Friday, February 11, 2011

Indian Officials Send Mixed Signals On Fighter Schedule

BENGALURU, India – Indian defense officials have given conflicting statements about the country’s long-awaited fighter selection, with Defense Minister A.K. Antony indicating the final choice will be pushed
into 2012, but the country’s top air force official pointing to a selection this October.

Antony said at the Aero India air show that the selection of a winner in the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program – originally expected this year – was being pushed to March of next year, although a winnowing of contractors would still occur this year. But Air Chief Marshal P.V. Naik said the final choice would be announced by October, and that price negotiations would begin in a week.

The dissonance was noticed. “This could be the Chief’s way of putting pressure on the government to speed the process as the military is concerned about its reduced squadron strength,” one official commented.

On static display at Aero India this week were the candidate fighters: the Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16 and Saab Gripen. The other contender – and the one most conspicuous by its absence – was the RSK MiG-35.

According to one vendor, the last stage for submissions, which includes a review of offset obligations, has yet to occur. And before price negotiations can take place, the defense ministry must clarify the transfer of technology clause that has been a bone of contention between the vendors and the government. A further amendment to India’s new defensep rocurement policy – released only last month – is expected to address these concerns.

“Under these circumstances, there is no way a decision can be made,” the vendor says.

India’s recent defense procurement policy change allowed for offset requirements to be met not only by giving defense manufacturing work to India, but also manufacturing work related to commercial aviation and homeland security. One of the leading concerns has been whether the local defense industry could absorb all the offset work headed its way.

Some U.S. and European companies lobbied for the policy change, arguing it is in India’s interest to have businesses that work across defense and civil programs.

Some executives involved in the MMRCA competition say another reason the government is procrastinating is because it was recently rocked by corruption scandals having to do with the issuance of telecommunications
spectrum licenses. Government leaders want the local political situation to improve before making an announcement for the multibillion-dollar purchase of 126 MMRCA fighters.

“They want to make sure they have dotted all the I’s and crossed all the T’s,” says one executive involved in the competition, adding that “everything has to be transparent and aboveboard so as to avoid any complaints later on or any political backlash.”

Whatever decision India makes, it will reverberate overseas politically, as it will say a lot about how India sees the world and which bilateral relationship it seeks to enhance the most.
- Neelam Mathews ( and
Leithen Francis

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