Among other missions it will fulfill, the Rafale will form the new air component of India's triad of nuclear weapons delivery.
1. India today sealed the long-pending deal to buy 36 Rafale multi-role combat jets with the French government. It signals the end of a long and tortuous procurement process that was first initiated 17 years ago in 1999. But it's also the beginning of yet another three-year-long wait before the Indian Air Force gets the first Rafale aircraft.
2. In 1999, former air chief A.Y. Tipnis proposed that India buy a new lot of Mirage 2000s from France as the Russian MiG-21s would soon have to be retired and India's fighter strength would deplete. The IAF was happy with the Mirage fighters that it had bought from France in the late 1980s, which performed well during the Kargil conflict, too.
3. In 2001, however, Tipnis' successor S. Krishnaswamy proposed that given India's growing status as a regional power as well as its expanding economic interests, India should rather buy a more capable aircraft. What was until then a plan to buy a multi-role combat aircraft became a global tender for a medium, multi-role combat aircraft, meaning India was opening up the bid to both single-engine and twin-engine aircraft. A request for proposal was floated six years later in 2007.
4. Six companies bid for what was then billed as the 'mother of all defence deals' -- after all, India wanted 126 fighters, the largest such deal on offer anywhere in the world at the time, and had earmarked some $10 billion for them.
5. America's Lockheed Martin offered the single-engine F-16 fighters, and Boeing the twin-engine F/A-18; Russia's MiG Corporation offered the MiG-35; Sweden's SAAB proposed the single-engine JAS-39 Gripen fighter; the four-nation European consortium (Britain-Germany-Spain-Italy) Eurofighter offered the Typhoon jets; and France's Dassault initially offered the Mirage-2000 and later the Rafale jets.
6. After extensive field trials over plains, deserts and over the Himalayas, the IAF shortlisted the Rafale and the Typhoon, taking into account their commercial bids, too.
7. Both the Rafale and the Typhoon began their development journey in the early 1980s. In fact, initially, Eurofighter and Dassault had tried to join hands to develop a single combat aircraft for Europe. But the French withdrew and decided to build their own aircraft after differences cropped up over what kind of an aircraft they wanted to develop. The Eurofighter was keen on a bomber, the French were keen on an aircraft that would be good at air-to-air combat, a fighter. Eventually, though, as defence budgets shrunk through the late 1980s and the 1990s, combat jets had to become multi-role aircraft, capable of both air-to-air and air-to-land combat.
8. Eventually, India named Dassault as the preferred bidder in 2011.
A USAF KC-135 refuels a Rafale jet during a French mission in Mali) (Source: YouTube. Video shot by SSgt David Clark.
9. When negotiations started, however, a number of issues came up that prolonged the procurement process right up to 2015. India insisted on assembling 108 of the 126 aircraft in India, demanded significant technology transfer and 50 percent direct offsets, that is, ploughing back 50 percent of the project value into India in the form of joint ventures and new factories in India that would produce components and sub-systems for the aircraft, thus building up India's aerospace industrial capabilities.
10. The French, meanwhile, allegedly had quoted a low figure to win the tender, but then started to jack up the price, a move complicated by the Rupee's devaluation between 2011 and 2013 and by the fact that India was for the first time trying to do life-cycle costing for a defence deal, at which the MoD had no prior experience.
11. The deal with Dassault completely fell through when it became known that the total value of the deal would be of the order of $25-30 billion.
12. But the IAF desperately needs new aircraft to fill its diminishing fighter squadron strength. With this is mind, the Narendra Modi government decided to shelve the tender process altogether and go in for a government-to-government deal with the French, and to buy a much smaller number -- 36 Rafale jets, or two squadrons of 18 jets each -- all to be built in France, and the first Rafale to be delivered in 2019.
13. Yet another year of negotiations took place before the two governments agreed on a price. France started by quoting 12 billion Euros for the 36, but has eventually come down to 7.87 billion euros. In sheer value, it's still a 787-sized (pardon the pun) deal, boeing...oops...going the French way!