New Delhi: Defence Ministry sources today denied there was a deadline for it to issue a Request For Information (RFI) from aerospace companies on a fresh tender for combat aircraft meant to supplement the Indian Air Force's fleet of Sukhoi-30s, Rafales (on order) and Tejas fighters. Neither, the sources add, has the government asked the Air Force to specifically evaluate Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet, as suggested in some reports.
The F/A-18, a frontline fighter used extensively by the US Navy onboard its aircraft carriers, did not meet the IAF's technical requirements in the deal for Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which was eventually scrapped by the government in 2016 when it opted for 36 Rafale fighters from France in a controversial direct-buy worth over Rs 58,000 crore.
While a version of the US Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet is indeed on offer to the IAF, so are other fighters from a host of international aerospace firms including the US F-16 Block 70IN, Swedish Gripen E/F, Russian MiG-35 and French Rafale.
The Indian Navy, for its part, is also looking at a new fighter for a new aircraft carrier that it proposes to build at home. Senior officials in the Defence Ministry have, however, said that there has been no decision on whether the government plans to go ahead with this proposal. Neither is the Navy close to shortlisting its fighter of choice.
All international aerospace companies that intend to participate in a competitive Indian defence deal need to follow a notoriously lengthy nine-step process before a contract is signed. The Request for Information Stage (RFI) stage is only step 2 of this process which can take upwards of a decade to complete. As an example, the Indian Air Force first stated a requirement for new multi-role fighters in 2001. The entire deal was eventually scrapped 15 years later when the government entered into a government to government deal with France to directly acquire Dassault Rafales.
The new tender being discussed now is a virtual re-run of the old process and comes at a time when the government has made it clear that its priority is to continue induction and development of the Made-in-India Tejas Light Combat Aircraft including development of the Naval version of the fighter which has been in development for several years. This means inducting the Tejas Mk-1 jet and developing and inducting a considerably larger and more capable Tejas Mk-2 fighter. If the plan works out, the IAF may see the induction of over 300 Tejas fighters at a total project cost of above Rs 75,000 crores.
Earlier this month, Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told reporters, "we are not ditching'' the Tejas and that monetary ''provisions for Tejas Mk-2 are being made.''