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Cloud on jet trainer deal

New Delhi, March 12: An estimated Rs 7,000-crore deal to acquire Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) for the Indian Air Force, that has been pending for 20 years, may be in jeopardy yet again with US firm Boeing in merger talks with British Aerospace, makers of the Hawk AJT that is the frontrunner in the race.

The race to bag the Indian AJT contract is a bitter and intensive competition primarily between British Aerospace and Aero Vodochody with each side making claims and counter-claims.

Defence minister George Fernandes said last month that a note is pending with the Cabinet secretariat on the proposed acquisition after the IAF evaluated the British Hawk and the L-159B — made by the Czech-American firm Aero Vodochody.

The IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal S. Krishnaswamy, too, is on record saying the deal is expected to come through by the end of the financial year (March 31).

The note for the Cabinet was prepared after price negotiations were completed with British Aerospace. The Hawk, the L-159B and also the Russian MiG-AT trainers were aggressively marketed at Aero India, the airshow in Bangalore, last month.

During the airshow, Aero Vodochody released an advertisement that claimed US secretary of state Colin Powell had written to the Indian government offering full support to the Czech firm’s bid. Today, Aero Vodochody issued a news release claiming that with Boeing and BAE Systems in merger talks, British Aerospace perceived advantage — that it was not American managed — is knocked off.

The Indian security establishment has been wary of buying military equipment from American firms or firms that require US clearance to export because Washington’s diplomatic support to such business deals has not been consistent.

The Cabinet note that is pending is understood to have projected a demand for 66 Hawk AJTs. Of these, 24 are to be procured in “ready-to-fly” condition and the rest to be either assembled or made in India under a licensed production agreement. What shape the final commercial contract will take will be known only after it has been inked.

The Czech aircraft has the US-made Honeywell engines and Boeing also owns a minority stake in Aero Vodochody.

Aero Vodochody has claimed that it has offered to tie up with the defence public sector company, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and jointly manufacture and market AJTs for global markets. “Aero Vodochody hopes that this unique offer would encourage the Indian government to expedite the induction of aircraft jet trainers in a scenario where our nation has lost more than Rs 12,000 crore in military aircraft crashes — for which lack of advanced training infrastructure is a major cause,” the company said.

The IAF has projected the need for an AJT to bridge the gap in training when fighter pilots convert from primary aircraft to supersonic aircraft such as the MiG-21s.

Apart from diplomatic and political considerations, the security establishment has also to decide on whether to procure state-of-the-art technology (the L-159B is cutting edge and still being developed) or a time-tested (the British Hawk has been in service for years) aircraft.

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