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Indian air force seeks deal for C-17 transports

New Delhi has submitted a letter of request to the US government for the possible acquisition of up to 10 Boeing C-17 strategic transports, with the move forming part of a programme to replace its air force's aged Antonov An-32s and Ilyushin Il-76s.

Announcing the development on 8 January, Boeing said it believes "the C-17 can fulfill India's needs for military and humanitarian airlift to help it meet its growing domestic and international responsibilities".

It is not clear when a deal could be approved, or how much it would cost. However, industry sources say New Delhi is keen to add the aircraft to its air force fleet within three years, and that a purchase could value up to $2 billion.

India has previously expressed its interest in the C-17 by issuing a request for information last year. One US Air Force example participated in the Aero India exhibition at Yelahanka airbase near Bangalore last April and was used to conduct demonstration flights for air force and defence ministry officials. An advanced version of the Il-76 was also considered to meet future requirements, but Indian defence ministry sources say the C-17 was the preferred choice.

© Maj Sam Highley/US Air Force

The release of a letter of request is the first step towards a possible future acquisition of the type, which is also already in service with the air forces of Australia, Canada, Qatar and the UK, and with a consortium of 12 NATO and Partnership for Peace nations. The United Arab Emirates also earlier this month signed a deal to acquire six of the type.

If confirmed, an Indian air force order for 10 aircraft would rank the service second only to the USAF in C-17 fleet size. The UK Royal Air Force currently holds this distinction with six operational examples, with its seventh to be introduced in December 2010.

India has already moved to improve its air transport capabilities, with its air force also to acquire six C-130Js from Lockheed Martin under a $1 billion deal signed in 2008. It has an option for a further six C-130s which industry sources also expect it to exercise.

A C-17 deal would also be the second major contract from India for Boeing. In January 2009, New Delhi ordered eight Boeing P-8I maritime patrol aircraft in a deal worth around $2.1 billion to replace its navy’s Tupolev Tu-142 turboprops.

The Indian armed forces is in the middle of its biggest modernisation programme, with several big ticket contracts up for grabs. The largest is a $10-12 billion competition for 126 medium multirole combat aircraft. The air force is assessing the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG.

Additional reporting by Siva Govindasamy in Singapore
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