* U.S., Russian, European companies compete in plane tender
* Acquisitions meant to tackle threats from Pakistan or
* Experts point to India's growing ties with Washington
By Bappa Majumdar
NEW DELHI, Feb 19 India will narrow down the
number of bidders by mid-2010 for its $11 billion fighter jet
tender, a minister said, in a closely watched deal where
diplomacy and strategic interests will play a big role.
Lockheed Martin's F-16 is competing with Boeing's F/A-18
Super Hornet, France's Dassault Rafale, Russia's MiG-35,
Sweden's Saab (SAABb.ST) JAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter
Typhoon, produced by a consortium of European companies.
The acquisition of 126 air and ground attack fighters will
elevate India's air force to a super-power status, with
deployments planned near the western and northeast borders to
tackle any threats from Pakistan or China, officials say.
India fears China could be trying to strategically encircle
it as they jostle for resources and global influence, while
Pakistan has the U.S. F-16 fighters in its fleet, forcing New
Delhi to buy planes that can shoot at targets 30 miles away.
"The trials should conclude by the middle of this year,"
Pallam Raju, India's junior defence minister, told Reuters on
the sidelines of an arms fair in New Delhi this week.
"Once the trials are concluded, then we will be looking
into the financial bids. We are speeding up things."
While Lockheed's F-16 has completed trials which began last
August, the other five, including the MiG-35 from Russia,
India's traditional supplier of weapons, and Sweden's Gripen,
are in the midst of field trials. The phased trials will end by
Interest into the lucrative deal picked up worldwide after
India's ambassador to Italy told reporters in Rome last month
that the Eurofighter Typhoon, conceived and built by Germany,
Spain, Italy and Britain, was leading in the race.
This week, Indian Defence Minister A.K. Antony took some
flying lessons at the New Delhi fair in a cockpit simulator of
the Eurofighter, which defence officials privately acknowledge
is a frontrunner to win the contract.
New Delhi is also keen to diversify its weapons acquisition
from European countries, said Brahma Chellaney, a professor on
strategic studies at the Centre for Policy Research.
"By engaging in this campaign, India would ensure virtually
a partnership, a strategic partnership on the political level
with the rest of Europe," Matthias Schmidlin, campaign director
of the Typhoon, told Reuters.
DEEPENING U.S. TIES
Security experts say New Delhi's growing ties with
Washington, seen as a counterweight against China, might tilt
the scale towards the two U.S. companies in the fray.
India and the United States signed a landmark civilian
nuclear deal in 2008 and another pact in July last year,
facilitating the entry of U.S. companies like Lockheed and
Boeing into India's lucrative defence market.
"Over the last few years, the U.S.- India relationship in
the defence sector has strengthened significantly and we are
very optimistic regarding the future of this relation," said
Vivek Lall, head (India) of Boeing defence.
Indian Air Force officials were also seen getting into
cockpit simulators of the F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed's
F-16 -- two stalls located near each other at the arms fair.
"But we are not together on this one (trials). It is a
keenly fought contest," a Lockheed official said, underlining
the fierce contest by defence companies lined up at India's
door for a share of the $100 billion defence market pie.
Some experts say the U.S. government's refusal to transfer
full technology to India could turn out to be a roadblock when
it comes to choosing the fighter India wants.
Russia's MiG-35, and France's Rafale are also keenly
watched by experts, and are equally strong contenders,
"The decison will be based on multiple matrices. First it
must match user requirements and then it will go to the
political arena," said Uday Bhaskar, director of the National
Maritime Foundation, a New Delhi-based defence think tank.
(Editing by Paul de Bendern and Ron Popeski)