In a move that is being viewed with much anticipation, starting tomorrow, officials from French firm Dassault Aviation, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Indian Air Force (IAF) will engage in 48 hours of negotiations in Bangalore over the deal to acquire 126 Rafale fighter jets under the long-standing Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contract. The conclusion of this round is likely to land the IAF just one step away from concluding the entire set of negotiations and thereby, signing the deal. A senior Ministry of Defence (MoD) official said, “We expect total closure of negotiations over Transfer of Technology (ToT) from this round. With that done, we will have completed negotiations by sub committees on ToT, offsets and maintenance.” He added, “What will remain will be the overall cost and there too, 75 per cent of the work has been completed.” Sources indicated the IAF believes that Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC) could complete its entire gamut of work before December this year, following which the matter will be placed before the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), after consultations with the Finance Ministry. “We are not being ambitious if we say we expect the deal to be signed before the end of this financial year,” said a source. With the phasing out of the MiG fighters and delay in acquisitions, the Indian Air Force’s plan to have 42 squadrons by 2022 has taken a hit. Presently, it is down to 34 squadrons from the 39 that it should ideally be holding. Comprising these 34 squadrons are several MiG21s and the IAF ideally wants to avoid giving flying duties to these aircraft for obvious reasons. On the other hand, the home grown Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas which was being originally seen as a replacement for the ageing MiGs, is yet to acquire its Final Operational Clearance (FOC) for introduction into IAF fleet. To add to the IAF’s predicament, it is the MkII version of Tejas that it really wants. “But that version is on the drawing table. Realistically speaking, we have little hope from Tejas,” said a source. Thus, with the MMRCA, the IAF is looking at merely curbing the downfall and retaining its numbers.