New Delhi : The Government is likely to approve at least another 36 Rafale Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs) very soon.
Details are not known but informed sources told India Strategic that although a decision was just about due, the possibility of more aircraft was also being considered in view of the Indian NavyÂs requirement of 56 twin-engine shipboard fighters as also the GovernmentÂs Make in India programme. If only 36 Rafales are taken, then it would not be economical to set up their manufacturing infrastructure.
IAF is looking for a mix of about 400 single and twin engine fighters as most of its combat jet inventory is of the 1980s Soviet generation. The Mirage 2000, which was acquired from France after the US gave Pakistan F 16s in 1982, also arrived in IAF squadrons from 1985 onwards.
The nuclear-capable Mirage 2000 though is still formidable and some half a dozen of the nearly 60 have already been upgraded to contemporary standards by Thales, the French company known for making deadly Electronic Warfare (EW) systems. Thales is providing the highly sophisticated EW systems for the Rafales also.
The Indian Navy has expressed specific preference for either the Boeing F/A 18 Super Hornet or Rafale. Both these fighters were designed ab initio for aircraft carriers, and both are on offer for their industrial production in India if the numbers are viable for foreign investment and Transfer of Technology (ToT). Boeing has offered to manufacture the latest variant, Advanced Super Hornet, which is also meant for the US Navy.
Significantly, if the deal is only for 36 more aircraft, then the field would be open for a larger number of twin-engine aircraft for both the IAF and Navy. If the coming deal is for indigenous production for more than 36, then Rafale would become the final choice.
Notably, defence deals are mostly done with strategic advantages in view, besides costs. For instance, in the 1980s, the Government asked Air India to switch its choice from Boeing to Airbus A 320 aircraft as, according to French sources, France gave India some defence technology as a leverage.
It may be recalled that India had opted for the French Rafale in 2015 during Prime Minister Narendra ModiÂs visit to Paris, and an agreement was sealed in New Delhi between the Defence Ministers of the two countries, Mr Manohar Parrikar and his visiting counterpart, Mr Jean Yves Le Drian, in September 2016. The first payment of 15 per cent was immediately made by India to seal the contract.
This deal, which included the cost of the aircraft, IAF-specific modifications, Weapons and Missiles, Operations and Maintenance infrastructure at two places in IndiaÂs East and West, and 50 per cent Offsets as investment in India, was pegged at about Euro 7.87 billion (or US$ 8.8 billion).
In the acquisition of another 36 aircraft, or two squadrons of 18 each, the costs should be lower by about Euro 2.5 billion plus or minus Â please note this is my guesstimate only Â as the expenses for India-specific modifications and infrastructure at two places have already been recovered. Notably, preliminary work in this regard at Ambala in Haryana and Hashimara in West Bengal has begun.
It is not known if in the coming deal there would be an Options clause for more aircraft at the same price in the near future. It was not there in the first purchase, which was acquisition of the 36 aircraft in flyaway condition.
Both these deals are G-to-G or Government to Government, to avoid any unnecessary allegations, which have invariably been a curse for the armed forces in their modernization process over the last about 25 years.
The Offsets clause would translate into construction of a modern defence industrial base as well as some ToT by the Rafale partners, that is, Dassault which builds and integrates the aircraft, Safran which provides the engines and some other onboard systems, Thales which provides the highly advanced EW systems and MBDA, which is supplying the most modern Meteor Air to Air and other missiles.
As an international arms industry standard, delivery of defence systems is 36 months after the first payment.