Single Engine Fighters for the Indian Air Force: F-16 IN and JAS-39 Gripen in the Race

The Indian Air Force will soon start the process of buying 100 single engine fighter aircraft to increase its squadron strength. IAF’s fighter fleet at present is below the number of squadrons required for a two front scenario as there are just 33 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42. But the number would go down further with the phasing out of the ageing Mig-21 and Mig-27 fighters. Fortunately, aircraft like the Su-30MKI and the Rafale twin engine fighters will be joining in the following years in addition to around 80 indigenous single engine Tejas Mk1A Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

In order to equip the Indian air force to be capable of undertaking full spectrum operations in a two front scenario, the air force is looking to procure fighters of the medium multirole category. The Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs) of the single engine medium fighters could be expected to be almost similar to the previous MMRCA ASQRs except for the restriction on the number of engines. In this case four of the six aircraft from the last competition – the twin engine Mikoyan Mig-35, Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and F/A-18 Super Hornet are out of the race leaving just the Lockheed Martin F-16 IN and the Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen fighter. Since these are the only single engine aircraft being offered for sale in this category, the IAF will send RFP to these two manufacturers. Moreover, since both aircraft had already passed through most of the process including technical evaluations and flight trials in the last competition, the selection process can be expected to be comparatively faster.

But why single engine fighters? After all, in the last MMRCA selection the IAF rejected both F-16 and the Gripen for the twin engine Rafale! According to the Chief of Air Staff’s air force day press statement, the reason for restricting the requirement to single engine is the relative high cost of twin engine fighters. Single engine aircraft obviously cost less compared to twin engine fighters all the way from unit procurement cost, maintenance, logistics, comparatively less space parts requirement and operational cost. However, one major drawback for a single power plant fighter is that it cannot carry as much payload as a twin engine aircraft.

Already the IAF has a mix of Russian, French and British fighters, and soon the Rafale, Tejas and the winner of the single engine competition as they enter service will further diversity the aircraft type in its inventory. Certainly induction of the single power plant fighter is going to increase the logistic cost for the IAF as it will have to set up separate facilities to maintain the aircraft in addition to the cost of completely different spares, engines and maintenance equipment. But beyond all this, it will push up the fighter squadron strength towards the sanctioned number.

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