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India to shop for more combat aircraft

The demand for MRCAs is likely to substantially rise from 126 to 180-190, the higher numbers would be for Navy.

india Updated: Feb 26, 2006 15:13 IST

India is likely to substantially increase its demand for multi-role combat aircraft (MRCAs) from 126 to 180-190, but the higher numbers would be for the Navy.

The Government had earlier wanted the MRCAs for the Indian Air Force (IAF).

The requests are to be issued to France's Rafale, the US' F-16 and F/A 18, Russia's MiG-35, Sweden's JAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, senior IAF officials confirmed.

This increase would significantly boost the cost of the deal to around $10 billion or even more, Defence Ministry sources said.

The sources indicated that Indian naval plans to augment its strike capability and range to deal with out of area contingencies had delayed the ministry's request for MRCAs, over a year after the IAF first publicly declared its intent to import 126 fighters.

The Rafale and Typhoon were not initially under consideration but had entered the race recently.

Till recently, France's Mirage 2000-5 was also in the running for India's MRCA requirement. But its manufacturer, Dassault Aviation, has informed the Indian government of its decision to stop making the fighter.

"We are on the verge of closing the Mirage fighter assembly line and want to offer India a quantum jump in technology in the shape of upgraded new multi-mission Rafale," Dassault head Chacks Edelstenne told Minister of State for Defence Rao Inderjit Singh during Prime Minister Jacques Chiarc's visit to New Delhi on February 19.

Dassault is also believed to have informed the IAF - which operates around 50 Mirage 2000H's - that its extensive Mirage repair and servicing facilities created at great expense by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd at Bangalore would need "limited modification" to accommodate Rafael because this fighter had much in the common with the Mirage series.

In the late 1990's Dassault had pulled its Alpha advanced jet trainer (AJT) out of the race for the IAF contract for 66 AJTs after it ceased producing the trainer whilst waiting for India to decide.

The British Hawk was eventually awarded the $1.7 billion AJT deal in September 2003 after nearly two decades of negotiation.

Meanwhile, Air Chief Marshal Shashindra Pal Tyagi had declared in November that the request for MRCAs would be issued "within a month".

But official sources said this was in the process of being "reworked" collectively in light of the Indian Navy's requirement and in all likelihood it would be issued "soon".

The Navy is poised for large-scale hardware acquisitions that include maritime reconnaissance aircraft, helicopters, submarines, frigates and two aircraft carriers by 2012 for an extended operational role in the Indian Ocean region.

IAF officials feel that in the light of declining fighter force levels expected to fall to around 29 combat squadrons by 2010, the MRCA acquisition was already delayed by several years after it was first proposed five years ago.

Defence Ministry sources said the delay in dispatching the request for MRCAs was also due to lack of clarity in the government's revised defence procurement procedures that mandate a 30 per cent offset in all arms contracts worth over Rs3 billion.

"Elucidation on offsets has acquired immediacy as India is poised for a massive weapons buying spree that includes the MRCA," a senior official said.

First Published: Feb 26, 2006 10:49 IST