Six firms enter race for selling 110 fighters to IAF

Saab Gripen The Gripen fighter | Saab

Over a decade after they submitted proposals to sell India 126 fighter aircraft, six global aircraft manufacturers have submitted proposals for the Indian Air Force's hunt for 110 fighter aircraft.

In April, the Indian Air Force came out with a request for information (RFI) seeking responses for its global hunt for 110 fighter jets on the backdrop of its depleting combat strength. At present, the IAF has 32 combat squadrons but needs at least 42 squadrons to handle a two-front war scenario, which assumes China and Pakistan pose a collusive threat.

The deadline to submit responses to the RFI ended on Friday. According to official sources, six firms have responded to the IAF's request. These companies are France's Dassault Aviation, makers of Rafale; Airbus with the Eurofighter; Sweden's Saab with the Gripen; US' Boeing with F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet; US' Lockheed Martin with the F-16 and Russia's MiG-35.

Interestingly, the same six aircraft were offered to India in 2007 under the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) project to buy 126 aircraft. Though the Rafale was selected as the 'winner' of the MMRCA project, contract negotiations dragged on, only to be cancelled by the Narendra Modi government in 2015. India opted for a direct purchase of 36 Rafales.

Based on the responses from these companies and the IAF's technical requirements, the IAF will prepare a request for proposal (RFP) that will formally begin the global race. And this process will take at least four to six months, according to officials.

The IAF is seeking to acquire 110 fighter jets, of which 85 per cent aircraft are to be built in India with a domestic strategic partner or production agency. The RFI also stipulates that 75 per cent of the fighters will be single-seat jets. However, the IAF did not clarify whether it is looking for a single-engine or twin-engine aircraft.

The world's fourth-largest air force, which had a strength of 42 squadrons of fighter jets in 2002, will be down to 28 squadrons by 2020 and further down to 19 squadrons by 2042 if the government does not take speedy action, according to an internal estimate of the IAF.

However, multiple efforts are being planned by the IAF to meet its operational requirements. Apart from 40 LCA Tejas fighters, the IAF has also ordered procurement of 83 additional LCA MK-IAs, which will be equipped with more lethal avionics and weaponry. In between, the IAF is also upgrading its existing fleet of Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar fighters to keep them contemporary and increase their operational capability.

Earlier this year, the IAF had withdrawn its project to make 114 single-engine fighters that was touted as the largest 'Make in India' programme and was launched over two years ago. In anticipation of this project, Saab and Lockheed Martin had already announced their collaboration with Indian firms to express their intentions to set up production lines in India.