"M-MRCA Selection To Showcase Independence & Professionalism": Indian MOD

"If you think extraneous factors are going to guide our decision, then you may be surprised by the result." The words of a senior MoD officer who spoke to select journalists recently about the Indian medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) competition. As the decade-stretched competition plods toward a decision, tentatively scheduled in the next few months, the near unanimous sense -- from rumours, reports, leaks, hearsay, background briefings -- is that the big European twins, the Dassault Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon -- are the IAF's two most preferred aircraft, and in that order [It was news station Times NOW's senior editor Srinjoy Chowdhry who first suggested this in a report last year].

The MoD officer quoted above also said, "There is no political pressure. This is such a large deal that it is apt for showcasing the excellent and professional job India has done in making an informed decision which is independent of any factors, including strategic and geopolitical. The air force is the customer, not the Ministry of External Affairs."

The question now is whether there will be a full-fledged down-select -- where two, or three, aircraft will be kept in the game -- or if only the one leading aircraft will be picked out for commercial negotiations and the others asked to have a good flight home. Both possible, say sources. In the first scenario, there is speculation now about the third spot. Different versions suggest that in third place is either the Gripen or the F/A-18.

After a decade of staying studiously below radar, and quietly emerging a supposed frontrunner, the Dassault campaign will be kicking itself for the ugly mess it now finds itself in -- the blacklisting of the company's Indian face for "embarrassing" the air force. Last heard, the French Embassy in Delhi was doing everything it could to get the IAF to reconsider, and allow Dassault's PV Rao to meet them. For what it's worth, the MoD has said the development doesn't in any way affect the M-MRCA selection process, seeing as it has nothing to do with the competition, but let's face it -- what Dassault has in effect done is to seriously piss off the customer in a competition it simply cannot afford to lose.

Taking off from IAF chief PV Naik's fears expressed during Aero India in February that losing vendors could delay the competition with protests and appeals, Defence Minister AK Antony has reminded the M-MRCA team to ensure that the companies are kept briefed about all decisions at every step. Once a final decision is made, the Minister has directed, that an extensive briefing will be held with all vendors, and all questions/queries sorted out in the shortest possible time.

If the Chief of Air Staff had his way, we'd have a decision on a downselect/elimination by April. The month has begun. Don't hold your breath too much.

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