Fighter aircraft decision flies into turbulent political skies

New Delhi, Nov 16 | Updated: Nov 17 2005, 05:30am hrs
Political pressures rather than the strategic interests of the Indian Air Force (IAF) may be the pivot around which the selection of fighter aircraft rests.

Some defence experts say growing warmth between India and the US and a far-reaching defence pact signed between the two countries in June could pressure New Delhi to choose the American planes.

If Indias requirements are beyond any existing fighters, we are prepared to make upgraded F-16s to Indias specifications with complete transfer of technology, Mike Kelly, senior executive of Lockheed Martin recently told mediapersons.

The deal projects supply of 18 aircraft in flyaway conditions and the remaining 108 assembled in India under technology transfer.

Analysts point out that the US administration has also allowed the sale of the entire array of weapons platform mounted on the aircraft, including beyond visual range air-to-air missiles and 100 km standoff ground target- engaging missiles.

Russia has accepted that its position as Indias main supplier of military hardware is threatened by the US, European and Israeli interests. Talks between New Delhi and Washington on joint development of hardware has made Moscow nervous.

While the US is pushing for contracts for either of its companies Lockheed Martin and BoeingIndia seems more keen on Russian aircraft. However, due to the absence of an Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) agreement, Indo-Russian defence cooperation has run into rough weather, according to highly placed defence ministry sources.

The groundwork for the IPR agreement with Russia is being done by the team led by defence minister Pranab Mukherjee, who is currently in Moscow to ease an IPR stalemate. An agreement, once signed, will open the gates for a plethora of military cooperation pacts, stalled for lack of such an IPR understanding, sources pointed out.

There is still one glitch that needs to straightened out. The government is not yet certain about the clauses to be included in the request for proposals (RFPs) to be sent out to aircraft manufacuturers, which was expected to be sent out a couple of months ago, sources added.

All the companies who received request for information (RFI) have already responded and are now awaiting governments call for RFP. The question is how long the MoD will take before it sets the ball rolling again.