India's decision to select Dassault Aviation of France to supply 126 Rafale multi-role fighters caps a process that began in 2007 to replace the Indian Air Force's ageing MiG-21s and augment its fleet of Sukhoi 30MKIs. Given the size of the contract — which, at upwards of $10 billion, is the largest defence deal struck by India — the acquisition of the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was viewed in many quarters as a purchase in which political and strategic considerations would, or even should, play a role. Such a view was bolstered by the fact that each of the six competing aircraft originally short-listed had a lot to offer, the differences between them lying more along the perimeter than in the core. That technical and commercial factors prevailed over extra-contractual considerations became evident when the competition, following a slew of technical tests, was narrowed to two — the Rafale and the Typhoon, produced by a consortium of four European countries. Clearly, the selection process was uninfluenced by the United States administration, which had lobbied hard in favour of Boeing's F/A-18 and Lockheed Martin's F-16, suggesting that the acquisition of either was an important element in forging a closer strategic relationship. The rejection of the U.S.-manufactured aircraft underlined that we had, as one commentator wryly but wrongly noted, “settled for a plane, not a relationship.”
At the same time, it would be naïve to assume that arms purchases, particularly big ticket ones by a large nation such as India, are free from strategic implications or considerations. Indeed, for India, the Rafale acquisition widens its strategic options in a world where multi-polarity is a fact of life. At a more immediate level, the decision to buy the fighters, which has been greeted with unabashed glee in Paris, could provide the leverage for India to hold France to its promise of increasing cooperation across a whole range of areas, but especially in the nuclear and defence fields, including the greater sharing of technology and expertise. Of particular interest to New Delhi, is the question of enrichment and reprocessing (ENR) equipment transfers. The Nuclear Suppliers Group reneged on its 2008 bargain with India last year by banning the sale of ENR items but France — a key member of the nuclear cartel — has said it will not be bound by the new restrictions. The French must now be held to their word. As for the IAF, the acquisition of the Rafales may stem, in the near- or medium-term, the problem of the reducing number of squadrons. However, the IAF's long-term combat aircraft requirements will need to be met by developing the promised fifth-generation fighter in cooperation with Russia and overcoming the problems that have delayed the induction of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft.