NEW DELHI: The French Rafale fighter has been knocked out of the race for the ‘mother of all defence deals’, the Rs 42,000 crore (approx. 9 billion euros—Ed) project to acquire 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for IAF, leaving five jets in the fray now.

Defence ministry (MoD) sources on Thursday said Rafale had “fallen short” on “several counts” listed in the GSQRs (general staff qualitative requirements) drawn up by IAF. “It did not pass muster in the technical evaluation of the bids submitted by the six contenders,” said a source.

The move is sure to rile France, which like other countries in the contention for what will be the largest global defence contract had mounted a high-voltage campaign for the $10.4 billion MMRCA contract. “We have no confirmation from the Indian MoD… We are extremely surprised since there was no technical lacuna in our bid,” said a French official.

Incidentally, India and France are also yet to settle their bitter differences for the upgrade of the 51 Mirage-2000s in IAF’s combat fleet despite being locked in negotiations for over two years now. Sources said French fighter manufacturer Dassault Aviation wants well over Rs 12,000 crore for the project, but India is not prepared to pay a penny over Rs 10,000 crore.

As for the MMRCA battle, India will now invite only American F/A-18 Super Hornet (Boeing) and F-16 Falcon (Lockheed Martin), Russian MiG-35 (United Aircraft Corporation), Swedish Gripen (Saab) and Eurofighter Typhoon (consortium of British, German, Spanish and Italian companies) to take part in the field trials which are likely to begin from July-August.

“IAF HQ is drawing up the modalities for the field trials to begin in around three months,” said the source. There will be at least two sets of trials conducted in summer and winter, with the five jets being flown in the snow-capped peaks of Leh, the scorching Rajasthan deserts (probably Jaisalmer) and the humid conditions of south India (probably Bangalore).

The race, of course, is actually quite a marathon. The commercial bids will only be opened, examined and compared after a shortlist is made of two to three top contenders following the extensive field trials and staff evaluation.

With the final negotiations to begin thereafter, the entire process is expected to take a minimum of two years before the contract is actually inked. IAF hopes to induct the first lot of the new fighters — 18 jets will be bought off-the-shelf, while the rest will be manufactured in India under transfer of technology — by 2012-2013.