“Bangladesh Air Show” is a recently announced international air show, scheduled for 2022; and will be the first such event to be held on Bangladeshi soil. Presently, not much information is available on this event. The participants are not yet enrolled and infrastructure for public is yet to be established at Shiekh Hasina airbase ,which would be the venue for the airshow. However, the government assured that the spectators will witness participants from all around the world during this event, especially aircraft manufacturers.
The most anticipated participation will be of European contenders such as Airbus, British Aerospace (BAe), Dassault, etc., because they are officially competing to sell their products to the Bangladesh Air Force, under the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) programme. Dassault Aviation and Eurofighter GmBH already made their proposals to the Government of Bangladesh.
BACKGROUND ON MRCA
In 2017, an official document had been published by Bangladesh’s Directorate General of Defence Purchases (DGDP), which contained details regarding a tender for procuring Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA). The quantity of the MRCA requirement was specified to be 8, but with 4 additional units as an optional purchase. The MRCA specifications, according to the details mentioned in the document, are as follows:
- It should be a twin engine design, with the powerplant providing 5,500kg of dry thrust and 8,000kg or more with afterburners enabled.
- It should feature an Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, with air-to-air range up to 150km or beyond and an air-to-surface range of up to 50km or beyond.
- It should feature integrated Electronic Warfare suite with high Electronic Counter Counter-Measure (ECCM) capability.
- It should feature a Helmet Mounted Display and Sighting (HMDS) system
- It should feature 8 or more external hardpoints, with overall payload capacity of 5,000kg or more.
The tender is also supported by political leaders of the country. The President of Bangladesh, Abdul Hamid also assured that government is ready to spend on defence acquisition.
CHANGES WITH TIME
Bangladesh invests 6.1% of its total budget in its military, which totals to an estimated 4.1 billion USD. Therefore, Bangladesh has to manage its expenditure with these funds. But defence purchases are not made from yearly budget funds. An additional amount is allotted to the ministry managing the deal. It is already confirmed by Bangladeshi higher officials, that funds are already being allocated to proceed with the MRCA tender. Now all they need is to choose the most compatible option amongst the contenders. However, several changes have been made in the tender since the beginning, because of factors like Politics, budget, etc., and the current terms of the tender are different from the initial state. Now BAF requires 16 fighters in place of only 8. This will make sure that the Air Force operates a complete squadron of modern 4+ generation aircraft, but the major change that occurred in the tender was the unofficial rejection of MiG-35.
MiG-35 and F-18 Controversy
The first contender to join the MRCA league was the Russian origin MiG-35. Bangladeshi officials were invited by Russia to evaluate the performance of the aircraft. It was believed that the aircraft was the most suitable option in the competition. Along with MiG-35, Su-30 was also in the Bangladeshi’s list. However, there were some big political issues that started with Russia’s Su-30SM deal with Myanmar. The Russians were offering Su-30 to Bangladesh too but with a high price, which seemed unfair to Bangladesh, and with the success of Myanmar’s deal, Bangladesh felt that it may not be a good move to acquire the same aircraft. Addingfurther fuel to the fire, Russia also supported Myanmar on its stand on the Rohingya crisis, an unresolved dispute between Bangladesh and Myanmar which was caused due to huge displacement of Rohingya Muslim population from Myanmar, causing a migrant crisis in Bangladesh. All this unofficially confirmed that Bangladesh would never acquire the MiG-35 under the MRCA.
Before this tender, Bangladesh also tried to acquire multirole aircraft but somehow, failed to do so. It was American made Boeing F/A-18 “Hornet”. It was not a part of MRCA tender that was launched in 2016.
The time goes back to 2008 when aircraft was supposed to be ‘perfect’ for Bangladesh’s maritime surveillance and strike capability. Going with unconfirmed sources, the chances of F/A-18 were not only high, but in fact, Bangladesh was very close to ink a deal for 12 units of the aircraft. The pilots were also sent to USMC training base to perform the basic training. Unfortunately, the deal was canceled due to some reasons, one stated to be the shortage of USMC’s own fleet.
Current leading contenders
As we already stated, official proposals for Eurofighter and Rafale are already made on Dhaka’s desk, and await final approval. Looking at the capabilities:-
The Eurofighter Typhoon fulfills everything that Bangladesh needs as laid down by the tender. A twin-engine configuration, with 5,900 kg in dry thrust and 9,080 kg with afterburners, with internal EuroDASS EW suite, Striker II HMDS, 13 hardpoints with 9,000kg payload capacity, a next-gen AESA radar, called Captor E is also going to be operational with the platform by the end of this year. Apart from Europe, the Eurofighter has customers in the Middle East as well, namely Qatar, Kuwait, Oman and Saudi Arabia.
Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon
According to Bangladeshi analysts, the country has two ways to acquire the EFT. The first is to sign a deal for fresh aircraft. As a joint development by 4 nations (United Kingdom, Germany, Spain and Italy), all the partnering countries own their rights over the Typhoon. Therefore, Bangladesh has to gain approval from all 4 countries before signing the deal, followed by a delivery time of around 4 years. The second way is to purchase 2nd hand units. The Royal Air Force is facing budget issues and the Typhoon requires high cost for maintenance. If somehow, UK agrees to sell surplus EFTs to a foreign nation, Bangladesh can reach out to grab the opportunity. It also allows delivery in a shorter span, because 2nd hand units can be used with ease after refurbishment. The tranche 2 variant is suitable for fulfilling Bangladeshi requirements.
Being the latest entry in the competition, an official request for the Rafale was made during French Defence Minister Florence Parly’s visit to Bangladesh in March 2020 during her meeting with the Prime Minister of Bangladesh. On comparing Rafale with Eurofighter, the former aircraft holds the high ground. A variety of advantages like RBE-2AA AESA radar, SPECTRA suite, and better long-range/standoff strike capability. The weapon package of both the aircraft are similar because of the common supplier. For example, MBDA Meteor is the primary BVRAAM for both the aircraft. The difference in CCM (Close Combat Missile) depends on customer preference, whether they want MICA NG or IRIS-T or ASRAAM (Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile).
Like the Eurofighter, the Rafale also is in service with Middle eastern nations; Egypt and Qatar operating the aircraft without any issues. Outside the Middle East, India recently received the first batch of 8,of the total 36 aircraft ordered back in 2016. Recently, Greece also confirmed the purchase of Rafale jets. India is the only customer of the Rafale, which ordered Meteor BVRAAMs while Qatar and Egypt operate MICA missiles. There is no doubt in the strike capability of the Rafale, as it had proven its mettle during the strikes in Libya and Syria against the Islamic State. The EW capability against the air defence systems is also remarkable, as the Rafale is equipped with Active Radar Cancellation provided by SPECTRA.
There are again two ways of acquisition available for Bangladesh in this case. Not so long ago, it was reported that Greece is going to acquire 18 Rafales from France, but out of 18, 8 Rafales will be provided free of cost. These 8 units are presently in service with French Air Force and hence, will be donated to Hellenic Air Force in the present, as tensions between the Greece and Turkey are simmering high. Therefore, Bangladesh can also acquire second hand units by paying a low price, instead of spending more money and more time on procuring newly manufactured units.
Chance for LCA Tejas?
Coming to our main point of interest, we are going to analyze how Tejas can be involved in Dhaka’s search for a suitable multirole combat platform. The Indian government or Hindustan Aeronautics Limited are yet to present a formal proposal to the Bangladeshi Government. However, Indian Foreign Secretary Harsh Vardhan Shringla made a statement on March 2020, in which he assured that New Delhi is ready to share “any military hardware” with Bangladesh. This can be taken as a hint for country’s interest to sell its indigenous weaponry to its neighbor. Many a times, BrahMos cruise missile and Akash Surface to Air Missile (SAM) are claimed to be attracting Bangladesh’s interest, but there is no official progress in the case.
Tejas may have more chances than the other entries. Bangladesh is in search of 24 MRCAs and Tejas is a low cost, but a formidable competitor for the league, even after being a very novel fighter. It received its Final Operational Clearance (FOC) in 2019 and the first FOC unit was inducted this year. It has only 1 flyable combat variant as of now, that is the Tejas Mk-1, but it is believed to be trustworthy, as the Indian Air Force recently deployed it along the Indo-Pak border due to rising tensions in the region.
Tejas participates in India-based Aero India airshow every year, which is an international event that witnesses massive participation by aerospace companies around the world. However, the aircraft was sent for only two airshows that are hosted out of the country.
With an International Air Show being organized in the neighborhood, New Delhi should not miss this opportunity to show off Tejas’s agility and capabilities. Since it’s indiction in IAF, the aircraft particpated in 2 such events. First was Bahrain International Air Show 2016 and the other was Langkawi International Maritime Aero (LIMA) 2019 expo. In both the airshows, the spectators lauded the machine for its beautiful display in the skies. The LIMA was also an attempt to impress Malaysian government and the Royal Malaysian Air Force, who are also evaluating different fighter aircraft (specifically low cost) under light category, to fulfill the lack of active combat fleet, and as a replacement for its F-5 fleet.
With Bangladesh Air Show 2022, Tejas can again take a chance to perform in front of a big international community. Officials from countries in search of good fighter aircraft can observe the Indian Light Combat Aircraft up close and collect required information. A country like Bangladesh, that is also keen to purchase a good quality advanced fighter jet can evaluate the aircraft with more precision and then add up to its interest.
There are some hurdles in that as well. Tejas’s avionics suite also includes components of Israeli origin, like the EL/M-2032 pulse doppler radar. As Bangladesh is one of the 29 member states of UN that does not recognize Israel, it is possible that these Israeli components of Tejas may restrict Bangladesh to not choose the aircraft for their Air Force.
However, to dodge this issue, HAL came up with another option called “TejEx”, that is Tejas for Export. This specific version will be developed according to the customer’s need and focuses more indigenously developed components instead of foreign origin components.
But the most awaited Tejas version is Mk-1A. It is planned to feature significant upgrades over Mk-1, and here are the highlights:-
- AESA radar, either indigenous Uttam or Israeli EL/M-2052, with Astra BVRAAM.
- HMDS system and high off-boresight ASRAAM CCM.
- Anti-Ship capability with BrahMos NG, light variant of BrahMos.
- Lightweight design and less maintenance cost. Unit cost will be reduced once it enters mass production.
But the main problem here is it’s availability. Tejas Mk-1A is neither produced nor ordered by IAF yet. It is facing delays due to price negotiations. So, it is early to talk about the aircraft now as it is not yet physically available. But capability wise, it is highly appreciable and Bangladesh may consider it as a low cost, budget fighter but a capable bird to fulfill the requirements of an MRCA.
It is obvious to say that these projections are too early for an airshow that is two years from now. However, it is to be noted that the Indian government also wants to make Tejas successful in the export market. Therefore, it is necessary to prepare a full-fledged strategy to enhance international recognition of the indigenous light combat aircraft.
Penned by Rishav Kumar. Views personal.