March 1, 2004 (by Lieven Dewitte) - The Indian Air Force (IAF) is in negotiations with French, Russian and US bidders to purchase 125 frontline multi-role fighter planes to partially replace about 300 MiG-21 aircraft.
The French aircraft manufacturer Dassault is currently the frontrunner with its offer of upgraded Mirage 2000-5 aircraft, as that aircraft has proven its capability during the Kargil war and in Operation Parakram. However, Lockheed Martin is also offering a technology transfer of its F-16 Fighting Falcon.
The two major Russian fighter companies - Mikoyan and Sukhoi - have formed a consortium to jointly back the upgraded MiG-29MI/M2. However, the Russian proposal seems to be a non-starter as Mikoyan cannot meet the Indian time schedule because it will be heavily engaged in the manufacture of the MiG 29K for the "Admiral Gorshkov" aircraft carrier , which India has contracted to purchase.
The selection is expected to be completed in a few months.
The new fighters would partially replace 300 MiG 21 FL/M interceptors and 100 MiG 23BN ground attack fighters, which have reached the end of their flying time and need to be phased out.
Last week, pilots in the Indian Air Force have reportedly refused to fly the ageing MiG 21 in view of the growing fatal casualties and have asked the authorities to immediately replace the fighter aircraft.
Sources in the IAF are saying that after a flying officer Ghumman, managed to eject from his troubling MiG 21 in Jamnagar last Friday, the young pilots assembled at the base and lodged a written protest over forcing the fliers to have sorties on these machines which have been nick-named "flying coffins".
With the delay in the LCA (Light Combat Aircraft), which according to current schedule is expected to be inducted by only 2009, the IAF is in danger of entering a critical phase; it faces reduction in its fighter flying fleet from the current 39 fighter squadrons to 32 squadrons by 2006.