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Adani group the dark horse in fighter race

After several dramatic twists and turns, as the Air Force looks at procuring a new single engine fighter, the Adani group is emerging as the dark horse that could end up manufacturing a large number of India’s future fighters.

The IAF is now working on issuing Request for Information (RFI) to the two single engine fighter manufacturers available in the global market — Lockheed Martin for its F-16 and SAAB for its Gripen. While the Tata group has tied up with Lockheed Martin for possible manufacture of F-16s in India, SAAB last week announced a tie up with the Adani group.

“In the present scheme of things, Gripen enjoys a clear advantage because of its capabilities,” says an Air Force source. While the F-16 is half-a-century old fighter, the Gripen is a four-and-half generation fighter that is of very recent vintage.

The IAF had sent out an informal request asking the two manufacturers details of their products. Based on the input and other analysis, the RFI would be issued under the Strategic Partnership model in a couple of months, officers said. The target would be to acquire at least 100 fighters in the first stage, but the demand is expected to go up further now.

The government will select the preferred aircraft and its Indian partner based on submissions. Once selected, the manufacturing plant for the selected fighter is to be set up in India, with the Indian partner holding the majority stake in the venture.


MMRCA process in mess

“By not taking a quick decision and dragging its feet, the government has messed up the MMRCA [Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft] process,” says Air Marshal (retired) M Matheswaran, who played a crucial role in drawing up the MMRCA requirements and conceptualising its original tender in the early 2000s. “[The] original MMRCA was not only to get fighters but also to get technology here in India. All those objectives have been defeated,” he said.

The IAF in 2001 projected a requirement for 126 fighters, to fill the gap between its future indigenous Light Combat Aircraft and the heavy-weight Sukhoi-30 fighters. Though the initial move was to buy more Mirage 2000 fighters, it evolved into the MMRCA global tender.

In January 2012, the twin-engine Rafale fighter was declared the winner, and finally negotiations began with its French manufacturers.

Air Force sources point out that the only reason why the government has now put out the present single engine requirement is the cost. The purchase of 36 Rafale fighters from France, in a surprise move during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit there in April 2015, and in place of the ongoing negotiations for 126 fighters, not only surprised most military sources but also upset the financial projects for the fleet modernisation, sources admit.

Air Force sources point out that the requirement is now over 200 fighters, and the Rafale fighters are being limited to just 36. “Is there a single private industry with aerospace capabilities to build a fighter, to absorb that level of technology? The answer is no,” one source points out.

Air Marshal Matheswaran points out that the proposed SP model for the manufacture of fighters could end up being a mere licence production model without any significant technology gains in India.

“You will end up creating an HAL [Hindustan Aeronautics Limited] from scratch. You could have got HAL to do this work at a better pace,” says Matheswaran, who led an official landmark study on India’s aerospace capabilities.


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