New Delhi: As the commercial bids for the world's single largest defence contract, the Indian Air Force (IAF)'s medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) has reached its threshold, what remains to be seen is out of the two short-listed fighter jets, which were also the most expensive among the original six contenders, who makes the cut, in the 10.5 billion dollar deal.
Defence Minister A K Antony chaired the DAC (Defence Acquisition Council) meet on October 7 in New Delhi and having cleared the offset hurdle the commercial bids are expected to be opened any day.
According to sources, it will still take a couple of months to annoucen the name of the successful bidder as due study has to be done before reaching to any decision.Then starts the negotiations with the successful bidder before the proposal is sent to the finance ministry and finally to the cabinet commitee on security.
French Dassault Aviation, which was initially keen to project Mirage-2000 as their aircraft, faced an almost ouster from the competition in its initial stages, on technical grounds.
The military section of Dassault is supported by the French Government, which includes its exports as well. But Rafale's huge cost is what seems to have initially put off Dassault and it was just a submission in reply to the tender that they recieved, and not an active pursuit of the world's single largest deal.
French research scholar Guillem.Monsonis said that, "The French Government's growing closeness to the US, given their re-entry into the NATO's military command after 40 years, may have provided the initial trigger to New Delhi to re-consider Rafale, as this deal is more geo-political, diplomatic and strategic, than military.
Anyway, the French Government pushed for the Rafale, as the Mirage production lines had come to a close-down. After having lost bids for Rafale, in Singapore, Morocco and South Korea, Dassault's hopes were further dashed, who is now eyeing Brazil , Switzerland and UAE, and even considers Brazil more important than India."
One of the technical problems plaguing the aircraft is the under-trial APG-79 AESA radar, which was actively functional in the Falcon (F-16) and Super Hornet (F-18), and will be fitted on the French airforce and naval Rafale by 2012.
The aircraft currently uses the RBE-1 PESA radar. As the RFP requirement the AESA radar should be available on the aircraft on the day of the submission of the bid, which was actually the problem with Typhoon and Gripen also.
Besides, the Mica missiles on the Rafale is more expensive than the American missiles. Rafale has been using GBU-12 bombs in Afghanistan, where the aircraft is part of the western forces. The laser infra-red was fitted two years back. Rafale also saw combat operations for the first time in Libya earlier this year.
The other contender European consortium's Eurofighter Typhoon, was slammed by the UK's audit watchdog, the National Audit Office (NAO), earlier this year, for its problems with spares availability, flying hours, immature estimates in funding, inefficient collaborative decision making and that the aircraft will not have full multi-role capability for some years.
To add to all this, the Typhoon has already been grappling with acquiring air-to-ground attack capability and also the tranche-3B agreement between its four partner nations is yet to be signed, required for its full final production.
The Typhoon programme has drawn flak from the NAO on grounds of the rising cost of the aircraft, absence of a single decision-maker at the top, delayed decision making leading to delayed delivery, strategic decisions involving the aircraft impacting its capability delivery.
The aircraft has already been exported to Saudi Arabia and Austria, and with more exports underway, decisions which have significant influence on the delivery of the Typhoon capability, are taken beyond the Programme Board structure. There have been some examples of tensions between the operational capability decisions taken by the Programme Board, says the report.
The annual audit report says that the Department managing the aircraft programme is, "Actively seeking to maximise export potential recognising the cost, operational, diplomatic and industrial benefits. The Senior Responsible Owner does not attend key meetings of the most senior group of officials within the Department."
The Rafale costs close to 67 million Euros, in the price of which two MiG-35s can be bought. But the costliest is Typhoon, with its staggering 77.7 million Euros, per piece.
Given the fact that life-cycle costs of these jets would be a huge determining factor, it needs to be seen who turns out to be L1, as for the first time India has gone in for life-cycle costs of the engines, calculating which, experts have cautioned, would be a tough decision.
Former IAF Chief, P V Naik, has said that technically the best products were short-listed, while price woukd be looked into by the Ministry of Defence (MoD).