Is the Rafale Coming to the Indian Navy?

by Dan Darling, International Military Markets Analyst, Forecast International.

As India embarks on its quest to fast-track construction of a second indigenous aircraft carrier, the question in Indian Navy circles becomes how best to fill out the necessary combat aircraft component to be featured on the new ship. At a projected 65,000 tons, the future INS Vishal will be much larger than its 40,000-ton predecessor, INS Vikrant, and, per Indian Navy planners’ projections, will require that the service procure as many as 54 additional aircraft.

Currently, the Indian Navy utilizes the Russian-built MiG-29K aboard the carrier INS Vikramaditya, a former Soviet missile cruiser revamped by Sevmash Shipyard to feature a ski-jump ramp on its bow. The MiG-29Ks were procured by India in January 2004 (an option for more was later picked up in 2010) with the “new” Vikramaditya carrier in mind.

Now the Navy must plan for an expanded combat aircraft arm that will meet future operational requirements.

Naturally, Russia is eager to promote its MiG-29 as the best option for the Indian Navy, as the service’s pilots and aircrews are already familiar with the platform and the two countries are long-standing defense trading partners. But in an eye-opening development, the Navy is being pitched France’s Rafale fighter produced by Dassault Aviation.

Media reports indicate that the Indian government has directed Navy senior officials to meet with a Dassault team for a briefing on how the Rafale might meet their future carrier-borne fighter needs. This is happening as Indian officials reach out to four countries in regard to aiding in the design of the new Vishal carrier. With France and India finally agreeing on a firm Indian order of 36 Rafales after years of back-and-forth negotiations and revised requirements, the time appears ripe for an examination of the platform to meet maritime needs.

What is interesting about this step is that it comes as the center-right National Democratic Alliance government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi continues to place heavy emphasis on its “Make in India” indigenous industrial campaign. Naturally, the Modi government hopes to equip the Indian armed forces with as much localized content as possible in order to both grow India’s own defense industrial sector and ween the country off dependence on foreign-sourced military hardware.

It has long been thought that the Indian Navy’s MiG-29Ks would ultimately be supplemented by a navalized version of state-owned HAL’s Tejas LCA – the LCA-Navy – the first prototype of which flew on April 27, 2012. The Navy has reportedly held plans for the purchase of 50 of these LCA-Navy aircraft. But with reports leaking that the Navy is being ordered to meet with a Dassault sales-marketing team regarding the Rafale, what does this say for the future of the navalized Tejas? Would it still factor into future Indian Navy fighter plans? Or is long-standing Indian armed forces frustration with HAL in general and the Tejas in particular finally overriding government diktats regarding the need to “go local” at all costs?

For now, this examination of all options appears to merely be an exercise in prudence on the part of the Indian government. The need to bolster both fighter capacity and capability is a pressing concern for India, and Franco-Indian defense trade ties continue to deepen. Thus, the latest reports of interest in the Rafale for the future carrier make some sense.

But with sources within India’s Defence Ministry declaring that funding for the 36-fighter purchase for the Indian Air Force will present a considerable financial challenge, the question is then raised as to how a 50+ purchase of the Rafale would ever be considered economically feasible.

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