Defence ministry is concerned about restricted competition, potential single vendor situation that could spark a scandal.
New Delhi: The air force’s single engine fighter procurement has hit an air pocket with the government raising questions on why the selection should be based on the number of engines and not technical capability of contending jets.
The air force has been facing probing questions from the top defence ministry bureaucracy that fears a potential single vendor situation given that the competition will be limited to only two global vendors. Both these vendors were rejected in an earlier round of procurement on grounds that they didn’t meet technical requirements.
The debate took off after the air force officially moved the single engine jet procurement under the new strategic partnerships model that would involve setting up a new fighter production line in India.
Sources have told ThePrint that the defence ministry is not yet convinced with the air force argument for breaking up its requirements into two parts – a new single engine jet line and a different double engine jet programme.
Sources in the know said that a few rounds of communication have taken place between the air force and the defence ministry prior to a planned Request for Information (RFI) that will kick start the procurement.
The American F-16 and the Swedish Gripen are the only two contenders in this race. But if the engine requirement is taken off and selection is to be made only on capability, it opens up the field to more contenders, including the MiG-35, Eurofighter, F-18 and Rafale.
A very cautious bureaucracy is aware of two on-going Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) inquiries into recent defence deals that have taken the premise that bribes were paid to favour the selection of one foreign vendor over the other.
“We do not want another AgustaWestland where the CBI thinks that specifications were tailored and tests rigged in favour of the Italians,” a senior South Block source told ThePrint.
While the single engine procurement has been talked about for the past several months, a formal decision to go ahead will have to be taken by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman. Before demitting office, her predecessor Manohar Parrikar had been vocal in his support for the procurement but the process for approvals was not moved.
The defence ministry’s official strategic partnerships procedure does mention fighter jets as a priority project, but does not specify the number of engines as a selection criterion.
Several unofficial “white papers” are doing the rounds within the defence ministry that bring out potential problems that could emerge as the procurement progresses, in particular the fear that the competition will result in a single vendor situation.
One such paper points out that one of the points on which the American F-16 was officially rejected during the last round of selection in 2011 was that the air force termed the aircraft incapable of further upgrades due to a lack of growth potential.
As potential to upgrade is a key requirement as the planes will be used for the next several decades, the paper argues that the selection therefore is being moulded in favour of the Swedish competitor.
While there is a lot of work ahead – from the official tender to selection and financial scrutiny – the fighter jet deal has evoked sharp interest. The two competitors have already tied up with Indian partners. Saab, which makes the Gripen, has announced the Gautam Adani group as a partner, while Lockheed Martin that makes the F-16 has selected the Tata Group.
The long road ahead includes the selection of a project management consultancy by the defence ministry to scrutinise the financial and technical capabilities of Indian companies that will apply for strategic partner status to make the jets.