IAF kicks off contest to make single-engine fighters


A global contest has restarted for supplying India a medium, multi-role fighter, with the Indian Air Force (IAF) inviting top international fighter jet manufacturers to set up a production facility in India.

Business Standard has learned that Indian embassies in Washington, Moscow and Stockholm wrote on Friday tofighter jet manufacturers in these countries to confirm whether they would partner an Indian company in building a medium, single-engine fighter, with significant transfer of technology to the Indian entity.

The confidential document sent by the embassies is not technically a “Request for Information” (RFI), which is a precursor to a “Request for Proposals” (also known as a tender). However, it serves the same purpose, which is to determine which vendors are interested and what they are willing to offer.

By specifying that the IAF requires a single-engine fighter, the latest letter differs from an earlier tender, issued in 2007, for 126 medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). The MMRCA tender, which had no such stipulation, saw six vendors fielding four twin-engine and two single-engine fighters. The twin-engine offerings included Dassault’s Rafale, Eurofighter GmbH’s Typhoon, Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and RAC MiG’s MiG-35. The single-engine fighters offered were Lockheed Martin’s F-16IN Super Viper and Saab’s Gripen D.

The much-hyped MMRCA tender eventually collapsed, with the IAF last month buying a token 36Rafale fighters. Now, the IAF has kicked off a more focused contest that will feature only single-engine fighters.

Numerous airpower experts have pointed out that the IAF needs single-engine fighters to replace the single-engine MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters that must be retired in the near future. The Rafale, a medium-heavy, twin-engine fighter, is too expensive for operational tasks that a single-engine fighter can easily manage.

While Boeing, Eurofighter, RAC MiG, Sukhoi and Dassault would technically be able to respond to the latest RFI, none of them can offer a state-of-the-art, medium, single-engine fighter. Therefore, it seems likely that New Delhi would have to choose between Saab’s Gripen E and Lockheed Martin’s latest F-16 Block 70.

As Business Standard reported earlier, both Saab and Lockheed Martin have kicked off high-stakes, high-voltage campaigns to meet the IAF’s needs. Both have already submitted what theIAF chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha described on Thursday as “unsolicited bids” for building their fighters in India.

Saab has linked its offer with assistance to the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) development programme, which is being spearheaded by Aeronautical Development Agency (ADA), a unit of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO).

Saab has offered to help ADA in quickly developing the Tejas Mark IA, which the IAF chief said required four improvements — a better combat radar, more lethal weapons, dedicated electronic warfare capability and better maintainability. He said the upgraded Tejas should fly within three-four years.

Saab has also offered to help ADA develop the planned next-generation Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA).

Meanwhile, Lockheed Martin is pushing an offer, made through the Indo-US Defence Trade and Technology Initiative (DTTI), to shift its F-16 production line from Fort Worth, Texas to India.

A new, more advanced version of the F-16, designated the Block 70, has been offered to entice India.

Air Headquarters insiders say there is little chance of India buying the F-16, a significantly advanced version of the Block 50/52 that the Pakistan Air Force operates. Since Washington is aware of this important bias, it remains to be seen whether the US seizes this opportunity to offer India the F-35 Joint Strike Fighter, a state-of-the-art fifth-generation fighter.

The IAF is keeping an open mind. On Thursday, Raha stated: “I’m sure whoever gives the best deal [will win]. All the aircraft are very capable, so it will depend upon who provides the best transfer of technology; and, of course, the price tag. It’s on the table; nothing is decided as yet.”

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