India fighter jet deal countdown

The US$11 billion contract to buy 126 multi-role combat aircrafts (MRCAs) forms a crucial cog in the country’s attempts to modernize its military capabilities.

Earlier this month the federal defense ministry began review of competing bids of the remaining two European competitors in the fray --- Eurofighter’s Typhoon and French Dassault’s Rafale, both aircrafts used successfully by NATO as part of its recent air campaign in Libya.

New Delhi has said that it will settle for one MRCA platform, leaving the loser saddled with substantial lobbying expense, high expectations but nothing in hand.

The final choice is expected to be made by the end of next month, though the Indian government could take a bit more time to announce the deal. Given the money already allotted in the annual budget for the contract, the decision should, however, be no later than March 2012, when the financial year ends.

Leaving such a large capital outlay unutilized opens the charge of delay and indecision on New Delhi that it would prefer to avoid.

The bidders have been trimmed to Rafale or Eurofighter Typhoon, while the Russian MiG-35, Swedish Saab Gripen, the American Boeing F/A-18 E/F and the Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets have been rejected on ``technical and operational’’ grounds.

Even though an unhappy America has been pushing New Delhi to re-consider its aircrafts, it is unlikely that such as process is going to happen.

India has been looking to build a fighter jet fleet that will comprise the MRCAs to replace the crash prone MiG-21 interceptors and fit between the more powerful long range Sukhoi-30 and the lower-end indigenous Tejas LCA lightweight fighters.

In a comment, the Jane’s Defense Weekly said: ``with a potential contract price of $9 billion to $14 billion, this is the single biggest competition in the global defense aviation industry at the moment and offers both bidders a much-needed opportunity in a major market.’’

The MRCA contract forms part of India’s estimated US$50 billion import-driven defense modernization exercise over the next five years that comprises submarines, tanks, missiles, air craft carriers, advanced radars, artillery gun and more.

India is making a conscious effort to move away from dependence on imports from Russia to countries such as Israel and America, apart from deepening ties with traditional partners such as France, Sweden and Britain.

The Russian defense industry is seen as increasingly outdated in the absence of effective state support. Existing Russian defense platforms in India’s possession depleted due to lack of spare parts and post sale maintenance.

Washington has been using every diplomatic and strategic means to pressure India to buy weapons from American firms. India has already signed multi billion dollar defense contracts with America comprising transport and reconnaissance aircrafts and this process is only going to grow in the future.

India’s military upgrade, meanwhile, is driven by perceived security threats from Pakistan and China. Given an incipient domestic defense armament industry, India is importing most of the arms it needs.

According to the Swedish think tank Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India was the world’s biggest importer of arms between 2006 and 10 accounting for 9 % the global arms trade in the period.

This, however, does not mean that Pakistan and China, two countries with which India has fought wars in the past, lag their defense efforts in any way.

Pakistan continues to receive military largess from America as a partner in the global war against terror, though India has for long held that such stock piling of weapons only add to instability in the region.

New Delhi feels that US-supplied armaments to Pakistan are more potent against a conventional enemy rather than the amorphous terror networks that also spread over Afghanistan and need effective intelligence and pin pointed operations, such as the one that killed Osama Bin Laden, to neutralize.

Pakistan’s military, meanwhile continues to be supported by Beijing with several of its attack ballistic missiles with potential to destroy Indian cities a copy of those in possession of China.

China’s military prowess, of course, continues to be far ahead of India. The country has managed to blatantly copy western arms prototypes to build effective domestic armament manufacturing capability that has reduced its arms imports dependence that is reflected in the statistics over the past few years.

Given the closed nature of China’s polity, nobody is quite sure about the kind of investments and developments that are happening in China’s defense sphere. Some analysts believe that China’s military capabilities today could be superior to America.

Given such a scenario India has not choice but to build an effective deterrence against China while matching the military capabilities of Pakistan, against whom the security threats are more immediate