Singapore Air Show

India’s fighter shootout has the world’s eye

 - February 20, 2008, 4:02 AM

The technical and technology transfer bids for one of the biggest-ever fighter deals of recent times are due for delivery in 11 days time. Six prime contractors chase India’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement for 126 aircraft with an option for 64 more. The contenders are the Boeing F/A-18, Dassault Rafale, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16, MiG-35 and Saab Gripen.

The chances of a U.S. aircraft winning the contract have increased by changes in Indian procurement policy and political outlook, as evidenced by the landmark purchase of C-130Js.

When India issued the RFP for the MMRCA last August, U.S. defense industrialists worried that the Pentagon and the Congress would not allow them to offer the latest-technology avionics, particularly active electronically scanned arrays (AESAs). However, Lockheed Martin has confirmed that the Northrop Grumman APG-80 Agile Beam radar is part of its offer to supply Advanced Block 50 F-16INs.

Raytheon officials told AIN this week that they hoped to supply their APG-79 AESA for the F/A-18IN Super Hornet in a 100-percent compliant version. (For the Indian contest, both Boeing and Lockheed Martin plan to adjust their model designations.)

Lockheed Martin has described the F-16IN as “the most advanced and capable F-16 ever.” Based closely on the F-16E/F Block 60 as supplied to the UAE, it carries a General Electric F110-132A engine, advanced all-color glass cockpit, helmet-mounted cueing system and the aforementioned APG-80 radar.

AIN understands that the Indians have not actually specified an AESA radar, which may help the European contenders. As currently fielded, neither the Gripen, Rafale nor Typhoon have an AESA, though development programs to add one to the Gripen and Rafale have now received their funding. The Rafale uses a passively scanned array, while the Gripen and Typhoon employ mechanical scanners.

But Dassault and Eurofighter face other problems with their Indian tenders, and both companies requested a delay to the March 3 deadline. An official from one company told AIN that the extra capability represented by their contender would allow India to buy fewer airplanes for the same effect. But the RFP specifies 126 airplanes. Furthermore, the official added, the RFP calls for a technical evaluation (which may include flight-testing of the contenders) to precede consideration of the financial offer, although contenders must hand over both technical and price details on March 3.

The bid price is supposed to remain sealed until the technical evaluation is complete. Unless Dassault and Eurofighter significantly cut the commonly quoted price of their contenders, they both appear to be some 40 percent over the $10- to $11 billion allocated to the MMRCA purchase.

Bob Kemp, sales and marketing director for Gripen International, told AIN, “We believe our bid is fully compliant, and that we have a pretty punchy price on the table.” Kemp sees cost as a prime factor in the selection process and the question of technology transfer.

The Indians require a 50-percent economic offset for this program and bidders must confirm the details by June 9. Two years ago, the Indian government published a new Defence Procurement Policy (DPP) covering offsets, but the Indian defense minister announced last Sunday that a new DPP will be unveiled by April. DPP-08 will be “more transparent and user-friendly,” he said. Indian Air Force chief of staff ACM Fali Homi Major said here Monday that big foreign defense companies should codesign, develop and produce in India, taking advantage of “our low cost and abundant talent.”

The Russians have plenty of prior experience with the Indian defense industry, which could boost the chances of the MiG-35, a radical overhaul of the MiG-29 design, which already serves with the Indian Air Force.

The first 18 MMRCAs will be assembled in the factories of the successful bidder. The next batch is to be assembled in India from kits. There will be an interim batch with construction partially undertaken in-country, followed by full Indian production, expected to account for around 80 fighters.

So big is this contest, that the political heavy hitters are beating a path to New Delhi. The Russian Defense Minister showed up recently to resolve a dispute over the refurbishment of India’s Russian-built aircraft carrier. During French President Sarkozy’s visit last month, an unsolicited bid by Dassault for 40 Rafales was reiterated. U.S. Secretary of Defense Robert Gates arrives next week.