IAF speeds up hunt for new fighter jets to add

The Indian Air Force (IAF) is likely to start the process of inviting foreign military contractors to build fighter jets in the country under the government’s Make in India plan in the next four weeks , a person familiar with the project said.

This multi-billion-dollar project to build 114 jets will be “directly linked” to the development of an indigenous futuristic stealth fighter – the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), the person added.

The air force plans to issue a request for information (RFI) before DefExpo-2018 — a military systems exhibition by the defence ministry — opens in Chennai on April 11.

“The document will not specify the number of engines the jets should have, leaving the field open for makers of both single- and twin-engine planes,” said the person who asked not to be named.

An earlier plan involved pursuing two separate projects to build single-engine and twin-engine fighters in India but that distinction has been discarded now.

The RFI is the first step towards finding a new warplane for the air force and global plane manufacturers will respond to it with operational features and technical parameters of their platforms. That will pave the way for the air force to make a case for getting the ministry’s ‘acceptance of necessity’ (AoN) – the government’s stamp of approval to pursue a military programme.

“After the AoN comes, we could either opt for a government-to-government deal or put out a tender. Both options are open at this stage,” said a senior officer tracking the air force’s modernisation on the condition of anonymity.

The manufacturer that India finally decides to collaborate with will have to commit to transfer of technology not only for the fighter to be built in India but also for the AMCA that is on the drawing board.

“We have asked the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) to prepare a list of technologies they need help with for the AMCA. There will be clear clause on the transfer of those technologies in the contract,” said the officer quoted above.

Experts say the full-scale engineering development of the AMCA up to the prototype stage will take upwards of a decade and its flight first could take place around 2030.

India had floated a global tender for 126 planes more than a decade ago but it was cancelled after Prime Minister Narendra Modi declared in April 2015 that India would directly buy 36 Rafale jets from France.

Six fighters took part in that contest before the Rafale and the Eurofighter made it to the last round.

The new competition is also likely to be among Rafale, Eurofighter, MiG-35, F/A-18, F-16 and Gripen.

“The technology has evolved during the past decade. In their present form, F/A-18 and Gripen NG would not have been rejected in the older contest,” the officer said.

The air force wants to speed up the project as the count of its fighter squadrons has shrunk to 31 compared to an optimum strength of 42-plus units required to fight a two-front war.

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