The Eurofighter Typhoon has emerged as the number one aircraft, ahead of Dassault's Rafale, in a Ministry of Defence evaluation for the $10 billion MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) contract. But a decision between the two will be taken after a final evaluation. According to sources, Boeing's F/A-18 Super Hornet was placed third, Saab's Gripen fourth, Lockheed Martin's F-16 fifth and the Russian Mig 35 sixth.
F/A-18 lost out to its European counterparts because it was inadequate to meet India's needs. It did not perform well at the trials, especially in Ladakh's Leh where its engines refused to start, say sources. F/A-18 was also perceived to be too heavy and so lacking in speed and manoeuvrability. It is a 30-year-old aircraft with technology dating back to the 1980s.
The Eurofighter Typhoon was perceived to have several advantages over its competitors, especially over the aircraft on offer from the United States. It is the only fourth generation MMRCA in the world. It has better air to air, and air to ground capabilities that can be carried out simultaneously. As the Typhoon is a new fighter aircraft the potential for growth and upgrade is huge, lasting between 40-50 years. The Typhoon has a large supply base available, as it is in service with many Air Forces, such as, Germany, Great Britain, Italy, Spain and also Saudi Arabia. The Typhoon is also offering weapons packages that include the lethal Meteor missile, which is a radar guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile. New technologies also mean low lifecycle cost. The cost of ownership is also low.
The Eurofighter Typhoon is a collaborative effort by Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK and will not come saddled with the intrusive end user monitoring agreement and the end user verification agreement that all US aircraft will be burdened with. These US Congress-mandated monitoring agreements demand that client states give the US the right to access and inspect the materiel bought from that country. Transfer of high-level technology will also be easier with the European aircraft than the US F-18/A.
During a recent meeting in Paris, sources in the French aircraft industry had said that their Rafale and the Eurofighter Typhoon were the two best aircraft on offer. The Gripen manufactured by Saab was dismissed as too small and lacking in power. Rafale was described as an "omni-role aircraft with low penetration." The French perceived the F-16 as an old aircraft. The MoD here was not keen on the F-16 primarily because Pakistan already has that.
According to a source, "Russia was never really in the game as the IAF wanted a non Russian platform and the Mig 35 was far from ready, only in a developmental stage. Gripen and the F-16 were also ruled out as the IAF wanted a twin engine aircraft and in the case of the F-16 the fact that Pakistan has it, precluded it from serious consideration."
The French were, however, wary of US President Barack Obama's capacity to influence India's decision. "It's difficult to say who'll get the MMRCA contract, but Eurofighter Typhoon is our main competitor," a source said.
The decision in favour of the Typhoon and Rafale was swung by the IAF, which conducted what sources described as "an immaculate selection process". Defence Minister A.K. Antony was also clear that merit would be the only factor that would decide the selection. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh too could not exert himself on a resolute defence minister as that would have laid him bare to another charge of cozying up to the US.
But the United States is unlikely to give up easily. Sources say that lobbying on behalf of the US has already started, with some senior journalists involved in the process. There are fears within defence circles that pressure will be applied on the MoD to either give the contract to F-18/A or to cancel the contract altogether. There are also fears that the US will make it difficult for both Eurofighter and Rafale, whoever wins the contract, to transfer any American technology they might be having. The US might also try to arm-twist India by threatening to put Indian companies back on the entities list.
Meanwhile, Janata Party president Subramanian Swamy has sent a letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh alleging that there was a "pre-determined decision to favour the French aircraft" and this was an "outcome of several conversations between the wife of French President Ms. Carla Bruni and the Chairperson of the National Advisory Council Ms. Sonia Gandhi, and surprisingly also with two foreign nationals who are the sisters of Ms. Sonia Gandhi".
Swamy, alleged in his letter, that "based on some credible information" given to him on the "conversation" between Carla Bruni and Sonia Gandhi's sisters, "there has been an agreement of the French to pay a hefty bribe for favouring the purchase of French aircrafts".