New Delhi, March 26: The Indian Air Force is likely to issue a tender next month inviting bids for its multi-billion-dollar contract to acquire 126 multi-role combat aircraft.
The US decision to supply the Pakistan Air Force with Lockheed Martin-manufactured F-16s will reflect poorly on the company that is also in the running for the contract despite assurances from Washington that it is offering New Delhi a wider array of military hardware.
The Indian Air Force order is one of the biggest military contracts going currently. The IAF is the fourth largest air force in the world and a big-time customer for global defence contractors.
The aircraft could cost India $5 billion or more over five years. The US announcement that it will lift curbs and supply F-16s to Pakistan has come at a time when the Indian Air Force is desperately trying to upgrade its combat fleet and get back to its authorised strength of more than 39 squadrons. It is currently down to about 30 squadrons.
The defence ministry had last year sent requests for information to four companies for the contract ' Dassault Aviation of France for its Mirage 2000-V-Mk2, Sweden's SAAB for its JAS 39C Gripen, Russia's RSK MiG Corporation for the MiG-29M/M2 and, as an afterthought, to Lockheed Martin for the F-16 Fighting Falcon.
India has always been cagey of signing long-term defence contracts with the US because New Delhi perceives Washington as an erratic military supplier, an impression that was just about getting dispelled after military-to-military relations were put on an upward trajectory since 2002.
A Lockheed Martin spokesperson said the US was offering the F/A 18 Hornet, a more advanced aircraft than the F-16, to India. But sources in air headquarters say a combination of factors weigh heavily against sourcing from the US.
Chief among these are a history of arm-twisting with military supplies, the IAF's inventory that does not have American-made combat aircraft, and, Washington's timing of its announcement when India and Pakistan are engaged in a peace process.
Of the three armed forces, India has so far enjoyed a clear superiority in numbers and fighting ability in the air element. The Pakistan Air Force has about 20 squadrons, mostly of mixed aircraft, that comprise second and third generation American fighters and also an older generation of Mirage. Even though the IAF is down to 30 squadrons, it retains superiority.
The supply of F-16s, air force sources say, will mean that it will take more for the IAF to maintain the asymmetry. Washington's announcement has not detailed the number and the kind of F-16s it will be supplying to Pakistan.
But with the IAF planning to add about 200 combat aircraft ' 126 multi-role and the rest in strike and air defence components ' by 2010 India will still be ahead. There is little doubt, however, that the US offer will intensify the arms race in South Asia.
The sources say it is not clear if the US is supplying the F-16s that were contracted by Pakistan but stalled by Washington after sanctions in 1990 or it is supplying a new version of the aircraft.
The F-16 is used by air forces in about 20 countries but it has undergone enormous changes in its avionics, manoeuvrability and weaponry in the last 20 years.
Pakistan had contracted 71 'block 15' F-16s in 1988 and 1989 but in accordance with the Pressler amendment the US announced on October 6, 1990, that it was stopping arms deliveries to Pakistan.
By 1994, 28 aircraft that were manufactured for Pakistan were ordered to be stored. Pakistan had paid $685 million on the contract. IAF sources in Delhi say the 'block 15' F-16s are of an older generation than the aircraft currently in use by the US Air Force.
Against this background, the offer of the F/A 18s is not immediately being seen in New Delhi as one that can be seriously pursued.