Rafale: French conquest
FRANCE seems to be on the verge of walking away with one of the biggest defence deals in recent times. In early February, the Indian government announced that it had chosen the French firm Dassault Aviation as the sole bidder to supply 126 Rafale jet fighters for the Indian Air Force (IAF). Among the bidders, Dassault had quoted the lowest prices and had also agreed to provide technology of the Rafale to India. No details have emerged about the exact price tag, but reports suggest that the Rafale would cost around $5 million per unit.
The final cost will be announced only after the two sides complete the negotiations, taking into account the weapons and avionics that will be fitted in the planes. Many military experts say that the contract will be worth more than $20 billion.
The Defence Minister, A.K. Antony, announced on February 17 that the final series of negotiations with Dassault had begun. He said that the Contract Negotiations Committee (CNC) had started its work for the procurement of the multi-role combat aircraft. The Minister reiterated that complete transparency would be maintained during the negotiations, which would continue through the year. He said that the government would closely monitor all stages of the negotiations and “ensure that nobody corrupts the Indian system”. Dassault's rivals, while faulting the Indian government's choice of aircraft, have all said that the bidding process was transparent. Previous aviation deals have been clouded in controversy, with allegations of kickbacks being bandied about.
The IAF already flies around 50 French Mirages. The Indian government had signed a $2.5 billion deal with Dassault last year to upgrade the IAF's Mirage fleet. The only serious competition was from the Eurofighter Typhoon, manufactured by a consortium of German, British, Italian and Spanish companies, led by the European Aeronautic Defence and Space Company (EADS). The British and German governments have already conveyed their unhappiness with the Indian government's decision to opt for the French plane. British Prime Minister David Cameron, while expressing surprise at the decision of the Indian government to opt for the Rafale, said that the Eurofighter was a “superior” plane. British and German officials were evidently under the impression that the Eurofighter was the clear front runner. EADS officials have sought an explanation on the criteria and cost estimation applied by Indian officials while deciding to choose the French planes.
The Europeans had sweetened their bid by offering India the status of the fifth partner in the prestigious EADS consortium. In a recent letter to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh, German Chancellor Angela Merkel wrote that India would become the “fifth partner country” along with Germany, Britain, Spain and Italy. EADS had also offered India the opportunity to develop the aircraft jointly and make the country one of its production hubs for the sale of aircraft to third countries. Dassault, too, has offered similar terms. France has told the Indian government that if it wins the contract, the first 18 fighter jets will be delivered within 36 months and the remaining 108 will be assembled in India.
Other competitors for the contract were eliminated from the original shortlist last year, as the IAF concluded that they did not meet the technical requirements. The fighter planes in question were the American F-16 and F A-18, the Swedish Grippen and the Russian Mig-35. The United States attaches strings to the sale of high-tech weaponry. Countries like Iran and Venezuela, which have chosen to espouse an independent foreign policy, have been denied the much-needed spares for their U.S.-manufactured planes. After India tested nuclear weapons in 1998, Washington imposed sanctions on it. These sanctions, including on the sale of high-tech weapons, were lifted only after the two countries signed a military agreement in 2006.
Although the U.S. has lost out on the latest defence deal, India has gone in for defence purchases from the U.S. in a big way. The recent contract to buy 22 Apache Attack helicopters, overlooking a competitive Russian bid, is an illustration. India had earlier acquired a refurbished U.S. troop ship with logistics-support helicopters, C-130J Hercules heavy lift transport planes, advanced long-range naval reconnaissance aircraft, and weaponry worth several billions of dollars. Many other deals with the U.S. worth billions are in the pipeline. Russia may still be the single biggest arms supplier to India, but the Western powers, together with their ally Israel, provide most of the imported weaponry. This has led to a feeling of discrimination in Moscow.
For the past one year, EADS and Dassault were locked in a fierce competition to clinch the deal. For Dassault, it was virtually a make-or-break situation. France, despite hectic lobbying by President Nicolas Sarkozy, had failed to sell a single Rafale jet abroad. Among the countries that rejected the Rafale were the Netherlands, Singapore, South Korea, Switzerland and Morocco. The late Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi was given an “exclusive offer” on Rafales after being wined and dined at the Elysee Palace by Sarkozy during his visit to Paris in 2007. But on his return, the Libyan leader decided that his country could do without the expensive French jets. It is another story that Libya was used as a testing ground for Rafales and Typhoons following the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO)-led invasion of the country last year. Both Dassault and EADS regularly put out bulletins detailing the prowess their planes displayed over Libya.
As recently as 2009, the Rafale and the Eurofighter were prominently displayed at an arms fair in Libya. After the regime change in Libya, there are reports that France is on the verge of clinching a deal with the interim government there for the sale of 14 to18 Rafale jets. Last year, the French had also failed to clinch a deal for the sale of 60 Rafale jets to the United Arab Emirates after negotiations had reached an advanced stage. The UAE government changed its mind at the eleventh hour and is now on the verge of inking a deal for the purchase of the Eurofighter. The Eurofighter, according to most aviation experts, is the superior air-to-air interceptor. Dassault was in deep financial trouble because of the huge costs incurred in the production of the Rafale. In December last year, French Defence Minister Gerard Longet warned that production of the jets would have to be stopped if foreign orders failed to materialise in the near future.
After the Indian government announced its decision, an elated Sarkozy said that “we were waiting for this day for 30 years”. It was good news for the French President, who is facing a difficult re-election later this year. The President said that the Indian government's decision should also be seen as “a signal of confidence in the French economy”. Sarkozy had earlier tried to convince the Brazilian government to go in for Rafale jets. In 2008, Sarkozy and President Luis Inacio Lula da Silva had announced that both countries had reached an agreement for the sale of 36 Rafales. But the Brazilian Defence Ministry was quick to issue a statement clarifying that no final decision had been taken. Now with a new President, Dina Roussef, in office, the Brazilian choice has narrowed down to the U.S. F/A 18 Super Hornet fighters and the Swedish Grippen.
India, in recent years, has emerged as the biggest buyer in the international arms bazaar, outspending even the petro-dollar-soaked monarchies of the Gulf. The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) has said that India accounted for 9 per cent of all the world's weapons imports in 2010. In early February, the Indian Navy took charge of a Russian-made nuclear submarine, INS Chakra-11. It will be on lease for 10 years at a cost of $1 billion. The much-delayed aircraft carrier, Admiral Gorshkov, is expected to join the Indian Navy by the end of this year. That deal was worth $2.33 billion. India has also signed a $30 billion deal with Russia for the purchase of 250-300 Sukhumi T-50 Stealth fighters. They are expected to be inducted into the IAF by 2018.
Many defence analysts interpret the defence acquisition spree by India as an attempt to match China's growing military strength. Washington is encouraging New Delhi to accelerate its costly defence procurement drive by playing up the so-called threat from China. James Clapper, the U.S. Director of National Intelligence, told the American Congress that the Indian military “is strengthening its forces in preparation to fight a limited conflict along the disputed border, and is working to balance Chinese power projection in the Indian Ocean”. However, the Indian Defence Minister has clarified that India's modernisation of its defence forces is not aimed at China but only to protect the territorial integrity of the country.