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May 13, 2015

India Rafale Deal Part of Needed Air Force Modernization


Last month, India announced plans to purchase 36 Rafale fighter jets from France, though a final deal has yet to be signed. In an email interview, Iskander Rehman, a nonresident fellow in the South Asia Program at the Atlantic Council, discussed India’s air force.

WPR: What are the current size, capabilities and combat readiness of the Indian air force?

Iskander Rehman: On paper, the Indian air force is a large, well-balanced and modern service, whose fighter pilots are considered to be some of the most-capable and well-trained in the world. Recently, however, concerns have grown over the air force’s continued ability to successfully achieve its core missions given its aging fleet, servicing issues, difficulties acquiring spare parts and procurement delays. This is true not only with regard to the much-discussed medium multi-role combat aircraft program, for which the French Rafale was chosen, but also the indigenously designed Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) Tejas light combat aircraft, which has been riddled with development issues.

Meanwhile, talks with Russia on co-developing a fifth-generation stealth fighter have lost momentum, as differences over pricing and design have become more entrenched. Last but not least, India’s Parliamentary Committee on Defense recently drew attention to the growing problem of fighter-pilot retention.

There is no real consensus over precisely how many squadrons of fighter aircraft are currently operational. The air force says it requires, at the very least, 42 squadrons to conduct a successful “two-front” air campaign against both Pakistan and China. Analysts now believe India only has 34 operational fighter squadrons.

The latest edition of the International Institute for Strategic Studies’ Military Balance estimates that the air force has approximately 881 combat-capable aircraft in its inventory, yet only 500 are operational at any given moment. This state of affairs can be attributed to bureaucratic inefficiency, poor maintenance from local Indian defense firms and the lack of timely delivery of foreign-built spare parts, most notably from Russia.

WPR: What steps is the Indian government taking to modernize the air force, and how does the Rafale deal fit into these plans?

Rehman: Despite these growing challenges, the air force is pursuing an ambitious infrastructure and platform modernization plan. In 2012, New Delhi announced that it would acquire 42 additional Sukhoi-30MKI from Russia, for a total of 272. In February this year, India unveiled the first Su-30MKi fitted with a BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, which will enable the air force to launch deep, tailored strikes within enemy territory. The air force has also greatly augmented its airlift capacity, via the introduction of C-130J Hercules and C-17 Globemaster III aircraft, as well as its ability to operate at greater distances, through the development of mid-air refueling. A number of high-altitude airstrips in austere forward locations have been refurbished and/or extended, and there are plans to establish large unmanned aerial facilities along the Sino-Indian border.

With the acquisition of aerostats and state-of-the-art Airborne Warning and Control Systems, such as the Israeli-designed Phalcon, India’s air planners hope to acquire the real-time situational awareness necessary to rapidly “swing” numerically hard-pressed fighter aircraft from one air theater to another. This is where the Rafale can play a key role. Indian airpower analysts have pointed to the superior quality of the Rafale’s active electronically scanned radar and to its operational versatility, which allows it to seamlessly transition from air-to-air combat to precision ground-attack.

WPR: Why did India finally accept a government-to-government deal, and what are the implications for its broader technology-transfer goals?

Rehman: Since the announcement of the Rafale’s selection in 2012, negotiations between Dassault and the Indian Defense Ministry had, in the words of the Indian defense minister, fallen into “a loop with no solution in sight.” In New Delhi, frustrations mounted over what was perceived as a series of unfair cost escalations on the part of Dassault. Meanwhile, on the French side, there was an understandable reluctance for Dassault to take responsibility for the aircraft domestically manufactured by HAL, over which it had no executive oversight.

Nevertheless, the decision to purchase the 36 Rafales in fly-away condition under the aegis of a government-to-government agreement, took a number of analysts, both in India and abroad, aback. While many were relieved that the air force was finally receiving a much-needed “shot in the arm,” others raised their concerns over the seemingly impulsive nature of the decision and the future of the much-touted “Make in India” initiative. As of now, the fate of the planned Indian-made Rafales remains unclear. France’s recent offer to sell the Rafales at the same price to India as to its own armed forces may incite a future, larger government-to-government deal. Furthermore, if the euro continues to drop in value, the Rafale may become a much more competitively priced product. Doubts have been raised, however, over Dassault’s ability to rapidly generate more than the planned 36 Rafales for India, particularly as additional orders have begun to pour in from the Middle East.

 worldpoliticsreview

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