PARIS --- While many observers cite technology transfer, prices and performance as being major factors in India’s selection of the Rafale as its next-generation fighter, reality is very different even if these factors obviously did play a significant role.
In the same way that it is true that Rafale lost several competitions through no fault of its own, it must be recognized that its victory in India was also won, to a great extent, through no fault of its own. The real reason for its victory is political, and the long memory of Indian politicians was a major contributing factor.
This is not to say, however, that Rafale’s own impressive qualities had nothing to do with its selection. The Indian Air Force, which was extensively briefed by the French air force in the autumn, was particularly impressed by its operational performance during the Libyan bombing campaign and in Afghanistan. Rafale also has a naval variant which could be of future interest to India, given its plans to buy and build aircraft carriers, while the recent decision to upgrade India’s Mirage 2000H fighters will simplify the air force’s logistics chain, as these will share with Rafale many weapons and other equipment.
The Indian Air Force also is a satisfied user of long standing of French fighters, going back to the Dassault Ouragan in the 1950s. It was also particularly appreciative of the performance of its Mirages during the 1999 Kargil campaign against Pakistan, and of the support it then obtained from France. During that campaign, India obtained French clearance – and possibly more - to urgently adapt Israeli and Russian-supplied laser-guided bombs to the Mirages, which were thus able to successfully engage high-altitude targets that Indian MiG-23s and MiG-27s had been unable to reach.
Rafale was preferred because of lower costs, and the Indian air force's familiarity with French warplanes such as the Mirage, Bloomberg reported Feb. 1 quoting an Indian source who asked not be named. "Unit-wise, the French plane is much cheaper than the Eurofighter. Moreover, the Indian air force, which is well equipped with French fighters, is favouring the French," the source said.
To Indian officials, France’s steadfastness as a military ally contrasted strongly with that of the United States, which stopped F-16 deliveries to Pakistan (but kept the money) when it found it expedient to do so, and slowed or vetoed delivery of components for Light Combat Aircraft that India was developing. And, of course, the 1998 arms embargo, decreed by the US after India’s nuclear test in May of that year, left a very bad taste in Indian mouths. France, on the contrary, was the only Western nation not to impose sanctions on that occasion.
That, Indian sources say, was New Delhi’s real reason for eliminating Boeing and Lockheed Martin from the fighter competition; India has resolved, these sources say, to buy only second-line equipment from the U.S., such as transport (C-17, C-130J) or maritime patrol aircraft (P-8I). Vital weapons such as missiles and fighters, when they cannot be locally produced, will remain the preserve of France and Russia.
Political considerations were also a significant factor playing against Rafale’s final competitor, the Eurofighter Typhoon. As this aircraft is produced by a consortium of four nations, each with different foreign policies and different attitudes and tolerances to arms exports, Indian officials were a bit nervous about their ultimate reliability as a single supplier.
Germany is a long-standing Indian aviation partner, and a respected role model for Indian politicians, many of whom were educated there. German companies – essentially the former Messerschmitt-Boelkow-Blohm, now part of EADS - helped Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. develop both the LCA and the Advanced Light Helicopter, now called Dhruv. These links were the reason the Eurofighter bid was led by Germany’s Cassidian, and not BAE Systems, the former colonial power. But Germany had dithered over technology transfer for LCA, soft-pedaled on ALH tech transfer when German pacifists raised their eyebrows, and coughed when India almost went to war with Pakistan over Kargil and Kashmir, so in the final analysis it could not be considered a reliable supplier of major weapons.
Italy has never sold a major weapon to India, and so could bring neither influence nor reputation to support Eurofighter, while the third partner, Spain, is totally absent from the Indian military landscape.
This left BAE Systems as the best-known Eurofighter partner in India, and so by default as its ultimate public face. BAE in 2003 sold £1.5 billion’s worth of Hawk jet trainers to India, with a follow-on, £500 million order in 2010. However, its previous major sale to India was the Jaguar light attack aircraft in the 1970s. In fact, this aircraft was jointly developed by Britain and France on a 50/50 basis, and while it was license-produced by HAL it was never really successful as a fighter. Furthermore, France could claim as much benefit from its Indian career as BAE.
Taken together, the Eurofighter partner nations posed an even thornier problem: in case of war, German law prohibits deliveries of weapons and spares, Italian law and public opinions would demand an embargo, while Spanish legislation is murky. What would happen, Indian politicians must have wondered, if after buying the Eurofighter they went to war? Would spares and weapons be forthcoming, or would they be embargoed? The political risk was obviously too big to take.
Weapons also played a significant role in persuading India to opt for Rafale: not only is its weapons range mostly French-made, and thus not subject to a third-party embargo, but so are all of its sensors. Eurofighter, whose air-to-air missiles include the US-made AIM-120 Amraam and the German-led IRIS-T, and whose primary air-to-ground weapon is the US-made Paveway, was obviously at a competitive disadvantage in this respect.
Furthermore, the Rafale is nuclear-capable and will replace the Mirage 2000N in French service as the carrier of the newly-upgraded ASMP/A nuclear stand-off missile; it is also capable of firing the AM-39 Exocet missile, giving it an anti-ship capability that its competitors do not have. India is also interested in fitting its BrahMos supersonic missile to a wide range of its combat aircraft, and Rafale could apparently carry it.
Given that India had sworn to buy the cheapest compliant competitor, it would have been unable to justify picking the Rafale had this not been offered at the lower price. While official figures have not been released, and indeed may never be, initial reports from New Delhi claim that Rafale was offered at a unit price of $4-$5 million less than Eurofighter, which is a surprisingly large advantage given the French aircraft’s reputation of being high-priced.
The French offer also featured substantially lower costs of ownership, according to the same reports, thanks to lower fuel consumption and simpler maintenance requirements.
If true, these figures imply the French offer undercut Eurofighter by over $600 million, which is a large enough difference for one French insider to wonder whether Dassault Aviation will ever make any money on the contract.
But, even if it doesn’t, the Indian contract gives Rafale instant legitimacy, not only because of the thoroughness and transparency of the bidding process, but also because India is the only country to have fought four and a half major wars since 1948, and so knows something about air combat.
For Dassault, the Rafale program will now remain active, with a stabilized production line, for decades to come, and the company will have that much more time to find additional customers. Keeping its production line and supply chain humming at an economically-viable rate are sufficiently valuable achievements to push immediate profits into the sidelines. Supporting 126 – and possibly 206, if India buys an optional second batch – combat aircraft, and providing spares, fixes and upgrades over the next 40 years, will generate gigantic profits, and this more than justified lowering Dassault’s notoriously high profit margins.
In fact, as one industry official noted, "this is France's answer to 'Al Yamamah', but with twice as many aircraft," drawing a parallel with the UK's sale of Tornado fighters and related services to Saudi Arabia, which was instrumental in keeping BAE Systems prosperous throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
And, as French Defense Minister Gérard Longuet told reporters during an impromptu press conference in Parliament, France may soon find “that good news travels in formation,” implying that further, long-deferred contracts might soon be announced.