Made In India fighters: Rafale fire rains on MiG’s retirement parade

The Indian Air Force’s wait for new fighter jets to replace an ageing MiG fleet is set to get longer. The selection process to identify combat aircraft to be made in India is unlikely to commence before the general elections this year, high-level sources indicate.

Made In India fighters: Rafale fire rains on MiG’s retirement parade

Steps to induct a Future Multi-Role Fighter (FMRF) has been awaited since 2016, when the deal to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets was signed and a decision was taken to manufacture 110 fighters under a new strategic partnership policy intended to promote the private sector.

Several officials ET spoke to confirmed that responses have been received from seven companies after a preliminary request.

The inputs were being studied to firm up the technical requirement the Air Force would mandate for the formal selection process to begin, the officials said.

The slack is on account of the shadow cast by the Rafale controversy that has impacted decision making.

Multiple rounds of meetings have taken place with foreign vendors who have responded to the preliminary request, and the Air Force has been studying how much of indigenous production it can mandate for the contract. The plan is to ensure that fighters made in India under the scheme have no less than 45% local content.

“As things stand, it will not be possible to move ahead quickly as the matter is being studied. The competition can now only begin once a government is in place after the upcoming elections,” sources told ET.

The biggest decision to be made by the Air Force is on the qualitative requirements – a set of performance and maintenance parameters – that will determine how many of the competitors even make the cut to the next level for validation trials. The fate of many competitors hang on this, given that at present, a variety of jets – from the single-engine SAAB Gripen to twin-engines such as Russian Su 35 – are vying for the contract.

Officials said the next step, issuing an ‘expression of interest’ to foreign vendors as well as Indian suppliers is not expected to take place before elections, contrary to some expectations that the process could be announced at the upcoming Aero India show in Bengaluru next month.

Sharing details, sources said that unlike in case of the competition for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft, the Air Force does not plan to carry out extensive field trials that could take up to two years. Instead, certain parameters would be individually assessed, most likely in the host nation of the jets on offer.

“Six out of the seven competitors have already been flight tested. Yes, they have added some capability like new avionics and radars and we can have limited tests if needed,” an official said.

While at least a preliminary process for gathering information has started with foreign vendors, the defence ministry is yet to reach out to Indian companies that need to be selected to manufacture the jets domestically. According to the strategic partnership policy, the government needs to have in place a set of financial and technical parameters to identify these Indian companies. However, this has not kicked off yet for the fighter program.

The Air Force, meanwhile, continues to grapple with a serious shortage of combat aircraft. The 36 Rafale jets which have been ordered would barely make up for the number of MiG jets that are retiring in the coming months.

The IAF’s fighter strength is likely to go down to 29 squadrons by March this year, against a sanctioned 42 squadrons. The slowing down of the contract to induct 110 jets contract is likely to bring down fighter strength further in the coming three years.

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