India’s Soaring Fighter Ambition
Image Credit: Subharnab Majumdar

India’s Soaring Fighter Ambition


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. 

Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.

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.

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.

Sign up for our weekly newsletter
The Diplomat Brief