NEW DELHI: An Indian defence panel approved the invitation of bids to buy 126 fighter jets on Friday, marking a key step towards modernising the country’s ageing air force in one of the world’s biggest military aircraft deals in over a decade.The Defence Acquisition Council headed by the defence minister gave its clearance for an early issue of the Request for Proposal (RFP), or invitation of bids, after a meeting in New Delhi, a Defence Ministry statement said. “The RFP would contain a selection model that would involve an exhaustive evaluation process,” it added.“In view of the size and operational importance of the likely purchase, the criteria for selecting the final…contender from amongst some of the best combat aircraft offered by American, Russian and European companies, has been fine-tuned,” the statement said.Bids for the deal, the value of which has been estimated by analysts at between $8 billion and $10 billion, would be invited “in the near future”, the statement added.Last week, Defence Minister AK Antony said the RFP would go out within the next two months for a deal that has aroused the interest of some of the biggest military aircraft manufacturers around the world.The Indian force, made up mostly of vintage Russian MiG jets, is getting depleted and could lose its edge over Pakistan if old planes are not replaced fast, defence analysts said. However, India’s defence deals are known to make slow progress and the first planes under the new deal may not arrive for another five years, they added. The deal has drawn the interest of the makers of the French Rafale fighter, the JAS-39 Gripen from Sweden’s Saab, Russia’s MiG-35, Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16. The Eurofighter, made by a consortium of European aircraft firms, is also in the running.The Defence Ministry statement said the bids would first be technically evaluated to ensure compliance with the Indian Air Force’s requirements, after which extensive field trials would be conducted to evaluate the performance of the jets.Some defence analysts have said that geopolitical concerns could override technical issues, leading India to pick an American aircraft as New Delhi and Washington push their strategic ties and seal a new friendship. But the defence statement said the selection of the fighter would be “transparent and fair”. reuters

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