India is beefing up its military as tensions rise with China and Pakistan — and now it wants to buy more than 100 fighter jets

A Dassault Rafale combat aircraft performs during the inauguration ceremony of Aero India 2013 at Yelahanka air force station near Bangalore, February 6, 2013.

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A Dassault Rafale combat aircraft performs during the inauguration ceremony of Aero India 2013 at Yelahanka air force station near Bangalore, February 6, 2013.
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REUTERS/Stringer

  • India is phasing out some of its main combat aircraft.
  • The country’s air force is looking to buy more than 100 new fighters.
  • India has been trying to modernize and expand its armed forces for some time, with an eye on countering threats from its neighbors.

India is looking to make a multibillion-dollar defense deal to secure more than 100 fighter aircraft, according to a request for information issued on Friday.

According to the request, the aircraft are to be day- and night-capable, all-weather multirole combat aircraft that can fulfill air-superiority, air-defense, and air-to-surface roles, as well as carry out reconnaissance and maritime operations.

The notice stipulates that 75% of the 110 fighters are to be single-seat aircraft and the rest twin-seaters. India is looking to buy 15% of the aircraft in a fly-away state and to produce the other 85% in India under the Make in India program.

The first aircraft would need to arrive within three years of signing the contract, which could be worth up to $15 billion and be the world’s largest fighter aircraft deal, according to Bloomberg.

Vendors have until July 6 to submit responses to the RFI, and the Indian air force wants to issue a formal request for proposals within six to 12 months of getting those responses, according to the Times of India.

Indian Air Force MiG-27.

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Indian Air Force MiG-27.
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Wikimedia Commons

For the past several years, India has been looking to upgrade and modernize its armed forces, partly in response to what it sees as growing risks posed by neighbors Pakistan and China. New Delhi is already looking to increase its maritime capabilities by acquiring more submarines and advanced sub-hunting patrol planes.

Ten existing squadrons of India’s Russia-made MiG-21 and MiG-27 fighters are scheduled for retirement by 2022, and the country’s air force and navy need to acquire up to 400 single- and double-engine aircraft, the government has said.

The air force wants to accelerate acquisition in order to build up its fighter squadrons, of which it now has 31, each with 18 planes. It sees 42 or more squadrons as necessary to fight a two-front war.

India began looking for new fighters in 2007. That search led to the Indian government picking Dassault Aviation to supply 126 Rafale jets for $11 billion. But that deal stalled and was cancelled in 2015. The Indian government instead elected to import 36 Rafale jets, which will arrive between 2019 and 2022.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration ceremony for

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Prime Minister Narendra Modi at the inauguration ceremony for “Make In India” week in Mumbai, February 13, 2016.
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Thomson Reuters

The latest request for information is a revision of an earlier request that the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi asked the air force to expand in order to include twin-engine aircraft and attracted high-profile weapons manufacturers, Bloomberg reported in February.

India has had contentious relations with China, particularly along the two countries’ shared border.

Disputes there have led to conflicts in the past, and in summer 2017 New Delhi and Beijing clashed in a months-long standoff around an area called the Doklam, or Donglang, near China’s and India’s borders with Bhutan.

That showdown eased in late August, but both sides still have military personnel stationed there. In the months since, India has deployed Su-30 MKI combat aircraft to airbases in the region. In February, China sent J-10 and J-11 fighters to Tibet, which borders India, after exercises that Chinese commentators linked to the recent tensions.

The aircraft deployed to Tibet were less advanced than the aircraft China has sent on patrols over the South China Sea, indicating China’s priorities.

“Sending these jets to different theatre commands shows that the major focus of China’s military is still the east, with the United States being the main rival. The threat from India comes second in China’s military priority,” Ni Lexiong, a Shanghai-based military expert, told South China Morning Post. “But of course China made sure the new jets it deployed were better than India’s.”