The Indian Air Force is looking to buy around 110 fighter jets in a deal that could be worth more than $15 billion, as it looks to achieve parity with the country's eastern neighbour.
This marks the first step of a lengthy process that includes equipment tests, transfer of technology (ToT) agreements, and manufacturing deals with Indian companies under the Prime Minister's 'Make in India' initiative.
Major defence equipment manufacturers such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin, Saab and Dassault Aviation are expected to compete.
The jets would have to be built largely in India as part of the government's drive to build a domestic industrial base.
“85 percent will have to be made in India by a Strategic Partner/Indian Production Agency,” the air force said in a notice.
Lockheed has partnered with Tata Advanced Systems and offered to move its F-16 production line in Fort Worth, Texas, to India and make it the only plant worldwide for F-16 production.
Jets made at the Indian plant would also be exported to other countries.Similarly, Sweden’s Saab has entered into a partnership with resources conglomerate, Adani Group. So far, other contenders have not announced their local partners.
The tender, which was only for single engine fighters, has been widened to allow twin-engined combat jets as well, after the government asked the air force to expand the criteria.
The Eurofighter Typhoon and Russian MiG 35 are now potential contenders under the new requirements.
The defence ministry's earlier requirements had effectively restricted the competition to Lockheed's F 16, and Saab's Gripen fighter jets.
This is the latest policy flip-flop in a deal that has been delayed for over a decayed and left the air force understrength by hundreds of planes, and with ageing equipment.
Why the air force needs new fighters
The Indian air force currently has a strength of 32 squadrons, with about 18 jets each.
This number is expected to fall even further, to about 22 squadrons, as the Soviet-era MiG 21s and MiG 27s are retired.
This would leave the force with a severe shortage of fighters, especially at a time when the air force desires a strength of 42 squadrons to meet the needs of a two-front war.
Given the equivalence of performance among the fighters on offer, the choice of the would have to be made on the 'package' offered, an analyst with the Institute of Defence Studies and Analysis - a security policy think tank -
said in a report
This would include factors such as cost effectiveness, transfer of technology and the capabilities of the companies manufacturing the jets.
The government has retraced its steps back to 2007, with another competition to pick the best jet to bolster the air force.
The 2007 competition, known as medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender, was India's single largest defence deal, and was reported to be worth about $20 billion by 2015, when the incumbent government scrapped it.
As a stopgap, Prime Minister Narendra Modi negotiated a 36-jet deal with France for Dassault Aviation's Rafale jet.
The 7.8 billion euro government-to-government deal has been at the core of political opposition to the deal, with Rahul Gandhi alleging high cost per unit in the deal.
The government has clarified that the additional costs were for weapon systems, spare parts, weather and terrain compatibility fits, and performance-based logistics support.
The latest request for information is open until July, after which a request for proposal will be issued, followed by bid evaluations and contract negotiations.
The process is lengthy, and could take years.
Meanwhile, the air force is left to deal with Cold War era jets, and a spare parts crunch.
JETS by TV18 Broadcast Limited