The deal for buying 126 Rafale fighter aircraft from France's Dassault has been delayed over negotiations over the $11 billion price tag and guarantees over quality. This has delayed India's plans to expand its airforce at a time it is underprepared.
The government has asked Russia to speed up the development process of the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, Su-35S, and has agreed to drop some crucial conditions in return. For instance, India is no longer insisting that all aircraft be built by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics. According to a source quoted in the report, India has agreed to the existing practice of importing the initial lot of the fighter aircrafts and manufacturing the rest here under technology transfer programme. In return, India wants the first models to start arriving in 36 months, instead of the earlier eight years.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been pushing for higher manufacturing in India under the 'Make in India' initiative, and this move would go contrary to that. Given that the airforce wants to upgrade its squadrons urgently, this is not a surprising move. But the new timeframe that the report quotes is ambitious, given that the technology is the most complex in defence aviation.
Fifth-generation aircrafts have stealth, or the ability to avoid being detected by radars. Currently, the United States is the only country to possess such a combat aircraft, the F-35 joint strike fighter.
The Indian airforce has been struggling to build enough airforce squadrons to counter dual threats from China and Pakistan. India requires at least 45 squadrons to repel a joint attack by both countries but has only 25 active squadrons. 14 of those have old jets that are set to be taken out of service this year. The Rafale deal involves sale of 126 fighter fighter aircraft to help bridge the shortfall.
The airforce cannot afford to cancel the Rafale deal and go back to square one. “The air force can’t go through the process of selecting another aircraft,” said Manmohan Bahadur, a distinguished fellow at the New Delhi-based Centre for Air Power Studies and a retired air vice marshal. “That would delay induction plans."
Nor can the Rafale be replaced with the Russian combat aircraft because the airforce needs both. "MMRCA and Sukhoi-30, the requirements are slightly different. And they have their own capabilities. They complement each other but do not replace each other," said Arup Raha, Air Chief Marshal, in this interview. MMRCA (Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft) refers to Rafale. Sukhoi-30 is the fifth generation aircraft that Russia is building.
Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to visit Paris in April, where this deal could come up for discussion. This was also one of the main points of discussion during French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Drian's recent visit to India and meetings with his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar. But a clear timeline could not be established.
While Pakistan's airforce is still smaller than India's, China has raced ahead. It has built the world's third-largest airforce with about 1,900 fighter aircraft including its indigenously-developed J-31 fifth generation stealth model, which was unveiled last November.