A F-16 "Fighting Falcon" of the United States Air Force in action

Strapped with an ageing and depleting fighter fleet, IAF had  floated a Request for Information (RFI) – a global tender – to buy 110 fighters

by Sudhi Ranjan Sen

The process to select 110 fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF) will draw upon the field evaluation results of the now-cancelled Medium Muti-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) purchase deal to shorten and hasten the process, senior officials in the ministry of defence who aren’t authorised to speak to the media said.

In 2015, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government at the Centre scrapped the US$ 20 billion (approx INR 140 billion) MMRCA project. Instead, it opted to buy 36 Rafale aircraft from French defence manufacturing giant Dassault through a government-to-government contract with France. The ~58,000 crore deal has triggered a major political controversy, with the Opposition alleging corruption and wrongdoing in the purchase of the aircraft which the government has vehemently denied.

Strapped with an ageing and depleting fighter fleet, IAF had  floated a Request for Information (RFI) – a global tender – to buy 110 fighters. Of the 110 jets, around 85% will have to be built in India under the ‘Make in India’ programme in partnership with an Indian manufacturer under the Strategic Partnership (SP) route.

“What was tested earlier and proved will not be put to test again,” the officer said. “When we evaluate fighters now, only new additions, systems of the aircraft, and modifications made to the aircraft, if any, will be put to test. We have decided not to go through the entire process again. This will substantially cut down the time,” the first defence ministry officer said.

What may come as a relief to IAF is that all six global manufacturers who have responded to the RFI – Lockheed Martin F-16 and SAAB Gripen with single-engine fighters, and Boeing F-18, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon and United Aircraft Corporation MiG-35 with twin-engine fighters – were also contenders for the previous MMRCA deal.

The air force is now in the process of finalising the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQR) – a list of must-have capabilities and parameters – for the aircraft. “We are ensuring that ASQR takes into account the disruptive and transformative technologies that are likely to be a reality in the coming decades. The ASQR will be complete in the next few weeks,” a second official involved in the acquisition process said.

“We hope to get a nod from the ministry (of defence) by March 2019,” the officer added.

With a new government expected to be sworn in next May, the IAF is keen to complete as much of the process as possible before that.

“We hope to start the process of field evaluation by next June and complete it as early as possible, so that commercial negotiation can start,” the second officer said.

Commercial negotiations are precursor to signing a contract.

The IAF spokesperson was not available for comment. Experts and former IAF test pilots who were involved in the acquisition of aircraft, however, said “using previous test results” is practical but advised caution at the same time.

“It is not necessary to test proven points in the QSR again; all previous points on which a platform was found to be non-complaint should be checked,” Air Marshal RK Sharma (Retd), former Vice Chief of IAF and test pilot, said.

“Importantly, when checking fresh add-ons, modifications to a platform the IAF must ensure is that they check all parameters that the modification will affect,” he said

“The process that follows the selection of the aircraft like commercial negotiations, etc, should also be completed quickly,” he said.