Photographer: Miguel Medina/AFP via Getty Images

India Buys 36 Rafale Jets to Bolster Aging Air Force Fleet

  • Indian, French defense ministers sign agreement in Delhi
  • Deal comes amid tension with Pakistan after militant attack

Prime Minister Narendra Modi has finalized an order to buy dozens of warplanes from France in a long-delayed deal that will equip India’s air force with advanced fighter jets.

On Friday in New Delhi, the Indian and French defense ministers signed a contract to purchase 36 Rafale jets from Paris-based Dassault Aviation SA. The ceremony concluded India’s long search for a new multi-role combat aircraft and years of drawn-out negotiations. The deal is worth 7.8 billion euros ($8.7 billion), an Indian defense ministry official told reporters in New Delhi, asking not to be identified citing rules.

The Rafale deal comes as Modi attempts a $150 billion military modernization drive -- buying everything from submarines to artillery. The pressure to upgrade the nation’s forces was highlighted by an attack on an army camp in Kashmir on Sunday that Indian officials have said originated in Pakistan. 

The Indian Air Force’s rapidly-aging Soviet-era fleet threatens to hamper New Delhi’s ability to counter potential threats from Beijing and Islamabad. India still needs to purchase additional aircraft to keep up with regional rivals.

“IAF needed a potent aircraft with deep strike capability and a modern one that can fly at high altitudes carrying potent weapons,” Minister of Defence Manohar Parrikar told reporters.

The deal will lead to a 3 billion euros investment in India through clauses that require components to be built domestically, another official told reporters in New Delhi.

Dassault will begin delivering the planes in three years and all aircraft will be delivered within six years, the official said, adding that the contract includes training for nine IAF personnel, including three pilots. The aircraft will be equipped with advanced weapons systems such as Scalp air-to-ground missiles and Meteor air-to-air missiles, the official added.

The deal doesn’t include an option to buy more Rafale jets beyond the 36 aircraft, according to the official. At the same time, he didn’t rule out the possibility of fresh negotiations.

“The Rafale is a fabulous aircraft, but a 36 airplane buy does not fix the IAF’s force structure problems,”said Ashley Tellis, a senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

Advanced Capabilities

The new multi-role fighter jets, which are capable of carrying nuclear weapons, come with advanced radar and weapons systems that will give India’s air force an edge over China’s air force and Pakistan’s fleet of F-16s, said Manmohan Bahadur, a retired Air Vice Marshal in the Indian Air Force and distinguished fellow at New Delhi’s Centre for Air Power Studies.

“The Rafale is a much newer plane -- with much better radar -- than what the Pakistanis have and what the Chinese have,” Bahadur said.

India, the world’s largest importer of arms over the past five years, began its search for crucial new warplanes in 2007. In a contest between multiple entrants, New Delhi eventually chose Dassault’s Rafale over Boeing Co.’s F/A-18 Super Hornet, Lockheed Martin Corp.’s F-16 Fighting Falcon, United Aircraft Corp.’s MiG-35, Saab AB’s Gripen and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

Aging Fleet

Roughly one-third of India’s 650-strong fleet is more than 40 years old and are set to be phased out over the next decade. The air force currently has only 25 active squadrons, compared to the 45 squadrons it estimates would be required to defend against a joint attack from Pakistan and China.

India originally wanted 126 aircraft from Dassault -- at $11 billion, the world’s biggest fighter jet deal at the time. Talks stalled, however, over price and quality guarantees. The delays prompted Modi to take a reduced order for 36 jets directly to the French government.

The Rafale, according to Shashank Joshi, a senior research fellow at the Royal United Services Institute (RUSI) in London, was "a very expensive aircraft" for India to choose. The deal, however, is still only one step in a much longer modernization process required within the Indian Air Force, Joshi said. 

The Rafales will "beef up numbers," but Joshi said a "flawed" procurement process means it will take time for India to catch up with rivals.

The purchase "addresses the question of shrinking numbers, but it still leaves India in a situation where it will be considerably outnumbered by the Chinese air force and it won’t have the considerable edge it had over the Pakistani air force at the beginning of the decade," Joshi said in an interview.

Militant Attack

The deal comes as tensions rise between South Asia’s two nuclear powers. Each country has blamed the other for ongoing violence in the disputed and heavily-militarized region of Kashmir, which is claimed in full by both Islamabad and New Delhi.

On Sept. 18, militants struck an Indian army camp in Kashmir, killing 18 soldiers. Modi tweeted that "this despicable attack will not go unpunished."

There were subsequent reports of fighting along the so-called Line of Control, the de facto border between Indian- and Pakistan-controlled parts of Kashmir, and Pakistan reportedly closed air space to commercial traffic this week as fighter jets landed and took off from a major highway.

India and Pakistan also traded heated speeches over Kashmir at the United Nations General Assembly in New York earlier this week.

More Foreign Purchases

Modi wants to turn India into a global arms exporter under his "Make in India" program to boost domestic manufacturing, but India has been forced to look internationally for much of its defense requirements.

Since 1994, India has bought 290 Sukoi Su-30MKI combat aircraft from Russia and plans to purchase roughly 100 Russian T-50 combat aircraft -- in a deal likely to exceed the Rafale price tag -- while spending billions of dollars to buy six Scorpene submarines from France, according to Siemon Wezeman, a senior researcher with the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, which tracks global arms purchases.

India’s reduction of the original 126-plane Rafale order also means a multi-billion dollar aircraft contract is still in play, luring fresh pitches from those who lost out on the first deal, including Boeing, Saab and Lockheed Martin.

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