Chandigarh: Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s trip to France in July to attend the Bastille Day Parade as the guest of honour has fuelled speculation about a possible announcement regarding the purchase of 26 Dassault Rafale-Maritime (M) fighters for the Indian Navy. The fighter jets would operate from the flight deck of India’s newly commissioned indigenously designed aircraft carrier, INS Vikrant.
Senior industry officials and multiple media reports, quoting naval sources, said that the Indian Navy had reportedly shortlisted the twin-engine, canard delta-wing multirole Rafale-M over Boeing’s F/A-18 Block III ‘Super Hornet’, following trials at the navy’s shore-based test facility (STBF) in Goa last year.
Recently, the navy had formally informed the Ministry of Defence (MoD) of its intent to acquire the Rafale-M fighter jets for an estimated $5-6 billion, as it fulfilled most of its operational requirements.
The government’s move has, therefore, raised speculations over whether Prime Minister Modi would speak about the naval fighter purchase in Paris in July.
In January, La Tribune, a weekly French financial newspaper, had reported that the Rafale-M tender was expected to have been announced during President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed visit to New Delhi in March. However, his trip was called off due to strikes and widespread unrest in his country over pensions.
Senior Indian Navy sources told The Wire that thereafter, France had designated Prime Minister Modi as the Bastille Day Parade chief guest, in anticipation that he would officially announce the purchase of Rafale-M fighters for the Indian Navy.
The fighter jets were bought under the Defence Acquisition Procedure-2020 (DAP-2020), following ‘back channel’ talks between the security and diplomatic establishments in New Delhi and Paris.
In 2009, France had similarly invited former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to the same event, at a juncture when the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft was under process. Back then, the Rafale eventually emerged the winner.
The contract, however, was scrapped by the Modi government, in favour of buying 36 multi-role Rafales in a flyaway condition in a €8.2 billion deal inked in 2016.
The Indian Navy has officially declined to comment on why it opted for the Rafale-M as its multi-role carrier-borne fighter (MRCBF) choice for INS Vikrant.
Meanwhile, in the Indian Navy circles, opinion remains divided over whether Prime Minister Modi would announce the government-to-government Rafale-M deal in Paris, much like the surprise he sprang in the French capital in April 2015, with regard to his unexpected request to the French prime minister for the purchase of IAFs 36 Rafale fighters.
Some believe that with the general elections due early next year, the prime minister may avoid proclaiming the purchase of the Rafale-M fighters, given the corruption allegations by the opposition parties over IAF’s Rafale purchase in the run up to the 2019 Lok Sabha polls.
The Supreme Court, however, found no wrongdoing in the deal. But these allegations continued to reverberate on the Bharatiya Janata Party’s electoral trail, a state of affairs most politicians would prefer obviously to abjure.
Others, however, are of the view that the Indian Navy and national security officials could prevail upon the prime minister to make the announcement, as the Vikrant, presently undergoing flight trials after its commissioning last September, needs to firm up its 26 naval fighter buy urgently.
A four-star Indian Navy officer said that even after the official announcement of the deal, it would take at least a year to negotiate the cost and other technicalities, and another three years for platform deliveries to begin. Hence, the sooner the deal is announced the quicker the Indian Navy would receive its fighters, which had already been significantly delayed, he added, declining to be identified.
“The timeline for the IAF Rafale purchase was a realistic indicator regarding the schedule [for] the proposed Indian Navy deal with Dassault for its maritime variant [that] would follow,” said a two-star naval officer, who, too, requested to speak on the condition of anonymity. The former contract was first announced by the prime minister in Paris in early 2015. It was signed in September 2016 after extended negotiations between the two governments.
Thereafter, the first five of the 36 Rafales were formally commissioned into the IAF at the Ambala Air Force Station in September 2020. The delivery was stalled due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it was completed by July 2022, seven years after Prime Minister Modi’s initial announcement. Therefore, the two-star naval officer suggested that it was ‘imperative’ for the Indian Navy that Modi kick-started the Rafale-M procurement by declaring it in July itself.
The ‘advantage of commonality’
In the meantime, industry officials said the navy’s reported Rafale-M choice, other than its operational parameters, had, in its eventual selection, the ‘advantage of commonality’ with the IAF’s 36 Rafale fighters. Dassault had also set up a Rafale maintenance and flight training facility at Ambala, which could support the navy’s prospective Rafale-M, considerably reducing overall procurement costs and hastening platform induction.
Senior Indian Navy aviators claimed that it made ‘good financial and logistical’ sense for the navy to link its MRCBF buy like the Rafale-M to the IAFs, like it had done earlier when it had acquired 45 Russian MiG-29K/KUBs, which presently comprise the combat air arm of INS Vikramaditya (ex-Admiral Gorshkov), the navy’s 44,750-tonne refurbished Kiev-class carrier.
The Indian Navy had acquired the MiG-29K/KUB platforms between 2004 and 2010 for $2.29 billion, because of their ‘commonality’ with the IAF’s 60-odd MiG-29 fighters, inducted into service from 1985. At the time, Russia was revamping INS Vikramaditya and had employed commercial and logistic logic with the navy by maintaining that indigenously available technical support and associated availability of spares and maintenance for the IAF’s MiG-29s would amply and economically support the navy’s MIG-29K/KUBs variants.
“Simply acquiring 26 naval fighters off-the-shelf without the back-up provided by the IAF’s Rafale squadrons would not only be prohibitively expensive, but also pose costly inventory and logistical problems,” said a retired three-star naval fighter pilot. Therefore, ‘commonality’ in the prospective naval fighter procurement made ‘eminent sense’ on multiple counts, he added, declining to be named for commenting on sensitive materiel acquisition matters.
If procured, the Rafale-M, according to the Indian Navy, would be an ‘interim’ purchase till the commissioning of the indigenous, navalised version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, which is under development.
Recently, retired Indian Navy Vice Chief of Staff Vice Admiral Namdeo Ghormade had declared that though Vikrant had been designed for MiG-29K’s, ‘evaluation’ was underway to select the ‘right’ deck-based fighter as a stop gap or interim measure till the twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF), or the navalised version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, was ready in five to seven years.
However, according to industry assessments, the TEDBF, designed by the Defence Research and Development Organisation, was not likely to be inducted into service before 2030-32, if not later, making the speedy procurement of an MRCBF-like Rafale-M even more critical to the navy’s operational competence in a turbulent neighbourhood.
Furthermore, a senior security official said that designing a carrier around the MiG-29K, that the navy had internally deemed operationally deficient, and acquiring an expensive interim replacement for it, before settling on yet another third combat aircraft, the TEDBF, defied any logic. He added that almost all carrier-operating navies overseas decided on their on-board fighter complement early on and, unlike the Indian Navy, persevered with it.
“And even though these evolutionary changes by the Indian Navy would be sequential, operating even in tandem for varying periods, they would eventually pose serious logistic challenges to the force, besides imposing a financial burden in training personnel and above all managing spares, maintenance and related back-up for multiple fighter types,” he declared, declining to be identified.
Such obvious blunders also considerably devalued the navy’s hard-earned reputation as practical planners and implementers of their equipment requirements compared to the other two services, the official said, adding that these ‘grievous’ planning flaws could even end up jeopardising the Indian Navy’s demands for a third aircraft carrier.