India could divide its order for 126 multirole combat aircraft (MRCA) into two, with Russia's MiG-35 a front-runner for the first batch of fighters if the plan goes ahead.
The move is being considered in New Delhi as one way of inducting advanced aircraft into the Indian air force at an earlier date, and therefore expanding its strategic reach in the region.
Indian defence minister A K Antony said last week at Aero India in Bangalore that a decision in the much-delayed competition would be "taken very quickly". If a request for proposals (RFP) is issued in mid-2007, the first MRCA could arrive no earlier than 2014 given the time it would take to complete the evaluation and sign a contract.
But by splitting up the contract, India could have the first aircraft by 2012 if it awards the first order to a manufacturer that can meet an earlier deadline.
As Russia has indicated that the MiG-35 could be supplied within a shorter timeframe, it would be the likely front-runner for the first batch of aircraft.
The winner of the second contract would supply aircraft up until the 2020s. The Boeing F/A-18, Lockheed Martin F-16, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, and Saab Gripen are also in the fray, but sources say the US companies have an edge over the Europeans. That would make the second contract a straightforward competition between the MiG-35, the F/A-18 and the F-16.
India may importt more fighters if the indigenous LCA is delayed further
The air force could also increase the order to around 200 aircraft if there are further delays to the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA), say sources.
The service placed an initial order for 20 LCAs in 2006, but the much-delayed aircraft has been in development for over 15 years and there are fears that it may not meet the in-service target of 2010.
Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL) has ordered an additional 24 General Electric F404-IN20 afterburning engines to power the first operational squadron of Tejas fighters for the Indian air force. The $100 million-plus order follows the 2004 purchase of 17 F404s to power initial LCA operational production aircraft and naval prototypes.