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US pushes deal, secrecy hitch on IAF screen
(From top) Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin’s F-16 IN Super Viper, Dassault’s Rafale at the Yelahanka air show

New Delhi, Feb. 21: The US’s strong pitch to sell its fighter aircraft to India for an estimated $12 billion has run into a hurdle with the Indian Air Force telling the government that it does not favour the signing of agreements that risk compromising its operational secrecy.

Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik said in Yelahanka earlier this month that price negotiations for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal could start as early as next month and a contract would be signed by September. The setting of a deadline by the IAF chief has led to intensified lobbying by competitors and the governments backing them.

The Boeing-made F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 IN Super Viper (a variant of the F-16 Fighting Falcon) are two of the six competitors for the order. The others are Rafale (Dassault Aviation, France), Eurofighter Typhoon (a consortium of the UK, Italy, Germany and Spain), the Saab Gripen (Sweden) and the Russian MiG 35.

The IAF has indicated to the government that US-imposed conditionalities could lead to denial of even such crucial components in their aircraft such as the Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. An AESA radar allows the pilot in a fighter jet to track more targets faster than older radars.

The tender issued by the Indian government when it invited the companies to participate in the competition had laid down that an AESA radar must be integrated with the aircraft that would seek to bag the order.

The IAF is particularly concerned about the Communications Interoperability and Security Memorandum of Agreement (CISMOA) that the US is pushing India to sign.

“The CISMOA is a communication agreement. We don’t necessarily have to sign that,” Air Chief Marshal Naik said.

But US ambassador Timothy Roemer, who was also at the air show in Yelahanka, said that the US “offers such agreements only to its closest allies and Nato partners”.

Another senior IAF officer said: “The CISMOA is necessary for airforces to communicate with the US easily. Why do we need to communicate with the US all the time?”

The AESA radar that the two US companies have offered in the Super Hornet and the Super Viper are made by Raytheon. Raytheon Asia president Admiral (retired) Walter Doran insists that the CISMOA would not be a hurdle.

He cites the initial Indian reservation over the signing of the End-User Monitoring Agreement, a pact that allows the US government to inspect the use of military equipment it has allowed to be sold.

“Two years ago that was such an issue. But now nobody even talks about it,” Doran said, emphasising that “as the US-India relationship grows these will cease to matter”.

US officials also cite the transfer last fortnight of the first of six C-130J-30 Super Hercules tactical airlifter to the IAF. But the US competitors for the IAF fighter aircraft order — such as the European firms — give the same example a different twist because the Super Hercules was delivered without some of the equipment that would have been available if the CISMOA was sealed.

Even if the government chooses one of the two competing US aircraft — after the IAF completed the flight evaluation trials for the six fighter aircraft last July — there would be questions on whether it is a payback for the clinching of the civilian nuclear pact. The US has been aggressively looking for billion-dollar orders from India to create jobs in its traditional industries, such as military aviation companies.

Raytheon, of all the US companies, has huge stakes in the Indian military orders. The company has more than 8,000 products. It practically opened the door for large-scale US military transfers to India when 12 artillery Firefinder An-TPQ/37 radars made by it were contracted by New Delhi in 2002.

For the F/A-18 Super Hornet and F-16 Super Viper, Raytheon has offered to make and integrate not only the AESA radar but also electronic warfare (EW) suites including radar warning systems, a towed decoy system and electro-optical targeting flares.

The European and Russian competitors of the US companies are, in turn, trying to convince the Indian government that their weapons and systems will be delivered with “no strings attached”.

The IAF’s reservation on signing the CISMOA have particularly raised the hopes for the Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Aviation’s Rafale in particular that have the least US content in their platforms after the Russians. (The US forbids exports of military hardware to Russia). The Saab Gripen is powered by a US-made engine (the GE 414) and has some avionics from the US that the Swedish company is telling the IAF will not be an issue because they would buy the equipment from the Americans off-the-shelf. The Russian MiG-35 has no US-made component but its absence at the airshow in Yelahanka this week reflects a loss of confidence in Moscow to bag the $12 billion MMRCA deal.

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