On July 13, as Prime Minister Narendra Modi was enroute to Paris, a meeting of the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), held under the chairmanship of Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, accorded initial approval for two key defence deals with France: the Acceptance of Necessity (AoN) for the procurement of 26 Rafale Marine aircraft, the naval variant of the 36 Rafales in service with the Indian Air Force, and an AoN for procurement of three more Scorpene-class diesel-electric submarines, six of which have already been procured by the Navy.
This announcement brought to an end the contest between Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M and Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet as they raced to demonstrate compatibility of their jets to operate from the flight decks of the Indian aircraft carriers, featuring a ski-jump. Both the Rafale-M and F/A-18 had demonstrated their compatibility by operating from the Navy’s Shore-Based Test Facility in Goa and Navy officials had noted that Rafale-M fit the requirements better in terms of integrating with the existing carriers as well as commonality with the IAF Rafales.
The contest began in 2017, when the Navy had floated a Request For Information (RFI) to procure 57 twin-engine carrier fighters. A lot has changed since then as the Defence Research Development Organisation (DRDO), buoyed by the maturity of the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft programme and the successful trials of the LCA’s naval variant on carrier INS Vikramaditya, offered to develop an indigenous Twin-Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) to operate from Indian carriers. The number was subsequently downsized to 26, as an interim solution, till the under-development TEDBF is ready for induction. Navy Chief Admiral R. Hari Kumar had said in the past that they might get the TEDBF by 2034 or so.
The AoN approved by the DAC is for 22 single-seater Rafale-Ms and four twin-seater Rafale trainers (which are not carrier-compatible), officials said. “The price and other terms of purchase will be negotiated with the French Government after taking into account all relevant aspects, including comparative procurement price of similar aircraft by other countries,” the Defence Ministry said. “Further, integration of Indian-designed equipment and establishment of [a] Maintenance, Repair & Operations (MRO) Hub for various systems will be incorporated into the contract documents after due negotiations.”
India had contracted 45 MIG-29Ks from Russia which are based in Goa. They operate off the Russian-origin carrier INS Vikramaditya and also from the indigenous carrier INS Vikrant, which was commissioned last September. However, the MIG-29Ks had a mixed history in service with low availability rates. A few were lost in crashes over the years and they are expected to start phasing out from around mid-2030s.
Interestingly, the joint statement issued post the bilateral talks between Mr. Modi and French President Emmanuel Macron made no mention of the Rafale M. A press release issued by the French side on the deliverables from the visit, said: “Continuation of the cooperation on fighter jets and submarines, following the timely delivery of the 36 Rafale jets for the Indian Air Force and the success of the P75 programme (six Scorpene submarines).”
With the Rafale-M, India would eventually operate 62 Rafales. Given the considerable number and the time, money and operational requirements to procure a new aircraft and produce it in enough numbers at a quick pace to arrest the depleting fighter strength of the IAF, procuring more Rafales for the IAF makes logical and operational sense in the backdrop of the delayed tender for 114 Muti-Role fighters. For the Navy, which is looking for jets at the earliest, it is not just about how soon the procurement process is completed but also how soon can France deliver the jets, given its order book that they currently have.