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India Begins Trials to Select Air Force Combat Jets

In India, trials have begun to select a fighter aircraft for the country's air force. Six aircraft manufacturers are in the race to win what will be one of the world's biggest defense contracts worth billions of dollars.

In the southern city of Bangalore, Indian air force pilots have carried out sorties of two F 18 "Super hornet" fighter jets manufactured by U.S. based Boeing. The trials began Monday.

This marked the start of trials of six combat jets short listed by India, which plans to buy 126 new aircraft to modernize its air force.

Another U.S. based company, Lockheed Martin will be next in line to put its F 16 aircraft through tactical maneuvers. Others competing for the lucrative contract are Russia's MiG 35, France's Rafale, Sweden's Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

The contract will be worth approximately $12 billion - one of the largest defense contracts to be handed out in the world.

An air force spokesman, P.R. Singha, says the trials will be conducted in different stages over one year. Besides Bangalore, the jets will be tested in different climate zones - in the desert state of Rajasthan and in the Himalayan mountains. The final stage of trials will involve mounting weapons systems on the combat jets.

"As far as the field trials, the calendar is there,it is one after the other, the six aircraft, and in three places, Bangalore, Jaisalmer and Leh," explained Singha. "We have the desert sector, the high temperature, the high altitude, the cold temperature. These three [trials] will take place in India, and the remaining, whatever is left will take place in the place of origin of the aircraft."

The trials began after Indian pilots were trained in the use of the combat jets.

India plans to buy 18 aircraft initially. The rest will be manufactured in India under an agreement which will include transfer of technology to India.

The United States hopes that its blossoming relationship with New Delhi will help one of its two companies win the contract.

Rahul Bedi at Jane's Defense Weekly says it is very difficult to say at this stage which aircraft has the edge.

"It is very much an open race," Bedi said. "Most of the six competitors are broadly equal as far as their capabilities of the basic platforms are concerned. But the price as well as political considerations will ultimately decide the final winner."

U.S. companies are relatively new to the Indian defense market. The Indian military is mostly equipped with hardware from the former Soviet Union, but in the past decade, India has been looking to Western countries to meet its defense requirements. The biggest deal with a U.S. company involved the purchase of six military transport planes from Lockheed Martin. India is expected to spend $30 billion over the next decade to modernize its military.