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India set to decide big military aircraft deals


By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal Ashok Goel (Retd) Published: June 2011

New Delhi. India is set to decide on the world’s biggest combat aircraft deal of this century yet as well as those for new combat, utility and heavy lift helicopters within the next few days, weeks, or months, but all within 2011.


Chief of Air Staff of the Indian Air Force (IAF), Air Chief Marshal P V Naik, told India Strategic defence magazine ( that the commercial bids of the two finalists in the race for 126-plus Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs) would be opened mid-June (possibly before the Paris Air Show beginning June 20), while those of the combat, heavy lift and utility helicopters and the basic trainer aircraft “anytime between the next few days to few weeks.”

In an interview for India Strategic’s Paris Air Show edition, the Air Chief said that IAF had already finalized its choice for the combat helicopter while that of the utility helicopter had also been through with the Indian Army, which is the lead buyer in this case. IAF will follow and buy the same helicopter.

As for the heavy lift helicopter, “the final report can be expected within the few days,” he said.

All the required reports were either already now with the Ministry of Defence (MoD) or just about to be submitted, he said pointing out IAF was well on its way towards transformation by 2022 or 2025.

Boeing’s Apache AH 64D and the Russian Mi 28NE are the two contenders in the race for combat helicopters while Boeing’s Chinook – the only helicopter which can float on water – and Russian Rosoboronexport’s Mi 26 are in the fray for the heavy lift role. The utility helicopter race for the Indian Army and IAF has the EADS Eurocopter and Russian Kamov in the race.

There is another project for an Indian-made Multi Role Helicopter later in the decade.

Basic Trainer Aircraft

In the basic trainer role, Swiss Pilatus 7. Korean KT 1 and US Beechcraft T 6 have been short-listed by the IAF, and the finalist is also due to be announced.

Existing Combat Aircraft

Notably, except for the Su 30 MKI aircraft and Hawk Advanced Jet Trainers, nearly all the aircraft with the Indian Air Force (IAF) are due for replacement as they were bought during the 1980s a quarter century ago. There is also a need to ensure that the new systems are in line with the revolution in electronic warfare systems, precision combat radars like AESA and missile technologies.

The Air Chief did not give any figures, but a rough calculation shows that IAF could be announcing deals worth $ 30 billion, or more, by the end of 2011.

The Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) deal, for which only the Eurofighter and Rafale remain in the fray, could touch or exceed $ 15 billion if the option for additional 63 aircraft is exercised in addition to the 126 units given in the tender. The three helicopters and the trainer aircraft, along with support and training packages, could be another $ five billion.

IAF has already selected 12 VVIP helicopters from Agusta Westland and 80 multi role Mi 17 1V from Russia. A project to acquire and build some 200 Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft has also already been signed with Russia.

Transport Aircraft

Notably, IAF has already finalized a deal to acquire 10 Boeing C 17 Globemaster III strategic transport aircraft, and there is a decision to add six and “some more” later.

It may be noted that as most deals involve Transfer of Technologies and offsets, there are still additional costs as the manufacturers pass various charges essentially to the buyer.

He said that IAF had already inducted two of the six special operations C 130J Super Hercules aircraft ordered from US Lockheed Martin, and by Feb 2012, all of them would be in the IAF inventory.

The support infrastructure is in place, on time, he said adding: “There are plans to acquire an additional six C 130J through the same Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route from the US Government.

MMRCA Milestones

Air Chief Marshal Naik said that in the case of the MMRCA, the last significant milestone in the selection process was over with the completion of the Technical Oversight Committee (TOC) report. The MoD could open the commercial tenders submitted by Eurofighter and Rafale mid-June to determine the lowest, or L-1, bidder.

However, it would still take a couple of months as it just won’t just be the price mentioned, but the package in terms of direct costs, support programmes, training, offsets and life cycle costs which would determine the winner. The race though is expected to be close.

Asked if the Eurofighter and Rafale were superior in technologies to the other four contenders – Boeing F/A 18 IN Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F 16 IN, Swedish Gripen and Russian Mig 29 – the Air Chief said: “In all fairness, all the six aircraft in the competition were good, and more or less close to one another in performance. But some of them had to be out, and some had to be in, and that’s it. Let’s say that the two European finalists were the most-compliant in the 600-plus parameters that the IAF selection team had set.”

The Air Chief observed that admittedly, the US had the best of the combat radars, weapons and systems. But then, each of the six contenders had given in writing that they would match the IAF requirements, including those for systems to be sourced from the US.

IAF Transformation

Air Chief Marshal Naik, who is at the vantage point in overseeing the transformation process of the Indian Air Force before his retirement in July, said that by 2020, “as part of our capability buildup plan, IAF would have dedicated combat, medium and heavy lift helicopters in all sectors to adequately meet our requirements.”

By then MMRCA and FGFA would have been inducted and the existing Mirages, Mig 29 and other aircraft upgraded to serve for some more years.

Pilot Training

It was important, he pointed out, that IAF pilots should be tech-savvy.

“Over a period of time, IAF will be tech savvy not only in terms of weapons and equipment but also in its style of functioning,” he said adding that pilot training is going to be intensified at all levels, and facilities expanded to train more pilots.


Air Chief Marshal disclosed that the last of the three Phalcon AWACS (Airborne Warning and Control Systems Aircraft) had arrived in India in March and deployed.

Two more AWACS mounted on IL 76 platforms had also been ordered.

The process to augment the electronic surveillance capability with aerostats – balloons with electronic surveillance radars – was continuing.

Air Chief Marshal Naik also said that the process to induct more midair refuellers was progressing. EADS’ Airus 330 MRTT and Rosoboronexport’s IL-78 (Mk 90) are competing.

Private Sector

Air Chief Marshal Naik said that the private sector had to play a great role in defence, aerospace and homeland security, and that the government was now set to facilitate its participation.

There should be fair competition between the state run companies and the private sector but “it is time, the private sector also set up a strong industrial R&D base to make this participation meaningful," he observed.

  © India Strategic  
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