Take-off Wait

So finally, the long-awaited (and definitely hyped) request for proposal for the IAF's medium multirole fighter aircraft (MMRCA) is out. For us defence correspondents, who willingly frothed in the mouth in anticipation of what was ultimately simply the kick-start of a definitely prolonged procurement process, the release of the tender document has assumed large proportions. The hype had its effect in a way – in a clean break from the past, the Defence Ministry actually announced the release of the tender document in a press release. But it's out, finally, and that's what matters – the ball is, hopefully, rolling.

The 211-page document has taken a good four years to author. It has bounced to and from the Defence Ministry no less than 25 times according to one Ministry guesstimate, and has been scrutinized by the CVC, the Law Ministry, the industry ministry and a few other agencies. It has the real bite of the Defence Procurement Procedure 2006 and calls for a 50 per cent offset commitment, one with few parallels for its ambitiousness. Of course, it's also deep awareness by South Block that the MMRCA deal is quite simply one of the largest military aviation contracts in recent procurement history.

If I remember correctly, it was an interview that former Vice Chief of the IAF Air Marshal Ajit Bhavnani gave to FORCE magazine in late 2005 that set down the official and final list of aircraft that would receive the tender document. Up until that time, it had only been speculation. It was he who confirmed that the list would encompass the EADS Eurofighter Typhoon, the Dassault Rafale, the RAC MiG-35 Fulcrum-F, the Saab JAS-39 Gripen, the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and the Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon Block 60.

There's been enormous debate (including in the comments section of LiveFist) about who should rightly win. There's still the incredulity over the single engine-twin engine ambiguity. Then there's the huge cost discrepancies of the contenders (the Rafale, which ironically needs this deal more than any of the other contenders) emerges as the costliest choice, while the Typhoon already has detractors within the IAF. The MiG-35 raises demons of Russian reliability and life-cycle support, while the two American contenders are so called "political blackholes". The Gripen, many believe, is the sort of plane the IAF set out to acquire when it overreached itself and demanded 100-odd more Mirage-2000s. It's the so called "independent choice" politically – moreover, the Swedes have agreed to slap in whatever radars and sensors the IAF wants, so, as a colleague of mine mentioned recently, if the Gripen can be acquired with an American AESA radar and weapons and Israeli avionics, it would meet everything the IAF wants and still be cheaper by at least $6 million a piece than the next cheapest fighter.

Obviously, there is overarching consensus – notwithstanding Defence Minister AK Antony's repeated allusions to objective transparency – that the purchase decision will be a political one, and resoundingly so. Almost certainly. The number of views out there are astounding. The Editor of a well-known defence magazine recently said said the Gripen will be the last on India's list because South Block it is not in the least interested in an independent choice, even though the Gripen might well be the perfect choice. As an emerging power, Sawhney pointed out, India knows very well that this will have to be a political purchase.

Journalists on the defence beat have had a ring-side view of the stunning aggressiveness of the American pitch. Boeing and Lockheed Martin, quite reasonably, view this contract as their ultimate battle for a market that promises dividends far into the future. A little shaken by the twin assault, Moscow has wisened up and started talking business, though it's ill-timed tantrums over cost-escalations definitely wont help an already bruised view of Russian reliability in South Block's corridors. The French bagged the Scorpene deal, so it's unlikely such a large cookie will be passed their way this soon, especially for a fighter with no previous export experience. It's a brilliant cat's cradle of intentions, possibilities, motives that boggles. Yet there are too many who are absolutely sure. Some believe the F/A-18 Super Hornet is a clear frontrunner. After Boeing conveyed it's revised per unit cost for the MMRCA deal, it's attractiveness has gone up a few notches. The APG-79 AESA radar is still, of course, the biggest draw for Boeing. The F-16I Soufa would be a superb draw, but what about the stigma (Pakistan)? Say what you like, but these things matter and matter hard.

Last week, The Hindu reported that the LCA Tejas failed to impress at sea-level during test-flights from Arakkonam, performance stats that could introduce yet another delay in initial and final operational clearance. Meanwhile, there's clamour that Rs 42,000 crore is a sin to be paid for what are ultimately fourth generation aircraft. What about the PAK-FA? What about the professedly fifth generation Medium Combat Aircraft? These will all be endless debated as far as anyone can see, while the government takes its time.

These are the odd spikes that we see in what is ultimately a laborious and mind-numbing system. It's going to be very slow moving from here on out. So I don't think anyone should hold their breath for too long.

Labels: , ,