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Russia, Czech, Britain in defence swayamvar

Bangalore, Feb. 5: Show-offs all, Miro the Czech, Oleg Antonovich the Russian and Gordon McLemont the Briton taxi past in their jets — two painted a cobalt blue with streaks of red and white, the Russian’s jet in military green-and-yellow.

Miro and Oleg and Gordon are paid to be show-offs: they are test-pilots and they are strutting their ware here today not so much to impress with their devil-may-care flying but because at stake is one of the largest defence deals out of India.

Their presence here, at Aero India 2003, signals that the race to win the contract — that could be worth Rs 7000 crore — for the Advanced Jet Trainer has peaked and is brazen. And it has peaked and it is brazen because George Fernandes and his defence ministry have not been able to push through the Cabinet their choice yet despite the lapse of two decades since the Indian Air Force said it desperately wants the lead-in fighter to train its rookie pilots.

The Czech-American L-159B, the Russian MiG-AT and the British Aerospace’s Hawk-CJ100 put up spectacular displays, for what one air force officer called “a swayamvar” — the ceremony in which the bride chooses a groom from among many — while defence minister Fernandes stonewalled queries on why the acquisition of an Advanced Jet Trainer is still in limbo.

First Miro, then Oleg and then Gordon taxi past, scream down the runway, take-off in a left turn, throw their machines into turns, roll over, at first to the left, then they loop, fly inverted, roll to the right, bank, dive, their jet streams behind them mark their trails, dissipate into rings, the planes loop again, bear down overhead for wingovers.

This is new-age marketing for the Indian Air Force and the defence ministry; it is the pilots who put their bodies through 5g (five times the force of gravity) at the turns, it is the Indian ministry of defence that goes into a tizzy.

Minutes later, Fernandes is hemming and hawing, trying to tease out a rationale for the Cabinet’s delay in taking a decision. “We are on the threshold of a decision. The decision should be through soon, the papers are with the Cabinet secretariat. They should be on their way to the Cabinet.”

A second-time visitor to Aero India recalls that “threshold of a decision” were the very words Fernandes had uttered in the same context at Aero India 2001. This morning, in the local papers, Aero Vodochody inserted a prominent advertisement. Aero Vodochody is the Czech-maker of the L-159B in which Boeing has a substantial minority stake.

The company claimed that US secretary of state Colin Powell has written to the Indian government, guaranteeing long-term support for L-159B and that Vodochody is keen on co-production — the new mantra in defence business — with Hindustan Aeronautics.

At British Aerospace, they’re fairly convinced that the choice for the Hawk is all but made and only the formality is remaining. The Russians, made a statement with the MiG-AT display today — that it not only flies (meaning it is far beyond the drawing board stage) but also performs.

“The document that has been prepared has factored in all the offers and proposals,” Fernandes said when asked if the government was still open to negotiations with several companies.

By August last year, a Cabinet note had been prepared on the AJTs after the IAF completed the price negotiations. The Hawk was tested most intensively; a prototype of the L-159 was examined. Vodochody today claimed in its ad that its aircraft is at the beginning of its lifecycle and the Hawk is at the end of its life-cycle.

“I think the AJT (deal) has been subject to a whole lot of rumours and stupid ideas. The matter is now at a stage where a decision has to be taken. From the threshold one gets pushed back. There have been several pushbacks,” Fernandes hawed.

Has the Cabinet been presented with a choice' “How the Cabinet functions is not a subject of our discussion today.”

Given that in 20 years, the threshold has not been crossed, the point really made is about how the Cabinet does not function. In the meantime, the laxity takes a toll, year after year, on rookie pilots graduating from subsonic Kiran aircraft to the supersonic combat fighters beginning with the MiG-21.

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