Features | Security | South Asia

India’s Soaring Fighter Ambition

Six fighter jet manufacturers are vying for India’s biggest-ever military aviation contract. Expect politics to play a role in the decision.

By Nitin Gokhale for

On February 5, the Indian Air Force’s newest squadron, the ‘Veiled Vipers,’ became active with the induction into service of the first of six Super Hercules aircraft.

The tactical airlift plane, given the motto ‘Kill with Stealth,’ is the first major US military platform purchased by the Indian Air Force in decades, and is expected to give India’s special forces a significant boost by allowing them to operate in all conditions, including airdrops and landings on unprepared surfaces in complete darkness.  

According to an Indian Air Force spokesperson, the C-130J-30 Hercules can be used in wartime for special air operations, air maintenance,and casualty evacuation. Peacetime roles could include air maintenance around harsh mountainous terrain, UN or multinational missions, disaster relief and the evacuation of Indian nationals during a crisis. 

And the subtext of the induction ceremony wasn’t lost on anyone.

The presence of the US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, and top officials from Hercules manufacturer Lockheed Martin underscored the importance the Americans attach to India as a market for its military hardware.

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By making a point of publicizing the induction of the C-130J, the Americans were perhaps trying to put some tacit pressure on decision makers in India’s Defence Ministry just days ahead of the bi-annual aerospace exhibition ‘Aero-India 2011’ that starts today in Bangalore.

The air show is expected to be the last chance for six major combat aircraft manufacturers from around the world to impress the Defence Ministry and the Indian Air Force before it takes a final decision on what’s being billed as India’s single biggest military contract—as much as $11 billion is expected to be spent on the purchase of 126 fighter jets for immediate induction into its air force.

Six aviation majors are in contention for the massive order—Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the United States, European firms Dassault, Eurofighter, and Saab, plus Russia’s RSK MiG.

A range of aircraft types are being offered. Boeing wants to sell its F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, while arch-rival Lockheed Martin wants India to buy its F-16IN Super Viper. Sweden's Saab has put the Gripen in play, and Dassault is seeking its first foreign order for the Rafale. Eurofighter, meanwhile, is pitching the Typhoon, and to round off the bidding, Russia has offered the RSK MiG-35.

The stakes are high. Whichever firm wins the contract and the potential follow-up orders will undoubtedly flourish over the coming decade. But the remaining five firms may well be forced to wind up some manufacturing plants as most big countries are now looking ahead to developing, manufacturing or buying fifth-generation aircraft post-2020.

Even India, despite its massive investment in this particular contract, already has an eye on the future. Indeed, in December 2010, India inked a Memorandum of Agreement with ally Russia for development of a fifth-generation aircraft. The project is expected to cost anywhere between $25 billion and S30 billion dollars over the next decade.

For now, however, all eyes are on Defence Minister A K Antony and his team of bureaucrats, who are expected to decide in April or May which combat aircraft to buy. Their decision will then need to be ratified by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), India’s highest government body and the final arbiter on national security issues. 

Antony and his advisers have a tough decision ahead. The Air Force is said to have done an excellent job of evaluating the technical merits of each of the six contenders in what has been a long and gruelling process. Indeed, manufacturers have said this is the most demanding set of criteria they’ve faced, with some 700 initial requirements in the 6000 page tender document.

Once their application was accepted, each manufacturer was then required to bring its aircraft to India for testing in the country’s varied and challenging climate—tests were conducted from the searing heat of India’s deserts in Rajasthan, to the high-altitude region of Ladakh. In addition, all six contenders had to base their aircraft at Leh, the world’s highest operational base at 11,000 feet, where temperatures plunge to minus 30 degrees during the winter.

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But the technical evaluation may actually have been the easy part for India’s decision makers. The Air Force submitted its final evaluation to the Defence Ministry last July, but with such a high-profile contract at stake, the Ministry is determined to take its time in reaching a final decision. This is in part because there’s more to the decision than the straightforward performance of the fighter—there’s also the ‘offsets’ issue.

Under offset rules announced in 2007, the winning manufacturer has to create aerospace-related deals in India equal to at least half the contract value, to help boost local technical and financial capabilities.

In addition, there’s the question of operational sovereignty. India has been prickly about US stipulations that India must sign binding agreements such as Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA). India sees such demands as impinging on its independence, although the United States says it is bound by domestic law to make these demands. Regardless, if the two sides fail to reach agreement on CISMOA, then the F-16 and F-18 aircraft would have to be shorn of the latest technologies. Europeans rivals Saab and Eurofighter, in contrast, have been quick to point out that they don’t have any such requirements.

All this means that the ultimate decision by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his administration is bound to be a complex mix of political, strategic, and military factors. It’s little wonder then that there have been so many high-profile visitors to India in the last few months—British Prime Minister David Cameron, French President Nicholas Sarkozy, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev, and US President Barack Obama have all come calling, in part to press their case.

Such visits, and the considerable and highly-visible interaction with Indian political and business leaders, has made one thing clearer—the world looks at India as a sub-continental superpower, and the biggest potential market for selling military hardware.

Who will be taking home the biggest slice of pie in India’s military aviation history, though, remains to be seen.

Nitin Gokhale is Security and Strategic Affairs Editor with Indian broadcaster NDTV 24×7