Rafale’s gain is Typhoon’s loss in India

A Rafale. Base aŽrienne de Sigonella en Sicile. Photo: French Ministry of DefenceBy Douglas Barrie, Senior Fellow for Military Aerospace

The omens were not good when Britain’s Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, led a defence trade delegation to India last week. Days before Delhi had chosen to buy the French Rafale fighter aircraft, instead of the Eurofighter Typhoon in which the UK is a partner.

The decision came five years after India began its quest for an extra strategic alliance to complement Russia in the combat-aircraft arena (releasing a request for proposals for a new fighter). The Rafale (pictured) was selected to meet the India air force’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft programme for 126 fighter aircraft to replace its ageing MiG-21s. Delhi’s choice is reportedly based on the Rafale being less expensive; the overall cost of the acquisition may be around US$14 billion.

If completed, this will be a significant deal for Dassault as the first export sale for the Rafale – which for one reason or another has previously been left at the altar. For example, just when Dassault seemed on the brink of securing the United Arab Emirates as a customer in late 2011, Crown Prince Sheik Mohamed bin Zayed, in an uncharacteristic outburst, criticised the company for its ‘uncompetitive and unworkable commercial terms’. Dassault has also come tantalisingly close to a Rafale sale in Brazil, but none has yet been secured.

Garnering Indian business will provide a boost but will also bring challenges, the first of which will be concluding contract terms in Delhi, where previous defence deals have foundered in negotiation. Dassault should have no difficulties in providing the stipulated 18 aircraft within 30-36 months of signature. But establishing and sustaining final assembly in country, and increasing domestic industrial participation in India, will be trickier. Recent final-assembly programmes, both Russian and Western, have suffered from delays. The Rafale is the most complex air-combat platform Indian industry – in this case Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd – will have taken to final assembly.

Nevertheless, the tie-up between India and France could be the start of a wider military aerospace partnership. The Indian air force already operates a Dassault fighter, the Mirage 2000, and the Rafale will be one of three key elements in the future combat fleet in the long-term, alongside the Su-30MKI and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (based on Russia’s PAK FA programme). India’s intended successor to the Fishbed, the Light Combat Aircraft/Tejas, has suffered prolonged delay.

The Indian decision to buy the Rafale prompted British Prime Minister David Cameron to promise that he would ‘go on making the case that this [the Typhoon] is a superb aircraft with far better capabilities than Rafale, and we will try to encourage the Indians to take that view’.

Admittedly both the Rafale and the Typhoon are the result of an outline staff target issued in 1983 by Eurofighter partners Italy, Germany, Spain, the UK and France (before Paris withdrew from the project in 1985). As such, they share a requirement genesis. But while the Typhoon’s performance is superior in some areas, suggesting it has ‘far better capabilities’ than its French relative is political licence.

So UK politicians and industry should tread carefully in responding to India’s choice. The Indian defence market still offers rich reward, even with the loss of this multi-billion dollar fighter deal. Protesting the Typhoon case too stridently risks disadvantaging British industry in future procurements.


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