The Mother of All Defence Deals

India has kicked off a fresh dogfight for its $20 billion “mother of all defence deals” by re-inviting global aviation majors to compete for producing fighter jets under the government’s ‘strategic partnership’ policy.

IAF issued a preliminary global tender or Request For Information to acquire 110 fighter jets, of which 85% are to be built in India with a domestic strategic partner or production agency. The aviation majors have to submit their responses to the RFI, which also stipulates that 75% of the fighters will be single-seat jets, by July 3.

“The project will cost an estimated Rs.1.25 lakh crore. IAF hopes to issue formal tender or Request For Proposal, inviting technical and commercial bids, within 6-12 months of getting responses to the RFI,” said a top source.

Though it’s very early — the entire process of submission of RFP bids, complex evaluation and field trials will take some years — the aim is to fast-track setting up of a second fighter manufacturing line in India to supplement the long-delayed production of indigenous Tejas jets.

IAF, after all, is grappling with just 31 fighter squadrons (18 jets each) when at least 42 are required to tackle the “collusive threat” from Pakistan and China. Moreover, all 10 existing squadrons of old MiG-21s and MiG-27s are slated for retirement by 2022.

The RFI comes after the NDA government scrapped its two-year-old plan to produce 114 single-engine fighters with foreign collaboration at an estimated Rs.1.15 lakh crore, and asked IAF to go in for a wider competition by including twin-engine jets as well. But this will ensure a repeat of the original MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project for 126 jets, initiated by UPA in 2007 but never inked due to a deadlock in the final commercial negotiations with the eventual winner of the contest, the French Rafale fighters.

The new RFI has also been issued to the six contenders in the scrapped MMRCA project, which were F/A-18 ‘Super Hornet’ and F-16 ‘Super Viper’ (US), Gripen-E (Sweden), MiG-35 (Russia), Eurofighter Typhoon and Rafale, who will now field their latest variants for the new contest.

In the MMRCA sweepstakes, the single-engine F-16 and Gripen-E as well as the twin-engine MiG-35 and F/A-18 were rejected after exhaustive trials, while Rafale emerged the winner over Eurofighter Typhoon in 2012 after commercial evaluation. But the project could never be sealed. This time, a beleaguered IAF is keeping its fingers crossed.

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