As the Aero-India show gets under way in Bangalore, the world's fighter sales teams are getting ready for the next stage in the battle of India's massive 126-aircraft Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest.
It's an expensive activity. Four of the competitors - MiG, Lockheed Martin, Boeing and Eurofighter - have brought aircraft here. All except MiG have multiple aircraft, to support the flying display itself and VIP flights for military and government officials, celebrities and news anchors. Logistics support, thousands of miles from any operational base, is a massive undertaking. (And another reason for multiple aircraft: if an aircraft needs spares, they won't get there in time for the next day's show.) And soon they will have to do it all again, for a formal evaluation.
But as some industry people point out, this contest is so wide open that it's hard for any team to assess its chances of winning. When the contestants cover a two-to-one size range (the Gripen NG has one F414 engine, the Super Hornet two) you know that the request for proposals (RFP) was fairly loose.
The Indian AF has not defined its needs for training or contractor logistics support, or set out a firm schedule for deliveries, or determined how many lots or batches will be bought.
At least one team would like to see a downselect soon. To paraphrase: If we don't stand a chance, tell us now so we can focus efforts elsewhere. Another executive complains that his offering's being criticised as expensive - but absent some decisions on funding profile and contractor support, he can't propose a price, so he wonders where that criticism is coming from.
Political factors are important. The Europeans are pitching "independence" - they are more willing to share source code and other details than the US. That argument may resonate in India, but on the other hand the thawing of US-Indian relations in recent years has been rapid, and it continues. Indian-Russian military ties, too, remain close.
At the same time, nobody's willing to criticise the RFP process in public. I have heard here that one competitor already came close to getting ridden out of town on a rail for that offense. So expect a lot of "industry sources say" in the next few days. Loose lips sink campaigns!