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Dogfight for India’s billions hots up

New Delhi, Nov. 1: An Indian Air Force order for 126 multi-role combat aircraft that is tantalising global military aviation majors has just got a little more complex with the Russians now offering a second fighter plane to India.

Moscow has told Delhi that it is ready to sell the MiG35, a fighter plane with the unique feature that it can stop in mid-air and turn around 360 degrees, with a complete transfer-of-technology package.

Like the US, Russia now has two types of aircraft in the race for the IAF order. A conservative estimate of the value of the order for 126 aircraft in the 20-tonne category is $5 billion over five years.

The aircraft for which RFIs (requests for information) were issued are the F-16 Fighting Falcon (Lockheed Martin, US) whose sales pitch is easily the strongest, the JAS-39 Grippen (Saab, Sweden), the MiG29M/M2 (Mikoyan Gurevich Corporation, Russia) and the Mirage 2000-V (Dassault Aviation, France). The US has also offered Boeing’s F/A-18 Superhornet. The Russians have now put the MiG35 alongside their MiG29 M/M2.

Like the MiG29M/M2, the MiG35 is also a twin-engine fighter aircraft. Its unique “thrust vector control” gives it the ability to manoeuvre sharply and stop in mid-air like a helicopter. The MiG35 is an improvement over the MiG29M/M2, which is itself a version of the MiG29 that is already with the IAF.

“We did have the MiG35 in mind for India when the RFIs were issued early on but we wanted to make a firm offer after we were able to demonstrate it,” an official for Rosoboronexport, the Russian agency that canalises all military exports to India, said. “It may be that we are late but we have made the offer and it is up to India to consider it or let it pass.”

Russia would seek to give a demonstration of the aircraft during defence minister Pranab Mukherjee’s scheduled visit to Moscow this month.

India and Russia are currently negotiating an intellectual property rights (IPR) agreement that Moscow wants as a guarantee of secrecy in military deals. The Russian official said a new IPR agreement will not be applicable to a possible transaction on the fighter aircraft.

A team from IAF headquarters led by the western air command chief, Air Marshal A.K. Singh, was given a demonstration of the aircraft at the MAKS 2005 airshow in Moscow in August.

The team held its breath as the MiG35 performed the “Bell” manoeuvre ' braking to a halt in mid-air from supersonic speed and turning around sideways, enabling the aircraft to stop before entering enemy firing range and turn the table on a chaser.

The “Bell” manoeuvre is not alien to the IAF ' its Sukhoi 30MKI can also perform it but in one direction only ' that is looking to beef up its depleting fighter fleet.

An IAF source said though the offer was a surprise because of its timing 'it was issued almost at the close of the RFI stage ' air headquarters was prepared for such an eventuality. The IAF could expect more such offers, he said.

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