New Delhi: The Indian Air Force on Friday set in motion the process of acquiring a fleet of 110 fighter jets worth an estimated $15 billion, one of its largest orders in recent years, in a bid to shore up its fast-depleting squadron strength.

According to a statement on the defence ministry’s website, at least 85% of the jets have to be made in India, giving a big push to India’s “Make in India" programme.

The issue of the request for information (RFI) is the first step to acquiring the aircraft.

This will be followed by a request for proposal (RFP) or a formal tender, to be followed by evaluations, technical trials and commercial negotiations.

Leading military aircraft producers, including US firms Lockheed Martin and Boeing, Sweden’s Saab and France’s Dassault Aviation, are among those likely to vie for the mega deal. The deal could be worth as much as $15 billion, Bloomberg reported, quoting an analyst.

“The ministry of defence, government of India, intends to procure fighter aircraft for the Indian Air Force, which are to be made in India. The proposal is to procure approximately 110 fighter aircraft (about 75% single-seat and rest twin-seat)," the statement said.

“The procurement should have a maximum of 15% aircraft in flyaway state and the remaining 85% aircraft will have to be made in India" in collaboration with a strategic partner or an Indian production agency, the statement added.

In other words, the aircraft have to be jointly produced by a foreign aircraft maker along with an Indian company under the recently-launched strategic partnership model which aims to bring in high-end defence technology to India.

“The aircraft are intended as day-and-night-capable, all-weather, multi-role combat aircraft" which can be used for air defence, reconnaissance, maritime, electronic warfare as well as refuelling missions, the statement said.

The Indian Air Force has a sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons—required for a possible two-front war scenario, given India’s hostile relations with Pakistan and uncomfortable ties with China. But the strength is down to about 31 operational squadrons.

According to estimates, some 400 aircraft will be going out of service in the next decade. Many of these are the Russian-made MiG aircraft which have been the backbone of the Indian Air Force for decades.

“So this request for information, which is the first step in the acquisition of new fighter aircraft, comes at a critical time," said a person familiar with developments.

The RFI comes in the backdrop of the ongoing procurement of Rafale fighter jets from France and a delayed induction of the home-made Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.

India started looking for new warplanes in 2007, a search that ended with the government selecting Dassault Aviation for the supply of 126 Rafale jets for $11 billion. With talks stalling over price and quality guarantees, New Delhi scrapped the purchase in 2015. But in September 2016, India signed an €7.87 billion (around Rs59,000 crore) deal with the French government for purchase of 36 Rafale twin-engine fighter jets. The Indian Air Force was keen on a follow-on order of 36 additional Rafales but the government is yet to take a decision on it.

The Indian Air Force and navy require as many as 400 single- and double-engine combat aircraft, according to government figures.

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