New Delhi: India`s quest to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) will shift gear when the flight trials of the six global contenders will begin in Bangalore next week with US major Boeing`s warplane F/A-18 being the first contender.
"F/A-18 will be the first contender to arrive in India for the trials that will begin in Bangalore next week," top IAF officers said here today.
The US` Lockheed Martin F-16s, French D`Assault`s Rafale, Swiss SAAB`s Gripen, European consortium EADS` Eurofighter Typhoon and Russian MiG-35, the other five competitors for the USD 10 billion deal, will follow F/A-18, not necessarily in that order, for the first phase of the flight trials in India, they said.
After Bangalore, all contending aircraft will move to Leh for high altitude trials and to Jaisalmer for summer trials.
"We are optimistic that the trails on Indian soil and conditions of all the six aircraft competing for the deal will be completed before April end next year," the officers added.
The IAF would field a team of two test pilots each, who would carry out the flight trials in the three locations that the Air Force has chosen, they said.
"As per the trial schedule, the first phase involved training of Indian pilots on these competing aircraft in the country of origin. The second phase is the flight trials on Indian soil and airspace. The third phase would be test of specialist weapons that the manufacturers would provide on the aircraft in the country of their choice," they said.
A two-pilot team would test each of the aircraft, as there is a likelihood of overlap of the flight trial schedule of the six aircraft, the IAF officers said.
"The idea is to complete the trials as soon as possible and hence we got four pilots trained on these competing aircraft," they said.
India had floated the tenders for the MMRCA in August 2007 and the exhaustive technical evaluation of the six global manufacturer` bids were completed early this year.
The 126 MMRCAs will replace the aging MiG-21 fleet of the IAF and help in curbing the recent trend of depleting IAF squadron strength.
IAF`s number of squadrons had gone down to an alarming 31.5 squadrons in 2006 following which the then IAF chief SP Tyagi had written to the government pointing out that there was an urgent need to procure fighters aircraft to maintain the force levels.
After the induction of British major BAE System`s `Hawk` Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) in 2008, the fleet strength of the IAF has increased to about 33.5 squadrons compared to the sanctioned squadron strength of 39.5 squadrons.
Defence Minister AK Antony had recently told Parliament that the IAF squadron strength would continue to increase till 2015 when the MMRCA induction is likely to start, but face a down fall for a couple of years, before going north wards again to reach a maximum of 42.5 squadrons by 2022.