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IAF on Friday issued a preliminary global tender or RFI (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 the formal tender or RFP (request for proposal), inviting technical and commercial bids, within 6-12 months of getting the responses to the RFI,” said a top source.
Though it’s very early days as yet because the entire process of submission of RFP bids, complex evaluation and field trials will take some years, the aim is to set up 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 (each with 18 jets) when at least 42 are required to tackle the “collusive threat” from Pakistan and China. Moreover, the 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 cost of Rs 1.15 lakh crore, and asked IAF to go in for a wider competition by including twin-engine fighters as well, as was first reported by TOI in February.
But this will ensure a repeat of the original MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) project for 126 jets, which was initiated by the previous UPA regime in 2007 but could never be 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.
The NDA government had junked the MMRCA project, under which the first 18 jets were to come in flyaway condition and the rest 108 being licensed produced by defence PSU Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL), in June 2015. It had then gone in for the off-the-shelf acquisition of 36 Rafales under the 7.8 billion Euros (Rs 59,000 crore) contract inked in September 2016.
The NDA government contended the 36-Rafale contract was inked to meet IAF’s “critical operational necessity”, but the Congress has attacked the deal for being “non-transparent and overpriced” with no transfer of technology.
The 36 Rafales alone, which will be delivered in the 2019-2022 timeframe, will of course not make up the fast-depleting number of fighter squadrons, especially because HAL has so far managed to deliver only six of the 324 Tejas fighters planned for induction in the long-term.
In the MMRCA sweepstakes, the single-engine F-16 and Gripen-E as well as the twin-engine Russian MiG-35 and American F/A-18 were rejected after exhaustive field trials in the original MMRCA contest, while the twin-engine Rafale had 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.