India completes fighter evaluation, readies for flight testing

Singapore
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India's air force has submitted its technical evaluation report on the contenders for its medium multirole combat aircraft competition to the nation's defence ministry, which will shortly give its go-ahead for the next stage of the much-anticipated tender.

The development comes as India's Congress-led coalition government, which returned to power in last month's general elections, pushes on with several procurements that were put on hold during the hustings. Defence minister A K Antony kept his post in the new cabinet, and sources say he is keen to accelerate an armed forces modernisation programme estimated to be worth around $30 billion until 2012.

Flight trials for the six contenders could begin as early as July, and the aircraft will be tested in both summer and winter conditions, say defence ministry officials. The Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG are in the fray for the 126-aircraft contract, worth $10-12 billion. A selection has been projected for 2010 and deliveries scheduled from 2013, although this is widely expected to slip.

Given India's experience with corruption, Antony warned after his reappointment that companies trying to bribe their way to defence contracts will be "ruthlessly" excluded from all forthcoming competitions. "At times, we found certain manipulations and malpractices. We cannot ignore that so we ruthlessly cancelled big ticket items. We will ruthlessly cancel contracts in the future also as in the past," he says. "While we are determined to speed up procurement, we cannot compromise on transparency."

India also recently issued two separate requests for proposals for military helicopters, initiating its first defence competitions since the elections.

A $600 million tender for attack helicopters is likely to pit the AgustaWestland AW129, Bell Helicopter AH-1Z Super Cobra, Boeing AH-64D Apache Longbow, Eurocopter Tiger, and Mil Mi-28. The air force hopes to sign a contract for 22 helicopters within two years and complete deliveries within a further three to replace its ageing Mi-35.

New Delhi cancelled an earlier competition for attack helicopters in March after Bell and Boeing withdrew following India's insistence on a direct deal with manufacturers, rather than via the US government's Foreign Military Sales mechanism. Air force officials want to assess both aircraft, and the new tender has been modified to this time allow an FMS purchase.

The Boeing CH-47F Chinook, Mi-26 and Sikorsky CH-53 are meanwhile likely contenders for a separate, $700 million requirement to buy 15 heavylift helicopters for India's air force and army.

Other major military tenders that could go ahead shortly include searches for air-to-air refuelling tankers and light utility helicopters. New Delhi also plans to upgrade many of its existing military aircraft, while state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics has several indigenous programmes in the pipeline.