More than a decade after they first started talks, India has finally inked an €8bn agreement to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France’s Dassault. Last week’s deal is one of the biggest weapons contracts New Delhi has ever signed and should plug a significant gap in the country’s air force.
But, while the initial reaction might be relief, the protracted negotiations and the reduction of the deal to a third of its original size underscores the long-running problems with Indian defence procurement, an even more pressing concern given rising tensions with Pakistan. And while Narendra Modi enjoys the credit for a deal he personally helped broker, the Indian prime minister must now also work out where he gets the 90 aircraft he chose not to buy.
“This is a major, major step forward for the Indian air force. This deal has dominated their thinking for a very long time, to the detriment of other programmes,” said Ajai Shukla, a retired Indian army colonel and defence analyst. “But the huge negative is that 36 aircraft is just not enough.”
India has known for a decade it needs to replace its fleet of Russian-built MiG-21s, which were bought between the 1960s and early 1980s. These aircraft have historically high accident rates, peaking in the 1990s at around 25 per 100,000 flying hours, five times the current Nato average.
And across the Indian air force, jets are often grounded: the highest availability rate is among the Russian-built SU-30MKIs, of around 55 per cent.
The original deal to buy 126 Rafales at a quoted price of about €12bn looked set to solve this problem, not least because the French reportedly offered to guarantee that 75 per cent of the fleet is airworthy at any one time.
The deal faltered over how much construction would be done in India, and was eventually salvaged when Mr Modi offered to buy 36 of the original 126 aeroplanes directly from the French government. That disagreement however highlighted tensions between Mr Modi’s government, which is trying to boost domestic manufacturing under the tagline “Make in India”, and the armed forces, which want the best equipment available anywhere in the world.
The reduced deal comes just as many Indians are clamouring for the country to assert itself militarily over Pakistan in the wake of last week’s attack on an Indian army base in Kashmir. “This is a massive problem for India,” says Walter Ladwig, a lecturer in international relations at King’s College, London. “The fact that the deal has been shrunk means the projected numbers of aircraft in each country’s air force are going to continue to tilt in Pakistan’s favour.”
The agreement has also been criticised as being too expensive. Mr Shukla pointed out: “For [the price of one Rafale] the Indian air force can buy two and a half Sukhoi-30 MKI fighters — a heavy fighter as capable as the Rafale.”
This is not the first time India has encountered problems with equipping its armed forces. The first Indian-made fighter jet, the Marut, a 1960s fighter-bomber, ended up being underpowered thanks to problems buying the right engines. In 2004, the long-delayed Arjun tank finally entered service, but by last year three-quarters were reportedly grounded thanks to multiple technical issues. Last year, India scrapped a four-year-old tender to buy 180,000 army rifles.
Part of the problem, say military academics, is that the civilian-led Indian bureaucracy is not expert enough to make the right decisions to equip India’s armed services. Scandals such as Bofors — a corruption case over the purchase of artillery in the 1980s that was eventually dropped — have also led to a paralysis in decision making, argue some.
Shashank Joshi, a senior fellow at the Royal United Services Institute think-tank, says: “The problem is, every single bureaucrat wants to get through their time in office without having a procurement scandal.”
Another issue is that procurement deals are often taken on a piecemeal basis. The Rafales will be the seventh different type of fighter jet in the Indian air force — each one bringing its own set of spare parts, logistical support and training needs.
These fighters take the total number of squadrons in the Indian air force from 33 to 35. But that remains well short of the 42 sanctioned by the government — and even further short of the 45 requested by air force chiefs.
India could ask for more Rafales to plug the gap — though with no agreed price for future purchases, negotiations would then begin all over again. It could alternatively fast-track plans to build a more advanced jet in conjunction with the Russians.
Other foreign companies such as Lockheed Martin and Saab, which failed in the original tender, are hoping there will be a re-run, but many experts think ministers are likely to propose building more Tejas aircraft, an Indian-built fighter.
Not everyone in the Indian military establishment is likely to be pleased if that is the decision, but for now, say experts, the main task is simply to fill the gaps.
“At least the deal is now done,” said Mr Shukla. “It has dominated the thinking of the ministry of defence for a very long time, to the detriment of other programmes.”