The signing of the Inter-Governmental Agreement between India and France for 36 Rafale multirole fighter jets brings to an end 17 months of hard bargaining, following Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s decision to dump the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender and the announcement during his visit to Paris last year of direct purchases. The first such major acquisition in almost two decades, it comes as a breather for the Indian Air Force, which has been facing depleting fighter strength. As Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar pointed out, given its technological superiority the Rafale will augment the IAF’s capability. The weapons package, which includes the Meteor radar-guided Beyond Visual Range air-to-air missile, considered best-in-class with a range of over 150 km, and the Scalp long-range air-to-ground missiles with a range of 300 km, will help maintain the IAF’s air superiority as they have no equivalents in the region. Given the technological sophistication and the long range, the Rafales are expected to play a lead role as nuclear delivery platforms in India’s second-strike capability, replacing the Mirage 2000 fighters.
The acquisition will cost the exchequer €7.87 billion, or about Rs.59,000 crore, which is a high price compared to $10.5 billion approved for 126 fighter jets under the original MMRCA deal in 2007. The basic aircraft costs about €91 million, which is high in comparison to other contemporary four-plus generation aircraft. The Centre has claimed savings of several million in the hard bargain, but the Defence Ministry would do well to share more information in Parliament. It is unclear why the government decided to buy just 36 fighters, which creates logistical and operational complications and pushes up the overall cost for reasons of economies of scale. In fact, India’s is now one of the most diverse air forces, with Western and Russian- origin aircraft with Indian and other systems incorporated in them. The IAF has been attempting to narrow the diversity to optimise utilisation and bring down the cost of operations. The current trajectory of procurement indicates that those plans may be on hold. The government is scouting for another fighter to be inducted in large numbers and produced in India under the ‘Make in India’ initiative. In the years to come, the indigenously built Light Combat Aircraft Tejas and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft from Russia will join the force, adding to the diversity. While the Rafale deal is a welcome step, it is high time India made procurements based on a long-term integrated plan.