It’s “all systems go’’ for the field trials in the “mother of all defence deals’’, the Rs 42,000-crore project to acquire 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for the IAF. The trials will begin in Bangalore next week, with the American F/A-18 ‘Super Hornet’ (Boeing) being the first off the block. The other five contenders—Swedish Gripen (Saab), American F-16 ‘Falcon’ (Lockheed Martin), French Rafale (Dassault), Russian MiG-35 (United Aircraft Corporation) and Eurofighter Typhoon (consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian companies)—will follow suit thereafter. The six fighters are to be put through the paces in two sets of trials to be conducted in summer and winter, ranging from the snow-capped peaks of Leh, scorching Rajasthan deserts (Jaisalmer) and humid conditions of south India (Bangalore). The IAF has constituted two teams of two test pilots each for the field evaluation test (FET). The fighters will also be evaluated in the countries of their origin, which will include weapon-testing at designated firing ranges. So, in effect, the trial results will be out only by mid-2010 at the earliest. The commercial bids will only be opened, examined and compared after a shortlist is made of the top two or three contenders, following the extensive field trials and staff evaluation. With the final negotiations to begin thereafter, the entire process is expected to take a minimum of two years before the deal is actually inked. While 18 jets will be bought off-the-shelf, the rest will be manufactured in India under the transfer of technology. All the contenders have already mounted high-voltage campaigns in the hotly-contested race, worth around $10.4 billion, in which India is sure to factor in its geo-political considerations as well.