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Navy may go for European aircraft
Girja Shankar Kaura
Tribune News Service

New Delhi, December 31
The Indian Navy, which is all set to float the long-delayed global tender for maritime reconnaissance aircraft (MRA), seems to have narrowed down its choice to the offering from the European consortium of EADS.

With two lines of thinking prevailing in the Navy, one to fulfil the short-term immediate requirements and the second for the long-term permanent solution, the pendulum for the latter seems to have swung in favour of the EADS.

A four-member Navy team, headed by a one-star officer, had observed trials in July on MRA derivatives of the Airbus A-319, manufactured by the EADS Spain and the Boeing P-8A Poseidon in the US.

Since neither of MRA derivatives exists, the flight trials involved simulations on the Airbus A-320 and the Boeing-737 platforms on representative flight profiles and mission system evaluations.

Sources here said with the EADS offering the aircraft at a much lower price than the Boeing, the A-319 version had emerged as the favourite in the race. This despite the Pentagon pledging to make additional technical, military capabilities available to New Delhi as the P-8A enters into service with the US military.

It seems the price, at which the EADS would be arming the Indian Navy with the eight MRAs, is almost $ 400 million less than the price offered by Boeing. Chief of Naval Staff Admiral Sureesh Mehta had recently said: “We have completed our evaluations of various long-range maritime patrol aircraft and a request for proposals (RFPs) should go out very soon”.

Incidentally, the Navy is also in talks with the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) for developing a rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) to enhance its maritime surveillance capabilities. The Navy needs the aircraft to replace its ageing fleet of eight Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-42s that are on the verge of completing their service life and also the remaining two IL-38 aircraft.

Besides these aircraft, the Navy depends on its fleet of around 15 Dornier 228-101 aircraft and 12 Israeli Searcher Mark II and Heron unmanned aerial vehicles to monitor India’s 7,516 km long coastline, 1,197 islands and a 2.01 square km exclusive economic zone. This, the experts say, is not good enough an inventory for the purpose.

Warning bells for immediate upgrade of the MRA were also sounded at an international summit earlier this year over the mounting terrorist threats to sea lanes around Indonesia and the straits of Malacca, which serve as a choke-point for a significant percentage of global shipping. At the meeting in the US, which included representatives from Australia, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Japan and other countries, a request was made for India to play a major policing role against sea-piracy in the region.

Successful procurement of the MRA would contribute to India’s capabilities, as its naval responsibilities undergo rapid growth. Boeing had offered India a customised version of the P-8A that is scheduled to fly in late 2009 with operational capability set for 2013. The EADS platform, too, is expected to be ready around the same time.

Both had also seriously examined the possibility of partnering Indian companies to jointly develop communications, data-link and identification friend-or-foe (IFF) equipment as an added sales incentive.

The other initial bidders for the contract had included Israel Aerospace Industries and Elta Systems (Orion) and a Russian consortium with the upgraded Ilyushin Il-38SD.

With the choice for the longer range MRA falling on the aircraft, which are still under development, reports suggest the Navy was seriously considering acquiring two or three aircraft as interim measure where it could consider Lockheed Martin’s P-3 Orion, even though it has a turbo-prop engine, and the other bidders again.



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