India will increase the number of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) it plans to buy to 200, opening the door for more than one supplier, said Air Force and Ministry of Defence officials
The Indian Cabinet Committee on Security, which clears major defense programs, in October accepted the Air Force’s proposal to increase the number from the original 126, for which a request for information already has been sent to overseas vendors. The value of the original contract was $5 billion; the revised plan brings the combined value of one or more contracts to $8.5 billion.
A senior Defence Ministry official said the Air Force plans to phase out 60 of its 140 Jaguar aircraft in the next five years, by which time MMRCAs would start arriving. The additional planes will replace more Jaguars, aging MiG-23s, and some squadrons of MiG-27s, an Air Force official said.
The official said the first batch of MMRCAs could be supplied by one vendor, and perhaps the second lot could be made in India under licensed production from the same or a different vendor.
A request for information for the initial 126 planes was sent to Lockheed Martin for its F-16, Saab for the JAS 39 Gripen, Russian Aircraft Corporation MiG (RAC MiG) for the MiG-29 SMT, and Dassault Aviation for the Mirage 2000-5. Boeing also has offered its F/A-18 aircraft for consideration, as has RAC MiG for the MiG-35.
The indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) is due to replace the service’s MiG-21 combat aircraft, but that program is more than a decade behind schedule. The LCA is slated for limited production by 2007 or 2008.
Defence Ministry sources said it will be difficult for the government to choose among the four vendors because political and strategic considerations must be weighed in addition to technical factors.
The sources noted that the move to buy up to 200 MMRCAs would certainly ease the government’s burden, as more then one type of MMRCA could be selected.
They said the Air Force favors the French Mirage 2000-5 aircraft, but cannot ignore the firm from Russia, which is the largest supplier of arms and equipment to the Indian Defense Forces. However, it has been a year since Moscow and India have penned an arms deal. Russia has insisted India first sign an intellectual property rights accord on defense equipment and weapons, which would not allow India’s Russian-built weaponry to be upgraded or fitted with equipment from a third country.
Another consideration is that India and the United States have entered into a new strategic partnership, with Washington agreeing to provide nuclear and space technology for civilian use. The purchase of the F-16 or F/A-18 would signal the beginning of a new defense relationship between India and the United States, said Surya Pal Singh, retired Indian Air Force air commodore.
The purchase of two types of MMRCAs not only will help speed up acquisition of the aircraft, it also may help the Air Force acquire American aircraft, which have been offered with the latest radar, Singh said.
India wants as part of the MMRCA package the U.S. Active Electronically Scanned Array radar as well as new-generation missiles, the Defence Ministry official said.