April 29, 2011

US pressure fails to pull its fighter through IAF test

 (The Times of India) :  From a US versus Europe battle, it has become a Europe versus France tussle. The US did mount a high-voltage campaign over the last four years, with even President Barack Obama making a strong sales pitch for American fighters in the final stages but in the end India went "purely" by the gruelling technical evaluation.

Officials, in fact, said both PM Manmohan Singh and defence minister A K Antony had made it clear that the selection process for the gigantic $10.4 billion project to acquire 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) should be guided solely by IAF's operational requirements, not by "any other extraneous factor", as also the prospect of further modernizing the jets during their 40-year lifespan.

This came even as representatives of only Eurofighter Typhoon (EADS, backed by the UK, Germany, Spain and Italy), French Rafale (Dassault) jets were called to the defence ministry on Thursday to extend the validity of their yet-to-be-opened commercial bids, within two weeks, till December 31.

Rejection letters, in turn, have already been handed over to the other four contenders, American F/A-18 'Super Hornet' (Boeing) and F-16 'Super Viper' (Lockheed Martin), Swedish Gripen (Saab), and Russian MiG-35 (United Aircraft Corporation).

Though the Europeans were apprehensive that the Americans might use their clout to swing the MMRCA project, like US has done in other defence deals in the past, their fears have now been laid to rest.

The Eurofighter, followed closely by Rafale, "came closest" to meeting the 643 technical attributes specified by India during the long-drawn field trials held by IAF test pilots both in India and abroad under different weather conditions. "The other four fell below the base line of minimum air staff qualitative requirements to be met," said the official.

It is, of course, no secret that India remains unhappy with US for supplying more F-16s to Pakistan on the pretext of the war against terror. Neither is the defence ministry, led by Antony, convinced about the "utility and benefits" of the Logistics Support Agreement (LSA), Communication Interoperability and Security Memorandum Agreement (CISMOA) and Basic Exchange and Cooperation Agreement for Geo-Spatial Cooperation (BECA), the foundational military agreements being pushed by US.

While the absence of CISMOA restricts US from transferring certain high-tech equipment to India, the already-inked End-Use Monitoring Agreement (EUMA) gives Washington the right to inspect the military equipment sold to New Delhi as well as puts certain restrictions on their operational use.

Is it any wonder then that India seems to be restricting its military aircraft purchases from the US to transport and reconnaissance planes the like three Business Boeing Jets, six C-130J 'Super Hercules', 12 P-8I Poseidon and 10 C-17 Globemaster-III, which together cost upwards of $8 billion.

Moreover, it's not as if the Eurofighter and Rafale were pushovers despite the geo-political clout of the US. The former is, after all, backed by UK, Germany, Spain and Italy. France, too, has been a long-term defence partner of India and, incidentally, did not impose sanctions after the Pokhran-II nuclear tests in 1998.

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