its fleet. However, the talks are still at a very preliminary stage, so there are no contract details at this time.
On May 14, Spain officially joined the European Patrol Corvette (EPC) project under the Permanent Structured Cooperation on Defense and Security (PESCO) framework. France, Italy, and Greece are already part of the EPC program, for which Naviris will build ships. The EPC envisions a ship that can be tailored and customized to perform missions including offshore patrol, anti-surface warfare, anti-air warfare, and potentially anti-submarine warfare. French Floreal-class and Italian Comandanti and Cassiopea classes will be replaced by the EPC, while older Greek ships such as the Elli-class and Hydra-class could also be replaced.