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.

  • VGA

    They are playing the field. The Rafale is too expensive.

    Also, buying from Europe keeps your hands tied, they are susceptible to implementing … questionable UN sanctions. You are buying military equipment to be more powerful diplomatically, not to subject yourself to the will of USA-controlled interests.

    • Pierre Aycard

      1) when they picked the Rafale for the IAF, they calculated that the Rafale's life-cycle cost was 30% cheaper than the Typhoon's. If you want cheaper, you have to downgrade your capability requirements. Or you buy Russian, but reliability, availability and maintenance cost are very, very bad.
      2) They already make scale savings due to electronic systems being identical on Rafales and on Mirages that are currently being updated. Savings are also made due to the similar maintenance skills the two French planes require.
      3) If they don't buy Rafale, they must buy something else for their carrier. But Rafales again have the advantage of leading to scale savings in terms of parts and training, since the IAF will have some already and the Air and Navy versions are almost identical.
      4) No other aircraft presenting capabilities more or less equal to the Rafale's (rather less than more…) is carrier-capable. Especially if they're looking at a CATOBAR, since Russian jets are not compatible.
      5) Following the 1998 nuclear tests, France is the only major power that did not condemn India. They're still grateful for that.
      6) During the 1999 conflict with Pakistan, France is the only provider who kept delivering parts on time, and the Mirages are the reason why Pakistani troops were force to retreat after less than 48 hours of strikes. The troubles you mention are only true for Germany and the UK, never for France.
      7) The more you buy from the start, the easier it is to negotiate the unit price down. The Indians have a clear interest in starting to negotiate with Dassault now, as to get a discount on the first batch for the IAF.

      Your arguments were either based on misinformation, or they were brought forward in bad faith. No choice here, of course they'll buy Rafales.

      • VGA

        Convincing arguments, thank you. I didn't know about the specific cooperation between France and India.

    • jetaddicted

      So far, India has been quite happy with French products:
      Toofani, Alizé, Jaguar, Mirage 2000 and now Rafale.