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February 27, 2012

Govt nod for $1bn Navy plane deal

(Times of India ) : The government has finally approved the naval proposal to acquire nine advanced medium range maritime reconnaissance (MRMR) aircraft, which will cost upwards of $1 billion, to ensure Indian Ocean can be guarded against both conventional and terror threats.

These MRMR planes will be in addition to the 12 long-range (LRMR) aircraft already being acquired for the Navy at a $3.1 billion price tag. After first inking the $2.1 billion contract in 2009 for eight Boeing-manufactured P-8I LRMR aircraft, which will be inducted in the 2013-2015 timeframe, the defence ministry is now finalizing the follow-on deal for four more such planes.

The MRMR project got the "acceptance of necessity'' from the Defence Acquisitions Council, chaired by A K Antony, last week, sources said. Several global aviation majors, ranging from American Boeing and Lockheed Martin to Swedish SAAB, French Dassault Aviation, Brazilian Embraer and European EADS are in contention for this big contract.

The radar-packed MRMR planes, much like the LRMR ones, will be armed with deadly missiles, rockets and torpedoes for potent anti-warship and anti-submarine warfare. With an operating range of over 350 nautical miles, the multi-mission MRMR planes will be Navy's "intelligent eyes and ears'' over Indian Ocean in the medium range.

While the P-8Is, with an operating range of around 1,200 nautical miles, will patrol the outermost layer of India's three-tier maritime surveillance grid, Israeli spy drones like Heron and Searcher-II as well as Dorniers make up the innermost layer.

India is really stepping up acquisition of its naval air assets as well as warships to take care of its primary area of strategic interest stretching from Persian Gulf to Malacca Strait. The country has a vast 5,422-km coastline, 1,197 islands and 2.01 million sq km of Exclusive Economic Zone to guard against all threats.

India will spend around Rs 85,000 crore just on naval aviation over the next few years, sources said. This includes already-inked contracts for around Rs 28,000 crore, with another 16 to 17 firm proposals worth about Rs 18,000 crore in the pipeline.

This includes the ongoing induction of 45 MiG-29K fighters, contracted from Russia for about $2 billion, which will operate from both the refurbished 44,570-tonne INS Vikramaditya (Admiral Gorshkov) and the 40,000-tonne indigenous aircraft carrier being constructed at Kochi.

Then, American Sikorsky S70B and European NH-90 choppers are currently battling it out after field trials to grab the over Rs 2,000 crore initial contract for 16 multi-role helicopters. The Navy, in fact, is looking to induct 90 such helicopters, with both combat and search-and-rescue capabilities, to replace its older Sea King helicopters.

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