Last year, talking about India's long delayed tender for multi-role combat aircraft, a senior air force official remarked: "The bidders can wait. This is the new India. We don't follow their lead any more, we'll move when we want to." The wheels are turning, with the six bidders last week submitting 7,000-20,000 page responses to a request for proposals for 126 fighters. Western manufacturers have gritted their teeth during the four years it took to move from the RFI to RFP, but had little choice. Falling domestic defence budgets have made this contract, likely to be worth over $12 billion, one of the most lucrative in decades and the wait will be worth it for the winner.
Tough offset requirements will test them and benefit India. New Delhi would also help its industry by unshackling state-owned companies, encouraging competition, and increasing research and development budgets.
Most importantly, India's bureaucracy must abandon its infamous slow-slow pace. The same officer said the Indian air force's strategic aim is to exercise influence over South Asia. That makes the MRCA competition even more urgent, given that falling squadron levels, ageing fleets, and delays in the introduction of the indigenous Tejas fighter are making that job more difficult. A repetition of the purchase of the BAE Systems Hawk advanced trainer, which took decades, must be avoided if India's emergence as a global power is to continue.