The scrapped MMRCA con­tract is in the past. But In­dia’s new $25 bil­lion race for 150 fighter air­craft is at­tract­ing global play­ers again at the 11th Aero In­dia ex­hi­bi­tion

India Today - - COVER STORY - By San­deep Un­nithan

Noth­ing ex­cites the global arms in­dus­try more than big ticket multi-bil­lion dol­lar or­ders. This is es­pe­cially true when it comes to In­dia, a coun­try that has been the world’s largest arms im­porter for nearly a decade now.Ever since In­dia’s de­fence min­istry sought global bids for 126 Medium Mul­ti­ple Role Com­bat Air­craft (MMRCA) in 2005, suc­ces­sive in­stal­ments of the bi­en­nial Aero In-dia—where the six global contenders (RAC MiG, Das­sault, Saab, Boe­ing, Lock­heed Martin and Eurofighter) dis­played their jets to In­dian de­ci­sion-mak­ers—has thrummed with an­tic­i­pa­tion over who would win the $10 bil­lion con­tract, the ‘mother of all de­fence deals’. The fi­nal se­lec­tion of the French Das­sault Rafale in 2012 robbed sub­se­quent Aero In­dias of their sheen, but the MMRCA deal was then scrapped in favour of an off-the-shelf pur­chase of 36 Rafales for 7.8 bil­lion Eu­ros. In­dia, it would seem, had had its fill of fighter air­craft—but for two ma­jor events of the past few weeks.

Late last year, the MoD an­nounced it was look­ing to build a new sin­gle-en­gine fighter in In­dia, as part of its ‘Make in In­dia’ strat­egy to in­di­genise im­ports. And, on Jan­uary 17 this year, the In­dian Navy is­sued a re­quest for in­for­ma­tion from

man­u­fac­tur­ers for 57 car­rier-based fighter air­craft. Both these pro­grammes could be worth over $20 bil­lion.

Five of the six air­craft that were in the orig­i­nal MMRCA fray are now back in the reck­on­ing. The Das­sault Rafale, the Boe­ing F/A-18 and the MiG-29K are contenders for the naval con­tract, while Lock­heed Martin’s F-16 and Swe­den’s Gripen are strong contenders for the ‘Make in In­dia’ fighter. Saab ex­ec­u­tives have also hinted at re­viv­ing its Sea Gripen pro­gramme for the naval con­tract.

Both the IAF and the navy’s con­tracts, it would seem, are rooted in the de­lays and dis­ap­point­ments of the Te­jas Light Com­bat Air­craft (LCA) pro­gramme. The IAF feels the LCA won’t be able to plug the gap caused by the phas­ing out of its 230-plane MiG fleet over the next decade, and wants a fighter over and above the 120 Te­jases it is com­mit­ted to buy­ing. The navy, one of the prime fun­ders of the LCA over two decades ago, feels the air­craft in its present form is un­suited for air­craft car­rier-based op­er­a­tions and hence wants a new multi-role naval fighter.

None of these wishes is likely to be granted in a hurry, par­tic­u­larly since the ‘Make in In­dia’ fighter jet is con­tin­gent on a ma­jor pol­icy shift—ap­proval for a ‘strate­gic part­ner­ship’ pol­icy that will al­low the MoD to nom­i­nate a pri­vate sec­tor firm of its choice. The MoD is yet to fi­nalise this pol­icy, a move that could lead to tie-ups be­tween domestic and for­eign pri­vate sec­tor man­u­fac­tur­ers. The snail-paced de­ci­sion-mak­ing process within the MoD is a big con­cern. It could be close to a decade by the time the naval MMRCA fight­ers take off. But un­til then, these two air­craft con­tracts prom­ise plenty of ex­cite­ment on the ground and in the air.

F/A-18 SU­PER HORNET CON­TENDER FOR 57 naval fight­ers. To­tal project cost: over $15 bil­lion

HAL HTT-40 CON­TENDER FOR 100 units for the air force, navy, army and coast guard


LIGHT UTIL­ITY HE­LI­COPTER CON­TENDER FOR 400 units for the air force and the army SAAB GRIPEN ‘E’ LIGHT COM­BAT HE­LI­COPTER CON­TENDER FOR 57 naval fight­ers, 120 light fight­ers. To­tal project cost: over $20 bil­lion CON­TENDER FOR 200 units for the air force and the army SIN­GLE EN­GINE LIGHT MULTIROLE FIGHTER CAR­RIER-BASED MULTIROLE NAVAL FIGHTER How many: 100 Cost: Ap­prox. $10 bn User: In­dian Air Force How many: 57 Cost: Ap­prox. $15 bn User: In­dian Navy

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