Ravi Sharma

RFP is the first of many steps before a combat aircraft is chosen

  • The RFP will not entail any commitment from India
  • Request for information sent to three manufacturers

    Bangalore: Four of the six contenders the US's Boeing's F/A-18F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin's F-16 Fighting Falcon, Russia's RSK MiG Corporation's MiG-35 and Sweden's SAAB Gripen chasing the lucrative $9 billion multi role combat aircraft (MRCA) deal are in Bangalore, demonstrating their capabilities at the Aero India 2007 air show.

    But the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is curiously yet to issue the mandatory request for proposal (RFP) to the manufacturers of the six fighter aircraft. The RFP will only seek to know from the aircraft manufacturers aspects such as the technology they are offering, the transfer of this technology to India, what percentage of the production will be offloaded to India, supply of spares, maintenance, and also the business end of the deal.

    The RFP will not entail any commitment from India, and could be changed at a later date. The RFP is also the very first of at least a score of steps before the selected aircraft is chosen and enters the Indian Air Force's squadron service, at least five to ten years later. The RFP should have gone out at least 18 months ago, considering that it is a natural follow up to the MoD's November 2004 request for information (RFI), and pertains to a purchase that was cleared by the Government of India way back in 2003.

    IAF perplexed

    The delay has perplexed the IAF, who are looking for 126 (six squadrons) of these multi or swing role aircraft that will help replenish the fleet's falling force levels, which is closer to 30, rather than the government approved 39.5 squadrons.

    The RFI had been sent to three manufacturers MiG Corporation for their MiG-29M/M2, SAAB for their Gripen and Dassault for their Mirage 2005-5 Mk2. While the first two, along with Lockheed Martin replied to it, Dassault chose not to. Dassault decision was based on the fact that with production lines having already been closed for the Mirage 2000s, they could not be kept open unless the Indian Government was able to indicate firmly that the French aircraft would indeed be chosen. Something that the Government could not do since defence procurement necessitates going through a global tendering process.

    With the unavailability of Mirage 2000, the IAF decided to broaden the scope of the aircraft that could be considered, zeroing in on six, the F-16 Fighting Falcon, F/A-18F Super Hornet, France's Dassault Aviation's Rafale and Eurofighter GmbH's Eurofighter Typhoon, Gripen and the MiG-35. All six are capable of performing primary and secondary roles, enabling them to switch tasks during the course of a mission, but vary widely in aspects like weapon carrying and mission capabilities and combat radius. Sources told The Hindu that most excuses toted as possible reasons for the delay in issuing the RFP like the hammering out of the Defence Procurement Policy, the nature of offsets to be offered to Indian industry in lieu of the contract, finalisation of an agreement with the Russians to develop a fifth generation fighter, the working out of a cost analysis, life cycle costs and legal complication, etc. have all been sorted out.

    The IAF has also "months ago replied in detail" to the "hundreds of queries" raised by bureaucrats from the finance, legal and defence ministries. The process to finalise an MRCA for the IAF has also for the first time in defence procurement history seen bureaucrats, financial gnomes and legal eagles being involved with the issue of a `mere' RFP.

    Pundits aver that the `heavies' like the Eurofighter Typhoon, Rafale, MiG-35 and the F/A-18F Super Hornet all of whom have maximum take off weights around 24,000 kg, and are powered by twin engines, have an edge over the `lighter' aircraft like the Gripen which is in the 15 tonne class, or the 16 tonne F-16, both powered by single engines. The Gripen in fact is very comparable to the indigenously developed Light Combat Aircraft.

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