The Indian Air Force's agonising wait for replenishing its dwindling fighter fleet may finally be coming to an end. Defence Minister AK Antony signalled hope for the IAF at Aero India 2007 on Wednesday, declaring that the request for proposal (RFP) for the purchase of 126 multi-role combat aircraft 'will be issued anytime now'. Antony said the RFP was its final stages and would be released at the earliest.
The defence minister's assurance should spell relief for the air force whose combat edge has been blunted over the years as a result of frequent crashes, machines getting obsolete and the Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) programme not materialising as per original projections.
Early realisation of the $7 billion MRCA tender has the potential of infusing new life into the IAF's combat fleet. The reason? The state of the air force's combat inventory is unhealthy: against a sanctioned strength of 40 combat squadrons, it is currently making do with just 33.
The number is expected to dip further to around 28 by the end of the 12th Plan Period (2012-17). The IAF had even conceived a scenario of losing air superiority to Pakistan. Antony said his government placed high premium on transparency when it came to defence deals but it would not let the modernisation of armed forces suffer on that score.
Aero India, a biennial international aerospace and defence exhibition held on the outskirts of Bangalore, has actually emerged as a battle ground for aerospace biggies who are making a pitch for the 126 MRCA tender, currently the most talked about and closely watched defence deal around the globe.
And they are all here with their mean machines firing on all engines to get noticed. The stakes are clearly and high and ar Aero India both the metal and the makers are under tension.
If Boeing IDS (Integrated Defence Systems) is hoping to take competition to the cleaners with its F/A 18 Super Hornet, the Russians fielding the MiG-35 would be betting on their age-old ties with India to streak ahead in the race.
Then there is a strong contender in Lockheed Martin, who have flown their F-16s to Yelahanka for the airshow. Saab is offering the Gripen aircraft with the promise that it will provide India the "most cost-effective, latest generation MRCA to the IAF". The French Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon will also not give up without putting up a fight.
The IAF had mooted a proposal for buying 126 new fighters way back in 2001. Antony admitted that Indian procedures were time consuming and needed to be refined.
Antony has promised to expedite procurements for the air force from foreign vendors. But he also made it clear -- shortly after declaring the airshow open -- that the focus of a nation like India should be on indigenisation in the long run.
He emphasised, "The platform provided by Aero India should help us provide fresh impetus to our indigenisation programme by sharing experience and expertise with others".