India's acquisition of up to 126 Dassault Rafale fighters for its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement remains the air force's top procurement priority as negotiations with the airframer continue.
"The project is very much on track as far as the [contract negotiation committee] is concerned," says Air Chief Marshal NAK Browne. "It's an extremely complex project to bring together. The main focus now is the work share between [Hindustan Aeronautics] and Dassault."
Browne made the comments during a media briefing at the Aero India show in Bengaluru. The Dassault Rafale was designated as the final competitor in the MMRCA contest in February 2012. Three French air force Rafales attended this year's show, with two performing flight displays and one appearing on the static line.
By April or May the contract should move to the next stage in the process, says Browne, including a crucial review by the ministry of finance.
"If all goes well by the middle of the year we will be in a position to sign the contract," he says. "There are no shortcuts to this process."
He notes, however, that it takes some programmes years to clear the negotiation committee stage, citing the protracted three-year debate around the upgrade of 51 Dassault Mirage 2000Hs. "We hope this won't happen in the case of the MMRCA," he says.
Both Browne and defence minister AK Antony, who also attended the show, stressed the acquisition process is being followed extremely carefully in the MMRCA's case.
Unlike Browne, Antony declined to give a timeframe for when he expects the contract to be signed. He says there are "six or seven" layers before the MMRCA deal reaches the Cabinet Committee on Security, which will make the final decision on the procurement, the value of which has been estimated between $12-20 billion.
"We are in the process of cleaning up the contract," says Antony. "At every single stage we want to be sure there is absolutely no sign of malpractice."
Antony and Hindustan Aeronautics chairman RK Tyagi also stressed that HAL remains the prime contractor for the licensed production of 108 MMRCA aircraft.
Industry sources suggest that Dassault has mounted a major push in contract negotiations to move a substantial proportion of the work-share to its joint venture with Indian conglomerate Reliance Industries.