F-16 fighter best suited for Indian Air Force: US official

By India Abroad News Service   |   Monday, 19 March 2007, 05:00 Hrs
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New Delhi: The US has made a strong pitch for the F-16 fighter for an Indian Air Force (IAF) order for 126 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) as it is best suited for inter-operability between the air forces of the two countries in the fight against global terrorism, a top official in the American administration says.

"I am not here to sell aeroplanes, but I can tell you that the F-16 is the best there is as we attempt inter-operability between our air forces in the global fight against terror," Bruce S. Lemkin, US deputy under secretary of the air force, told a select media gathering here.

"India needs a complementary aircraft for the (IAF's Russian Sukhoi) SU-30 (air dominance fighter). The F-16 is a cost-effective multi-role fighter. It's highly reliable and has a highly reliable life cycle cost," Lemkin, a former US Navy officer who has served on six nuclear submarines and commanded two of them, maintained.

The Lockheed Martin F-16 is one of seven fighters in the race for an IAF order, the others being the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, the Russian MiG-35, the Swedish JAS-39 Grippen, the French Mirage 2000-5 and Rafale, and the European four-nation Typhoon.

The IAF had projected its requirement in 2001, at a time when it was operating with 39 1/2 squadrons against its sanctioned strength of 45. The IAF is now down to 30 squadrons, with analysts saying its actual requirement is actually 200 aircraft to replace its ageing fleet of MiG-21s, as also the MiG-23s and MiG-27s that are being phased out as they have outlived their service life.

In 2004, a request for information (RFI) was sent out for four jets - the F-16, the Russian MiG-29M/M2, the Mirage 2000-5 and the Gripen. In addition, the manufacturers of the F-18, the Rafale and the Typhoon also sent in their proposals. Early this year, the Russians offered the MiG-35, essentially the MiG-29 with an upgraded engine.

The IAF request for proposal (RFP), the next stage in the acquisition process after which price negotiations were to be held, was to have been sent to the short-listed manufacturers in 2005 but is nowhere in sight.

Lemkin, in fact, wondered even why the IAF was considering aircraft like the F-18 when the RFI was for a single-engine jet, which the F-16 is, even as he hastened to add that the competitor was a "wonderful aircraft".

"The RFI was for a single-engine medium-role attack fighter which the F-16 is and the F-18 is not. India needs a jet to complement the SU-30. So, if you are looking at heavier jets (like the F-18), which aircraft are you looking to replace?" he asked.

"But, if the IAF opts for the F-18, all I can say is that it is a wonderful aircraft," Lemkin maintained.

Would this impact on complete inter-operability, more so if the IAF opts for a mix of the other jets?

"It definitely would, but not completely. When our air forces fly the same planes, inter-operability becomes easier. You benefit from our systems of maintenance and technical support. It's easier to fit into the matrix.

"There's also the common operating picture. Tactics manuals are written for specific aircraft and therefore, you cannot ensure optimum efficiency if there are different types (of aircraft)," Lemkin said.

Another US official who was present at the briefing contended it would be a "disaster" if the IAF opted for a mix for its MRCA order.

"Look at what happened to Malaysia. They opted for a mix of F-16s and MiG-29s. Very soon, they dumped the MiG-29s due to problems of inter-operability," the official pointed out, speaking on condition of anonymity.

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