The announcement came April 10th as India’s prime minister Narendra Modi was on official visit to France. The contract whose value is estimated at EUR 5 billions will see all 36 aircraft built at Dassault’s Merignac factory in the south of France. Deliveries of the aircraft to the Indian Air Force would occur between 2017 and 2019. India has become the second nation to acquire the type after Egypt this past February.
The deal at last ends a decade long failed acquisition process that initially sought to equip India’s Air Force with a potent future replacement for its obsolescent and accident-prone fleet of Mig-21 which had numbered more than 850 machines. The EUR 15 billion competing tender first issued in the early 2000s put a requirement for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft MMRCA. Crucial to the bidding process was the transfer of technology clause put forth by the client in which only 18 of the 126 aircraft would be built by the original aircraft manufacturer. The remaining 108 airframes would have to be built in India’s Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in India.
Despite Dassault Rafale winning the competition in January 2012 against such credible competitors as the Eurofighter EF-2000, Boeing F-18E/F Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin F-16E/F, Mikoyan Mig-35 a firm purchase contract failed to materialize. Both sides began haggling around escalating cost since the time the tender was first issued, transfer of sensitive French military technology, and the skepticism of Dassault with regards to quality control issues at India’s Hindustan Aeronautics factories where 108 of the 126 aircraft were to be licensed-built.
Friday’s announcement appears to have been the resultant of India’s Air Force urgent need to fill operational capabilities at a time of escalated growth of Chinese and Pakistani air power capabilities, as well as a need to reassure France’s position as a viable, esteemed long term military commercial partner whose armament industry’s prowess is highly regarded in India.
The demise of the Mig-21 fleet in IAF service, and the diminished availability of the precision-strike capable 1980’s era Mirage 2000 ‘Vajra’ fleet as the 51 aircraft-strong fleet undergoes an upgrade to the more modern Mirage 2000-9 standards (on a EUR 1.5 billion contract with Dassault and Thales) has caught Indian Air Force planners short-handed despite the recent delivery of the 150th locally built Sukhoi-30 MKI.
Facts are India has relied for much of its air operations contingencies (including nuclear weapon deliveries) on the Mirage 2000 fleet, as highlighted during the Kargill war in which the Dassault single-engined aircraft gained seemingly legendary status delivering precision (laser-guided) ammunition in difficult operational conditions. The Rafale, its twin engine bigger and more modern successor brings increased operational range and combat payload, benefiting from an advanced on board integrated offensive/defensive system architecture increasing flexibility, survivability and line availability.
In the current scenario, the heavier Sukhoi 30MKI type is bound to reap the profits of the bungled contract and morph into the MMRCA as it is already built locally to 150+ units and fully deployed with the IAF. The powerful highly maneuverable aircraft has grown sufficiently in maturity, operational capabilities and reliability. It has good endurance, combat range, high A/A and A/G weapons payload and is extremely maneuverable. Its latest iteration deploys and advanced integrated systems architecture using western built sub systems.