India will soon begin trials of fighter jets competing for one of the world’s biggest arms deals, a defence ministry official said on Thursday, brushing aside speculation the upcoming election could affect the deal.
Last year, six international companies submitted bids to supply India with 126 multi-role fighter jets and bag the $10-billion contract.
Two US companies, Lockheed Martin Corp and Boeing Co, are competing with Russia’s MiG-35, France’s Dassault Rafale, Sweden’s Saab KAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, a consortium of British, German, Italian and Spanish companies for the fighter deal.
Indian media have been reporting that a new government could take a fresh look at the deal after the April/May election, but defence officials said the trial process could begin by end-May.
“The election will not have a bearing on the fighter jet trials, as the Indian Air Force is now working on the modalities before trials and things are moving in the right direction,” said defence ministry spokesman Sitanshu Kar.
India is looking to spend more than $30 billion over the next five years to modernise its largely Soviet-era weapons systems and is also launching its first military spy satellite next year.
Talks between Indian officials and some of the bidders were held last week and would continue before the trials, officials said.
A special technical team from Lockheed Martin Corp had also arrived in India to oversee the company’s preparation, company officials said.
The first step will be to train Indian pilots to fly the sophisticated aircraft, before the trials begin.
“We are ready for the trials,” Douglas A. Hartwick, chief executive officer of Lockheed’s Indian operations, told Reuters. “It will take a few weeks of training for the pilots to get used to flying the planes.”
Lockheed last year sold six C-130J military transport planes to India for about $1.1 billion and is now offering its F-16 fighters to India.
Lockheed and its U.S.-based rival Boeing Co, which is offering the “Super Hornets”, have emerged as the frontrunners for lucrative contract, air force officials said.
After the training of the Indian pilots, trials to test the planes’ manoeuvreability and effectiveness will begin in various weather conditions, officials said.
“It will take a full cycle of season to test the fighters,” Kar said.