India fighter competition gets under way

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One of the most eagerly awaited fighter jet competitions is now under way, with India requesting for proposals from six manufacturers for its 126 multirole combat aircraft requirement.

"We've got the ball rolling," says the Indian defence ministry, which expects technical responses to the 211-page RFP by 3 March 2008. The Indian air force will then evaluate the bids and conduct field trials over the next few years. Commercial bids will then be opened and after the negotiations, India's cabinet must approve the $10.2 billion deal.

The Boeing F/A-18E/F, Lockheed Martin F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon, RSK MiG-35, Dassault Rafale and Saab Gripen will be evaluated, as expected. Eighteen aircraft must be delivered in fly-away condition and 108 licence-produced by Hindustan Aeronautics over 10 years. India will retain an option for another 64 fighters. As the biggest tender outside the USA, this is a crucial order for the manufacturers, which are increasingly dependent on exports.

The ministry hopes that the first aircraft will be in service by 2012, but it adds: "We cannot compress the selection process for the sake of it. We must have a thorough evaluation to choose an aircraft that best suits our needs."

Observers believe that the first aircraft will be delivered after 2012. A New Delhi-based industry official says: "It's taken six years to get from the request for information to this stage. A shortlist will be issued after the evaluations and further tests conducted. There are price negotiations and nobody knows how long that will take. Delays can be expected."

Under India's offsets policy, 50% of the value of the contract must be reinvested in the country. The final cost will include the infrastructure needed for domestic production, subassembly contracts, weapons packages, spares, training and simulators. The aircraft are to be in service for 40 years or a flying time of 6,000h, and "life-cycle costs" will be taken into account. The final price tag could reach $13-15 billion, say observers.

The aircraft are required to perform defence, ground attack, and reconnaissance duties, and have mid-air refuelling capability. They will replace the air force's MiG-21 interceptors and operate beneath its Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighters. With air force squadron numbers at a low of 30, well below the recommended figure of around 39, they are urgently needed.

Given that Russia has met 75% of India's defence needs and sold around $35 billion worth of equipment since the 1960s, the MiG-35 will be a front-runner. Indo-Russian defence relations, however, have been rocky recently due to cost overruns and delays in the delivery of equipment. The reliability of Russian equipment has also been questioned, given the high number of crashes involving Indian air force MiG fighters.

Buoyant Indo-US relations, given the imminent signing of a civil nuclear deal and Washington's perception that India is a strategic regional ally, mean that the US fighters could provide the stiffest competition. Boeing's F/A-18 could have an edge as Pakistan already operates F-16s. Lockheed, however, is offering India newer variants of its fighter and possibly future access to the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter programme.

Indian defence minister A K Antony, who will be lobbied hard by US, European and Russian officials, says: "We are not against anybody or pro-anybody. At every stage, the procurement process will be transparent. We must get the best out of the bargain."