India set to abandon MMRCA deal

Parrikar says aircraft cannot replace MiG-21

India is set to abandon the Rs 90,000-crore project to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), seven years after the Defence Ministry began the process to find a replacement for the Indian Air Force's (IAF) ageing MiG-21 fleet.

French company Dassault Aviation will receive an order to supply 36 fighter jets to the IAF in a government-to-government deal after the details are worked out by both countries.

The remaining 90 Rafale aircraft are unlikely to come to India to replace the MiG-21, as underscored by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar on Monday.

“Rafale can not replace MiG-21. It is a strategic aircraft. The replacement of MiG-21 could be a light combat aircraft (LCA) or any other single-engine lighter aircraft, as the Tejas LCA has its own limitations,” he said during a television debate.

The indigenous Tejas LCA is way behind its original completion schedule, as the first industrially-produced aircraft was handed over to the IAF only in January 2015.

Out of the six aircraft evaluated as a part of the original MMRCA trial, only two—the F-16 IN made by Lockheed Martin of the US and Swedish Gripen NG—were single-engine aircraft. The others were the American F/A-18 Super Hornet (Boeing), Russian MiG-35, French Rafale (Dassault Aviation and the Eurofighter Typhoon, manufactured by a European consortium.

After the aircraft were examined on 643 test points, Rafale and Typhoon were short-listed, and finally the French aircraft made the cut in 2012. Since then, the two sides are locked in negotiations.

Parrikar made it clear that the NDA government would not pursue the Rafale negotiations on two separate tracks—for 36 aircraft and the rest. “A car can not run on two paths simultaneously,” he told journalists when asked about the status of the existing tender.

“The negotiation under the existing request for proposal (tender) had 'gone into a loop in the last five years with no solution in sight'. The government-to-government deal is better than the RFP path for acquisition of strategic platforms,” said the defence minister, who is set to leave for South Korea on Wednesday on a four-day official tour.

The air force headquarters had mooted the proposal to buy 126 fighters way back in 2000 because of the dwindling strength and age of its fleet. After 15 years, the service is now staring at the possibility of receiving only two squadrons from France.

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