A Sri Lankan Air Force (SLAF) plan to purchase 10-12 multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) through a government-to-government deal could be delayed indefinitely due to budgetary constraints.
Colombo has last year decided to issue request for proposals (RFP) to countries which manufacture fighter jets rather than buy it directly from aircraft manufacturers to avoid allegations of bribery and avoid middlemen. However a cut in the defence budget outlay from LKR 306 billion (US$ 2.4 billion) in 2016 to LKR 284 billion (US$ 1.9 billion) in 2017 has put a big question mark on whether the government will go ahead with the procurement in the medium term.
A source close to Sri Lankan defence told Defenseworld.net at the IDEX 2017 show earlier this week that many in Sri Lanka oppose the procurement on grounds that the island country does not face any external threats and with the elimination of the LTTE, there is little to justify purchasing of MRCA type fighter jets that cost anywhere between US$50-$100 million apiece.
However, the SLAF is keen to buy new jets to maintain readiness levels of its pilots and to effectively patrol its maritime and civil aviation interests. The force has Israeli built Kfirs C2/C7, a smattering of MiG-27s and Chinese J7s but has only one aircraft in operational condition, according to reports.
Earlier reports said that Colombo had come close to signing on the dotted line to purchase Pakistani-Chinese JF-17s but had held it hand back owing to pressure from India which wanted it to consider buying its home-made Light Combat Aircraft.
“It was the pressure from India and Pakistan-China that made it to consider a global RFP,” said the source.
The SLAF is yet to formulate its requirements for an MRCA aircraft and the question of issuing an RFP would arise only after the Air Force decides what it wants in terms of the aircraft features, weapons and communication system.
The source said that cost of the aircraft would one issue. The other would be spending on buying or upgrading the whole gamut of command and control systems, communications, weapons handling, training and many others. Modern fighter jets are dependent upon advanced systems at every level and an MRCA jet would be flying at a fraction of its potential if not linked to attendant systems, he added.
A Sri Lankan news website Roar.lk reported earlier this month that the requirements for the new aircraft are still being finalised. It quoted SLAF Spokesman, Group Captain Gihan Seneviratne, as stating that the call for bids is likely before the end of the year.