WITH INDIA and France expected to announce the Inter-Government Agreement (IGA) for Rafale fighter jets in the next few days, the clinching factor behind Delhi deciding to buy even only 36 French aircraft has become clearer. The long-delayed deal is being finalised because India has identified the French fighters for their ‘strategic’ role — to deliver nuclear weapons.
The Indian Air Force (IAF) currently has 32 fighter squadrons against an authorisation of 42, and many of them, particularly the MiGs, are reaching the end of their service in this decade. Thirty-six Rafales, to be inducted between 2019 and 2023, will make for only two squadrons. This still leaves a huge gap, to be filled by either the indigenous Tejas fighters, or another foreign fighter such as the Swedish Gripen or the American F-16, both of which have offered to ‘Make in India’.
Although there is a follow-up clause in the IGA for buying an additional 18 Rafales, the numbers still fall short of the 126 Rafales India had originally planned to buy under the previous UPA government.
According to officials who spoke to The Sunday Express on condition of anonymity, the deciding factor in buying the Rafales, even in such small numbers, was its ability “to be used as an airborne strategic delivery system”. In other words, Rafale is expected to be the chosen fighter plane for the delivery of nuclear weapons in a strike role.
“The French Air Force, Armee de l’ Air, is shifting from Mirages to Rafales for its nuclear strike role this year. They have already started the process, and although our nuclear delivery systems are different from theirs, it does tell us that Rafale is suited for that task,” said a defence official.
“The French Mirage-2000s have been modified for the delivery of our strategic arsenal. France has continued to provide maintenance, spares and technical support for these Mirages, which may not have been the case with some other foreign countries. We expect the same degree of cooperation from France when we modify and use the Rafales for that role,” said another official.
At present, IAF is supposed to use modified Mirage-2000 fighters in a nuclear strike role. But these upgraded Mirages are scheduled to be phased out of service from 2030 onwards. According to officials, a replacement for them would be needed, and India’s comfort with Paris on these matters makes it logical to go with Rafales for this critical task.
Meanwhile, sources have confirmed that India has extended an invite to the French defence minister, Jean Yves Le Drian, to visit Delhi next week. Although a formal confirmation from Paris was not received till Friday, the two sides are expected to announce the signing of an IGA for 36 Rafales next week.
Following a Cabinet Committee on Security approval, a contract, if things go as per schedule, should be signed within 45 days. An advance of 10-15 per cent of total contract value is expected to be paid to the French government at the signing of the contract.
During his visit to Paris last April, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in a government-to-government deal with France. This followed a decade-long process of trials and selection of Rafales for the 126 Medium Multi Range Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, which could not be concluded. The MMRCA tender was formally withdrawn by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar later last year.
India and France underwent a series of negotiations over the price of the 36 fighters, and the two sides agreed to a final price of about Euro 7.87 billion a few weeks ago. Although all the fighters will be made in France, Rafale will invest 50 per cent of the value of the deal as offsets in India. The delivery of the first fighter aircraft is scheduled for 2019.