Comment: India's MMRCA shortlist backs substance over style

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When it comes to news value, India's $10 billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contest never seems to disappoint. In keeping with this trend, the confirmation of its shortlist for the 126-aircraft deal, which emerged not from its defence ministry but via local bloggers and the defeated bidders themselves, delivered the expected level of drama.

US companies Boeing and Lockheed Martin grabbed most of the local headlines at February's Aero India show near Bengaluru by flying a Who's Who-quality list of Indian celebrities, including a Bollywood actor, industrialist Ratan Tata (pictured below) and media hard-hitters in their Super Hornet and F-16 products.

Saab used massive billboard posters and gave a local student the experience of a lifetime after he won a "Top Gun" contest to fly in the Gripen, but the RSK MiG-35 no-showed, presumably because Russia and India had already signed a deal to jointly develop a fifth-generation fighter based on Sukhoi's stealthy PAK-FA.

ratan tata, ap/press association
 © AP/Press Association
Say Tata: celebrity rides didn't sway MMRCA shortlist

Keeping a lower profile were Dassault and the four-nation Eurofighter consortium, with one involved source commenting: "You don't need a gimmick when you've got the best fighter." Ironic then that it is Europe's Rafale and Typhoon designs which remain in contention for the massive MMRCA prize.

The USA has been rocked by the elimination of the F-16 (always a long-shot due to its operation by neighbouring Pakistan), and even more so by claims that the Super Hornet failed to meet India's technical requirements. Boeing officials were certain that the US Navy's main strike fighter would be toughing it out with the Rafale and Typhoon when the shortlist emerged, and the Department of Defense's reaction of being "deeply disappointed" was a massive understatement.

Clarity on the reasons behind New Delhi's larger-than-expected MMRCA cull will come soon if the defeated bidders choose to comment after receiving formal debriefings. But its surprise action - and the real likelihood of a selection being made before extended bids expire on 31 December - makes it clear that its programme does have more to do with operational capability and technology transfer than column inches.

June's Paris air show will provide the next forum for Dassault and Eurofighter to tout the merits of their well-matched candidates, which are now in combat use over Libya for France and the UK. Thankfully, their marketing agendas are unlikely to have much regard for celebrity passengers.