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Wary of homemade fighter jet, Indian navy looks abroad

February 1, 2017 (Photo Credit: Manjunath Kiran/AFP via Getty Images)
NEW DELHI - The Indian navy has issued a global request for information to procure 57 multirole fighters for its aircraft carriers at an estimated price tag of $15 billion.

The industry solicitation was floated by the sea service in mid-January, as the indigenously developed naval version of the Light Combat Aircraft, designed and developed by state-owned Defence Research and Development Organisation, does not meet requirements.

The Indian navy wants new fighters for its lone aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, and another carrier currently under construction, the Indigenous Aircraft Carrier, or IAC-1.

Notably, the request for information does not specify if the navy wants single- or twin-engine fighters for its aircraft carriers.

The bidding companies are asked to respond to the RFI by May 24.

The naval prototypes of India's own LCA jet have multiple design deficiencies making them unsuitable for the intended aircraft-carrier role, a senior Indian navy official said. Those include endurance and weapons-carrying capability, according to the official. "It will continue to be DRDO program but funding from Indian Navy will stop and DRDO will have to fund this program now by itself to bring improvements," the official added.

The Indian government will award formal clearance for the new fighter-jet  purchase in the middle of next year, after which the navy would be able to issue a global tender, a senior Indian Ministry of Defense official said.

"The selection of new aircraft will not be finalized by 2025 and the entire program will cost around $15 billion including platforms, 
setting up of infrastructure and weaponry," a second Indian navy official added.

The service wants the new fighters to be day- and night-capable in all weather conditions. Its envisioned roles include air defense, air-to-surface battles, refueling, reconnaissance and electronic-warfare missions.

"Since the RFI is quite open-ended as far as the type of aircraft the [Indian] Navy is looking for, the field is open to all major vendors,
including state owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL)," which makes the indigenous LCA aircraft, said  Anil Jai Singh, retired Indian Navy commodore and defense analyst.

Despite publication of the RFI to buy new fighter aircraft, a senior HAL executive said the company will still go ahead with a naval LCA.

"I don't think that the naval LCA program can be terminated - a lot of effort and investment has gone into it but it will have to be adapted 
to the navy's contemporary technological requirements. The RFI appears to be an effort to assess what all is available in the global market and may not necessarily translate into a program," Singh said.
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