India’s decision to buy 36 Rafale jets in “fly-away condition” from France, announced following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meeting with President Francois Hollande, is aimed at making up a critical shortfall in the combat strength of the Indian Air Force.
Modi said the Rafale jets were being bought due to the “critical operational necessity” of the IAF. He said the terms would be better than the stalled negotiations for the acquisition of 126 jets and that officials will soon take the issue forward.
The 36 jets will be delivered according to a timeframe compatible to the IAF’s requirements, and weapons, systems and aircraft would be of the same configuration as approved by the IAF and with a longer maintenance responsibility for France.
India requires 45 combat squadrons to counter a two-front threat from China and Pakistan but has only 34 squadrons with about 18 aircraft each. The new jets will be adequate for two squadrons.
The Rafale jets will be purchased through a government-to-government deal worth $4.2 billion, without any “Make in India” or technology transfer component, underlining the urgent need to replace ageing MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft that will be phased out over the next few years.
The IAF currently has 14 squadrons equipped with these Russian-origin jets. A plan to replace the Russian jets with the indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft too ran into problems because the Tejas is unlikely to be get operational clearance for some more time.
The IAF had been pushing for the direct purchase of two squadrons of Rafale jets to scale up its dwindling combat capabilities, defence sources said. Hindustan Times had reported on Friday that New Delhi was seriously considering the strategic purchase of up to 40 Rafale jets through the government-to-government route to boost the IAF’s combat readiness.
The decision to directly buy enough jets to equip two squadrons reflects the urgency to maintain the IAF’s traditional air superiority over Pakistan, which may be severely diluted if new fighters are not inducted at the earliest.
As part of its plans to acquire 126 combat jets, India had selected Rafale fighters over Typhoons in January 2012 after the French firm Dassault Aviation emerged the lowest bidder.
The 2012 deal envisaged only 18 ready-to-fly Rafales supplied to the IAF by this year, and the remaining 108 to be manufactured under licence in India. However, the two sides haven’t been able to seal the deal as yet because of differences over pricing and the offset component.
In an interview to Hindustan Times last September, IAF chief Arup Raha had said it was critical to keep the Rafale fighter deal on schedule as the force could not afford any more delays.
Raha has also said that India had no Plan B if negotiations with Dassault Aviation to buy Rafale jets collapsed. He said the IAF needs to induct medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) soon and also ruled out the possibility of buying more Sukhoi-30 fighters if talks with Dassault Aviation failed.
The IAF told a parliamentary panel last year that a “collusive threat” from China and Pakistan would be difficult to tackle, making a strong case for beefing up its force levels.
India is years behind the Chinese military with the Communist neighbour currently outnumbering the country’s combat power by a 3:1 ratio. India’s hopes to bridge the gap in the next 15 to 20 years, depending on the availability of funds.
The 36-jet order is Dassault’s biggest yet abroad – estimated to be worth nearly $4.2 billion. France sold 24 Rafale jets to Egypt earlier this year.
Defence minister Jean-Yves Le Drian told reporters after Modi’s announcement that all 36 jets will be made in France. Negotiations, meanwhile, will continue on finalising the initial 126-jet agreement.