Delhi is acquiring 126 air and ground attack fighters which 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.

Reuters quoted an Indian official on India’s bid for air supremacy in the region.

Quoting an Indian minister, Reuters reported that, in a closely watched deal where diplomacy and strategic interests will play a big role, Delhi will narrow down the number of international bidders by mid-2010 for its $11-billion fighter jet tender,

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 JAS-39 Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon, produced by a consortium of European companies.

India fears China could be trying to strategically encircle it as they jostle for resources and global influence, while Pakistan has the US F-16 fighters in its fleet, forcing New Delhi to buy planes that can shoot at targets 48km away.

“The trials should conclude by the middle of this year,” Pallam Raju, India’s junior defense minister, told Reuters on the sidelines of an arms fair in New Delhi this week.
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“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 April.

Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony took some flying lessons at the New Delhi fair in a cockpit simulator of the Eurofighter, which defense officials privately acknowledge is a front-runner 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 Center for Policy Research.

Security experts say New Delhi’s growing ties with Washington, seen as a counterweight against China, might tilt the scale towards the two US companies in the fray.

“Over the last few years, the US- India relationship in the defense sector has strengthened significantly and we are very optimistic regarding the future of this relation,” said Vivek Lall, head (India) of Boeing defense. 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, Reuters reported.