IAF’s plan to replace ailing MiG with ‘Make in India’ combat aircraft heading for trouble

An Indian Air Force plan to replace its MiG fighter fleet with a ‘Made in India’ combat aircraft is heading for trouble. As of now the choice is between two aircraft from Sweden and the US, both of which failed a comprehensive technical evaluation process in 2010. Plus, there are grumbles that other countries which have fighter jets were not called at all.

ET spoke to senior officials for this report. They did not want to be identified. An IAF spokesperson told ET he could not comment on the issue.

IAF’s communication to the US and Sweden earlier this month said the force was looking for a modern, proven single-engine fighter aircraft in operational service. IAF didn’t offer any details of minimum performance levels, asking only for a “4th generation fighter”— a broad qualification that also fits India’s long-under-development light combat aircraft (LCA).

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Industry experts, who spoke off record, said IAF’s approach so far can get the force into a single vendor situation and, therefore, a recipe for slowdown in decision-making.

A single vendor situation often leads to questions over fairness in the selection process. The aim is to make a choice from a multiple vendor situation.

People familiar with the situation said since IAF’s communication asked for fighters in operational service, there was little logic in restricting it to Sweden (which has Saab-manufactured Gripen) and the US (which offers Lockheed Martin’s F-16).

This, said experts, is even more surprising given that Gripen and F-16 didn’t make the cut after IAF held an evaluation exercise in 2010. France’s Mirage 2000, no longer in production but in service, could have also met IAF’s broad criteria ..

Plus, before a ‘Make in India’ plan for fighter aircraft can start, the defence ministry will have to move ahead on its Strategic Partnership (SP) model, which will provide guidelines for private sector companies participating in major military manufacturing programmes.

Among other questions the SP model is yet to address are the issues on long-term agreements with private sector companies and the role of public sector defence units.