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With its twin-engine Rafales, Dassault Aviation, the leading combat aircraft manufacturer in France, is now in a prime position to satisfy the IAF’s long-standing need for 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA).

The IAF may choose the Rafale as its default MRFA choice, according to a cross-section of military veterans, defence analysts, and industry officials. This is supported by expanding Rafale sales to India and Dassault’s propensity to pass fighter and related technologies to it.

If so, it would be a humorous rehash of the Ministry of Defence’s abandoned 2007–2008 tender for 126 Rafales, of which 108 were to be licenced manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and shelved in 2015 due to a variety of legal, political, and administrative hiccups.

A review of these emerging dealings with regard to the possible induction of additional Rafales into the IAF is instructive on multiple counts. At the outset, Dassault will supply 26 Rafale-M (Marine) fighters to the Indian Navy (IN) for deployment aboard INS Vikrant, its newly commissioned aircraft carrier. The multi-role carrier-borne fighter’s (MRCBF) ‘commonality’ with the 36 Rafales, which the IAF had imported in 2016 for $9 billion, had influenced the IN’s choice following user trials in 2022, which featured the rival Boeing F/A-18 Block III ‘Super Hornet’ fighter.

The 62 Rafale variants that would be available in India’s arsenal after the delivery of these 26 fighters over the course of the following two to three years would be a large amount. Therefore, expanding this number even higher to satisfy the IAF’s need for 114 MRFA makes “immense operational, commercial, and logistical sense,” according to some retired senior fighter pilots.

They claimed that Dassault had already created a Rafale maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facility at Ambala Air Force Station, which would significantly lower the overall prices for any future purchases. Importantly, acquiring tried-and-true Rafales will speed up the induction of fighters by doing away with trials and strengthen the IAF’s dwindling fighter squadrons, whose number has declined to roughly 29 from a sanctioned strength of 42.

They continued by saying that adding more Rafales will help the IAF consolidate its diversified fighter fleet, which now consists of seven different types of aircraft and requires significant financial and logistical resources to maintain.

Relatedly, the French company is reportedly in advanced talks to acquire Anil Ambani’s 51% ownership in the Nagpur-based joint venture Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL), which might strengthen Dassault’s MRFA offer. India allows 100% foreign direct investment in specific circumstances, and Dassault is allegedly interested in purchasing DRAL, which, if done, would improve its prospects of winning the MRFA contract.

At present, Dassault owns 49% of DRAL, formed within days of India confirming the IAF’s 36 Rafale purchase, to discharge the 50% offset obligation of the inclusive contractual price in accordance with MoD’s procurement procedures.

Initially, DRAL was tasked with producing components for Dassault’s Falcon business jets and only recently, it had begun producing sub-assemblies like engine doors and canopies for Rafales. But as per media reports, a domestic financial resource crunch had curtailed DRAL’s manufacturing capabilities, rendering it vulnerable to a buyout.

In the meanwhile, the MRFA procurement calls for the importation of a squadron of 18 selected fighters in flyaway condition from a pool of seven models offered by foreign OEMs in response to the IAF’s Request for Information (RFI) in April 2018. The qualified OEM and a domestic strategic partner (SP) from the corporate or public sector would collaborate to build the remaining 96 platforms domestically with progressively higher levels of indigenization as part of the comprehensive agreement, which is estimated to be worth roughly $25 billion.

According to industry insiders, the MRFA tender is soon to be announced. The chosen platform must complete 30-35 years of squadron duty, or 6,000 hours of flight time, with at least one midlife upgrade. Senior IAF personnel predicted that, in addition to potential export options, the number of MRFAs may rise to about 200 units for the IAF alone, amortising the cost of the platforms.

The Eurofighter Typhoon, the Gripen-E, the MiG-35 “Fulcrum-F” and Su-35 “Flanker-E” from Russia’s United Aircraft Corporation, the F/A-18 and upgraded F-21 from the US’s Boeing and Lockheed Martin, and the Eurofighter Typhoon are the other six OEMs that responded to the IAF’s MRFA RFI.

However, considering the severe spares and component crisis the force is currently facing with regard to its fleet of 260 multi-role Sukhoi-30 MKIs and 50 or so upgraded MiG-29M fighter-bombers in light of the ongoing conflict in Ukraine was, arguably, irrational.

In contrast, shortlisting the Typhoon would simply exacerbate the IAF’s ongoing logistical problems, as it had already rejected the US’ F-18 and F-21, a modified F-16, during testing performed from 2010 onwards for the cancelled MMRCA contract, on a number of capability grounds. While the MRFA RFI did not specify a preference for single or twin power packs, the IAF’s innate preference for the latter is still unknown. Saab’s Gripen-E, on the other hand, was a single-engine platform.

Rafale was thus placed more than favourably in the MRFA sweepstakes by the elimination process, thanks to a number of other factors in addition to its operational superiority over its rivals, which was accepted by the IAF and is now acknowledged by the IN.

Additionally, there remained the MMRCA contract’s abandoned contractual structure, which, according to industry officials, could be readily “tweaked” to fit a comparable MRFA acquisition by overcoming earlier hiccups and expediting negotiations. These anomalies had been based on the MoD’s desire that Dassault eventually take responsibility for quality control for the 108 Rafales constructed under licence by HAL. The IAF was only able to obtain 36 Rafales in flyaway condition, all of which were delivered by late 2022, as a result of this unjustified conditionality emerging as the deal-breaker for the MMRCA agreement.

Even from a geopolitical standpoint, Indian diplomats and security officials acknowledged that transacting material goods with Paris was less “arduous” than doing so with Washington because the former was more adaptable and practical than the latter, particularly when it came to transmitting hi-tech military know-how.

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