India All Set To Order 26 Naval Rafale Jets

Seven years after India ordered 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force, advance clearances went through today to procure 26 naval versions of the French fighter for the Indian Navy. The Indian Ministry of Defence provided a crucial piece of clearance today at the level of the Defence Procurement Board (DPB) paving the way for what could be a rapid series of forward approvals ahead of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris as chief guest for this year’s Bastille Day celebrations.

In February this year, Livefist reported the Indian Navy’s selection of the Rafale in a face-off contest against the American F/A-18 Super Hornet. You can read those details here. The selection was made after tests by both aircraft in Goa in 2022. You can read about the Rafale’s trials here and the Super Hornet’s here.

The 26 Rafale-M jets will operate off the Indian Navy’s first indigenous aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant, as well as the Russian-origin INS Vikramaditya. While the former doesn’t have an aircraft complement yet, the latter operates the Indian Navy’s only current fighter type, the Russian MiG-29K. Thirteen years after the Russian jets entered service, the Indian Navy decided it needed more capable and more available fighters for future carrier aviation needs. In 2017, the Indian Navy announced it was in the market for 57 new generation multirole carrier based fighters (MCBF). Over the years, the navy has had to whittle down that number amidst budgetary pressures. The final figure of 26 Rafale fighters also accommodates the future arrival of a homegrown Twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF). Over three years, while teams from the indigenous aviation complex had been trying to drum up support for a fully indigenous solution to the navy’s carrier-based fighter needs, the navy insisted it couldn’t wait, and that it needed at least 26 jets to bridge the capability gap until the proposed TEDBF comes online.

Earlier this year, Livefist also reported on buzz that the Indian Navy had been pitched with a proposal to procure a limited number of N-LCA fighters, though the Indian Navy has clarified that no such procurement is on the horizon.

Ministry of Defence clearance notwithstanding, it is unclear just when this deal for Rafale-M fighters will be signed. There are several more layers of clearance before a deal can be concluded, including the Defence Acquisition Council and the Cabinet Committee on Security. As with the 2016 deal for IAF Rafales, announced a year previous by the Indian PM in Paris, the current deal could follow a similar path. Reports indicate that the leaders of India and France could make an announcement to the effect as early as this week when Prime Minister Narendra Modi is in Paris, followed by a year or more of negotiations before contract signature in mid-late 2024. At any rate, the atmosphere is conducive. Four Indian Air Force Rafale fighters will be part of the Bastille Day flypast, while an Indian military contingent will march in the national day parade.

Alongside a comparable weapons package to the Indian Air Force fleet, the Indian Navy’s Rafale fighters will likely come with AM39 Exocet anti-ship missiles. You can read here about the other ‘add-ons’ that have been made available to both the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy since the original Rafale deal was signed. While negotiations will go into all aspects of the new deal, it is certain that India will push for more local production and sourcing of parts for Rafale jets as well as its weapons. On the latter front, missile house MBDA, which builds most Rafale weaponry, has an active joint venture with Indian private sector giant L&T, and will likely use this to front offers of local assembly. Offsets on the original 2016 Rafale deal envisage the transfer of two major missile assembly lines to India — the MICA and ASRAAM. That could speed up in light of the new deal.

India has had an aggressive year for defence contracting. Last month, during PM Modi’s visit to the U.S., the two countries announced the conclusion of a long-meandering deal for General Electric F414 jet engines to power India’s Light Combat Aircraft Mk.2. These are the same engines that power the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, a contender that the French Rafale has defeated for the Indian Navy deal. Buzz that the F414 deal put the Super Hornet back in the game in India have proven incorrect, at least insofar as the current momentum towards a deal for 26 Rafale-M fighters.

But it’s possible that the United States won’t rue the loss. For one thing, the U.S. offer of the F/A-18 expired at the end of June owing to pressures on a looming end-date for the aircraft’s production in 2026.

For all the multifarious trials that the Indian Air Force and Indian Navy have subjected fighters to over the years, nobody mistakes the overwhelming — and justifiable — geopolitical factor in Indian defence procurement. And that’s likely why, with the naval fighter deal going to the French, it’s possible that the Indian Air Force’s far bigger and more ambitious quest for 114 fighters puts the United States in pole position. As things stand, the U.S. has two horses in the multirole fighter aircraft (MRFA) contest: the Lockheed Martin F-21 and the F-15EX Eagle-II.

Boeing had likely sensed India’s plans across the two requirements years ago. While the F/A-18 Super Hornet had originally been aimed at the Indian Air Force (it was a contender in the aborted M-MRCA contest), Boeing sharpened its India plans around the Super Hornet pointed at the Indian Navy and the F-15EX for the Indian Air Force.

Livefist will report more this week on India’s looming Rafale-M deal.

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