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The Hawk deal

Published : Oct 10, 2003 00:00 IST

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T+T-

India decides on the Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer of Britain, but not its most advanced version.

THE much-heralded deal for the purchase of Advanced Jet Trainers (AJTs) for the Indian Air Force (IAF) finally materialised in September. The Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), presided over by Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, took the decision on September 3 to purchase 66 British-made Hawk AJTs. The planes, manufactured by British Aerospace Systems (BAE), were the front-runners for a long time although Czech and Russian companies also entered the fray to win the lucrative contract. The Indian government has said that the AJTs will cost the exchequer Rs.8,000 crores, which would to be spread over several years.

The decision to acquire the AJTs was, no doubt, expedited by the spate of crashes involving IAF fighters. The IAF had been demanding AJTs for the last 20 years. As a stop-gap measure, it brought 27 second-hand MiG-21 trainers from Kyrgyzstan recently.

A variety of factors prevented successive governments from negotiating an AJT deal; the price was one of them. The government was also keen to diversify its purchases. It wants to use defence purchases for political leverage, particularly in capitals such as London, Paris and Washington.

Russia was willing to sell its MiG-AT trainer jet at a more competitive price. Also in competition were the Czech-American firm Aero Vodochody's L-159B, the Italian manufacturer Aeromacchi's MB-339 and the Brazilian Embraer's AMX-T. The IAF finally opted for the Hawk, as it had a proven track record. Most of the other planes on offer were either on the drawing board or had yet to prove themselves. The scandals, especially those regarding recent arms purchases, engulfing the Indian Defence establishment, had also been a complicating factor in the efforts to clinch the AJT deal. The Hawk was short-listed for purchase along with the Alpha Jet of Dassault Aviation of France more than 17 years ago. Dassault has since stopped the production of the Alpha Jet.

The deal would have materialised earlier if British Aerospace had managed to acquire export licences for many of the Hawk's components from manufacturers in the U.S. The sanctions regime against India following the Pokhran nuclear tests imposed by the U.S and the U.K. were put on hold only recently. Now that New Delhi and Washington are diplomatically close, Washington has no objection to its closest ally Britain, bagging the lucrative contract.

Of the 66 Hawks that India has contracted for, 22 will be imported directly in the "fly away" condition. The rest will be manufactured under licence in India under a transfer-of-technology agreement. The whole deal will be completed in six years' time. "The decision fulfils one of the long-standing needs of the IAF. The induction of the AJTs will increase the skill levels of our trainee pilots graduating from low-speed trainers to advanced high-performance frontline fighter aircraft," the Defence Secretary Ajay Prasad said after the government announced the details of the deal. The IAF had originally wanted around 160 AJTs. The figure was then scaled down to 100. But owing to the high cost involved, the IAF will now have to make do with 66 Hawks.

British Defence Secretary Geoffrey Hoon welcomed the Indian government's decision. The Royal Air Force (RAF) had recently placed orders for Hawk AJTs, though of a more advanced variety - the MK128. India has opted for the older Hawk-115Y. Hoon said that the Indian decision "demonstrates once again the high regard in which U.K. products are held across the world. The Hawk is the most successful aircraft of its type ever to be built with India being its 19th customer". Prime Minister Tony Blair and his Foreign and Defence Secretaries have been strenuously lobbying for years with the Indian government to clinch the deal. Under the terms of the agreement the RAF will train 25 IAF pilots every year for the next three years. The first batch of the Hawk AJTs is expected to arrive in three years' time. India now becomes the second biggest purchaser of Hawks after the Republic of South Africa. There are an estimated 800 Hawk AJTs currently in service worldwide.

There were protests in the U.K. about the impending multi-million-dollar deal. Certain sections said that the British government had claimed that the Hawks were merely training aircraft despite the BAE website clearly stating that they could be adapted to more offensive use and could "deliver a comprehensive array of air-to-air and air-to-surface weaponry with pin-point accuracy".

Sections of the British media have pointed out that the Indonesian Air Force used Hawk trainers aggressively during the campaign to annex East Timor. They have also pointed out that the Hawks will be used by the IAF to train pilots to fly Jaguar fighter planes. There are reports in the British media saying that the IAFs Jaguar planes are being upgraded with Israeli avionics to make them nuclear-capable. Peace groups in the U.K. have argued that Britain is enhancing India's offensive military capabilities at a time when the European Union and the U.S. are urging India and Pakistan to demilitarise and restart serious negotiations on the Kashmir dispute.

The CCS meeting of September 3 also earmarked a sum of Rs.3,000 crores for the modernisation of the Army. The money will be spent on state-of-the-art equipment to improve firepower and communications. Elite Army units will be provided night vision capabilities. The Indian government also approved the purchase of an electronic warfare system from the Israeli firm Rafael at a cost of $105 million, for use in warships.

The CCS gave its approval for the purchase of five executive jets for VVIP travel. The jets, budgeted at Rs.727 crores, will be supplied by Embraer.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Oct 10, 2003.)

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