India has confirmed that final negotiations with Dassault for 126 Rafale fighters have commenced, and that the Indian air force plans to phase out its Mikoyan MiG-21 aircraft from 2014.
The defence ministry says final talks are now under way with Dassault, which in early February secured so-called "L1 vendor" status, denoting that it was the lowest-price-compliant bidder for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) competition.
A defence ministry official also dismissed as false a report in an Indian publication that quoted unnamed sources as saying it had raised concerns about calculations pertaining to the Rafale's life-cycle costs.
Achieving L1 status allows Dassault to conduct final negotiations for the deal with India's Contract Negotiation Committee (CNC). A CNC is comprised of a defence programme's key stakeholders, and in the case of MMRCA is likely to include organisations such as the air force and Hindustan Aeronautics, which will build 108 of the aircraft domestically.
Once launched, negotiations between the CNC and Dassault could take between six months and one year to complete, according to an industry source.
Analysts have estimated the value of the MMRCA contest as ranging between $10 billion and $20 billion. The Rafale's original rivals for the requirement were the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, Eurofighter Typhoon, Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper, RSK MiG-35 and Saab Gripen NG. All but the Rafale and Typhoon were eliminated in April 2011.
The defence ministry source says India will begin phasing out its MiG-21s from 2014. While popular among experienced pilots, the MiG-21s in air force service have suffered from obsolescence problems as well as a number of fatal accidents in recent years