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India’s quest to modernize its air force with the acquisition of 114 fighter jets under the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) tender has encountered a series of challenges and debates within the military and government. With a potential deal worth over $20 billion at stake, the Indian Air Force (IAF) is faced with the task of selecting the most effective and efficient procurement strategy.

The IAF has long recognized the need to bolster its fleet with modern fighter aircraft. Under the MRFA tender, the force is seeking to procure 114 jets, a process that might span the next three years. The request for proposal (RFP) is expected to be issued in the near future, but the IAF’s decision-making process is far from straightforward and first aircraft to be inducted by happen only in 2030 if alternatives procurement plans are not explored.

General Bipin Rawat’s Alternative Approach:

India’s first Chief of Defence Staff, General Bipin Rawat, had proposed an alternative strategy that diverged from the traditional large-scale procurement. General Rawat advocated for the phased purchase of Dassault Rafale jets, ordering two squadrons at a time until the fleet reached over 90 units. His reasoning was to ensure that the IAF could manage the acquisition without overwhelming investments in both aircraft and the infrastructure required to maintain and operate them.

IAF’s Consideration for Shelf Purchase:

To further complicate matters, the IAF, under the leadership of previous Air Chiefs, offered to reduce the intake of Rafale jets to as low as 60 units if the government agreed to a shelf purchase directly from Dassault, akin to the 2016 deal involving 36 Rafale fighter jets. This proposal would expedite the acquisition process, though at the cost of fewer aircraft.

Government-to-Government Purchase of Rafale Jets:

A third proposal put forth by the IAF is the abandonment of the open tender process in favor of a government-to-government purchase of 90 Rafale fighter jets with Transfer of Technology (ToT) to be established in an Indian factory. This approach could potentially shorten the timeline for concluding the deal and help address the IAF’s concerns about its depleting squadron levels.

Challenges with Open Tender Policy:

One of the major hurdles facing the IAF is the time-consuming nature of the open tender policy. Evaluating each proposal submitted by Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs), often consisting of thousands of pages, is a complex and lengthy process aimed at avoiding any claims of bias. This can lead to delays and potential legal challenges, causing unnecessary controversies.

The IAF’s pursuit of 114 modern fighter jets is fraught with complexities, involving debates over procurement strategies, budget considerations, and timelines. As India continues its quest to modernize its air force and maintain its strategic edge in a volatile region, finding a balance between cost-effectiveness, swift acquisition, and maintaining transparency in the procurement process remains a formidable challenge. The decision will not only shape the IAF’s capabilities but also impact India’s national security in the years to come.

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