The Defence Ministry on Friday began a fresh tendering process to purchase 110 fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force that is battling a critical problem of depleting squadron strength.
The new Request for Information (RFI) first step in tendering process was issued more than two years after the Defence Ministry canceled a previous tender to purchase 126 combat jets as the Narendra Modi government struck a deal with France to buy 36 Rafale aircraft.
According to the new RFI, 15% of the 110 aircraft (16 jets) would be purchased in a flyaway state and the remaining would have to be manufactured in India by a Strategic Partner or an Indian Production Agency.
Once a commercial agreement is inked, the vendor has to deliver the first batch of 16 jets in 36 to 60 months. The manufacturing, in an Indian plant, should start within 5 years and completed in 12 years.
Global aviation majors evinced keen interest in what would potentially turn out to be a multi-billion dollar deal.
An earlier government preference announced by former defence minister Manohar Parrikar of single engine vendors that put USA Lockheed Martin (F-16) and Swedish major Saab (Grippen) ahead of others in the race, has now been done away by the RFI.
As a result, France's Dassault Aviation, USA's Boeing, Europe's Eurofighter and Russian MiG Corporation can also respond to the tender, effectively restarting what can potentially be Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition, Part 2 a fiercely competitive trial process of six combat aircraft that was started by the UPA government to buy 126 jets for the IAF.
The Congress-led government, however, couldn't conclude the commercial deal with Dassault Aviation that won the competition.
Subsequently, Parrikar canceled the MMRCA tender in July 2015 after Modi announced his decision to buy 36 Rafale in a government-to-government deal.
IAF sources said fresh evaluation trials would be conducted for the aircraft as the MMRCA trial conducted almost 10 years ago wouldn't hold good any more. In the previous trial, each aircraft was tested on 600 points and they were flown in high-altitude and desert conditions.
Deposing before the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, IAF Vice Chief Air Marshal S B Deo said the force has 31 squadrons but "there is a gap in the force level since induction and de-induction was not commensurate."
Out of the 31 squadron, nearly 10 squadrons are vintage MiG aircraft, which are being phased out. While the first Rafale aircraft is expected in 2019, only two squadrons of the French fighters is not good enough to make up for the deficiency.