NEW DELHI, Sept. 21 (UPI) -- The Indian air force is to finalize a contract to purchase 126 French Dassault Rafale jet fighters this year, in one of 2012's largest armaments purchases.
The sale marks a significant diversification of India's armaments base as previously its major supplier of weaponry was the Russian Federation.
In Bangalore, Indian Air Chief Marshal N.A.K. Browne stated that, while negotiations are ongoing on with Dassault Aviation, New Delhi is optimistic that the negotiations be finished and contracts exchanged in the current fiscal year, which ends in March.
The contract for the 126 Rafale medium multi-role combat aircraft is worth $20 billion, Indo-Asian News Service reported Thursday. The fighter jets are intended to replace the air force's fleet of MiG-21s.
Given its high accident rate, the MiG-21 was deeply unpopular with Indian pilots, who referred to it as "the flying coffin" and the "widow-maker."
Four months ago in Parliament Indian Defense Minister A.K. Antony said 482 MiG aircraft accidents took place through April 19, 2012. Antony added that the MiG-21 crashes killed 171 pilots, 39 civilians and eight other military personal. The accidents were caused by "both human error and technical defects," he said.
The assembly's response was immediate and critical.
"The Indian air force has lost several talented pilots, senior and junior, thanks to the flying coffin that the MiGs are," an unnamed source said to be a retired air force wing commander told the Indo-Asian News Service. "It is very easy for officers on the ground conducting inquiries to blame pilots and the human element after each crash. But each IAF pilot puts his life at stake from Day One."
Former air force Vice Chief of Air Staff Pranab Kumar Barbora said that, while it was a fact the air force has lost many MiG-21s and a substantial number of highly skilled pilots, the subsequent rate of MiG-21 accidents in the context of the number of flying hours had been reduced."
Indian air force Air Marshal Barbora, who flew a MiG-21 just before he retired in 2010, maintained that it was a "fantastic" even though its high landing speed made it "slightly tricky" to handle.
Last year Minister of State for Defense M.M. Pallam Raju said, "The MiG 21s will get phased out by 2015-16. I think the last of the squadrons of the aircraft will be phased out by 2017."
The Indian air force purchased 946 MiG-21s, of which 476 were lost in various accidents over the past 45 years.
Raju said that after the phasing out of the "MiG 21s from operational service, the air force will have the LCA, SU-30MKI, Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft and the Fifth-Generation Fighter Aircraft, which is being developed with Russia."
Competition for the 126 MRCA IAF fighter aircraft contract was fierce. Besides Dassault, the Eurofighter Typhoon was short-listed, while other competitors included the Russian MiG 35, Swedish Saab Gripen and the American Boeing F/A-18 E/F and the Lockheed Martin F-16 combat jets.