Monday, January 12, 2015

Is the Indian Rafale deal dying a slow, painful death?


There is more rumbling about India's seemingly never-ending negotiations to purchase the Rafale.  Despite Dassault's fighter winning the MMRCA competition three years ago, Indian officials are still hesitant to sign off on the purchase.

In the past, it seemed the biggest issue was Dassault's refusal to take responsibility for aircraft built by India's indigenous manufacturer, HAL.  Now, we can add escalating price to the list of challenges, as Dassault is insisting that India accept the most recent variant of the Rafale, the F3R, rather than the F3 bid for the MMRCA.  As with anything, the technological upgrades of the F3R come with a substantial price tag.  Recent estimates peg the Indian Rafale at $120 million per unit, almost double the original $65 million that allowed it to win the MMRCA.

While the second place Eurofighter Typhoon is ready to pick up the slack, there is no provision for a "runner up" to step in.  If India and Dassault cannot work out their differences soon, the 10-year long MMRCA may have been all for nothing.

India's MMRCA competition may have run off the rails long ago, however.

MiG-21 Bison
The original intent of the MMRCA competition was to select a single-type replacement for several aircraft currently in the IAF's fleet.  Whereas many nations get by on a mere single fighter type, the IAF currently operates:  The MiG-21 Bison, the Mirage 2000, the MiG-29, and the Su-30MKI.  The MMRCA would likely replace the Mirage 2000 and MiG-29, with the HAL Tejas replacing the MiG-21 Bison.  While the Bison currently flown by the IAF is vastly upgraded from its 50s origins, there is no disguising the fact that it is an relic from the past.

What seems odd is India's insistence that the MMRCA be a medium-sized, multirole fighter.  Between the Su-30MKI (high end) and the HAL Tejas (low end), there just does not seem to be a real need for a third fighter type.  This is further illustrated by the recent addition of MiG-29Ks to India's naval air arm.

If that was not enough, India is also collaborating with Russia on a PAK FA spin off known as the HAL FGFA, likely to replace the Su-30MKI.

HAL Tejas
Given the bewildering variety of fighter aircraft already in Indian service, one wonders why they did not simply choose to either trade in their current MiG-29s for updated MiG-35s.  This would make for a much easier transition, as well as maintaining commonality with their naval air assets.

Barring that, why not simply dispel with the MMRCA altogether and simply acquire more Su-30MKIs and Tejas?

Both options would likely be far less expensive than acquiring a totally unique fighter type, especially one that may be redundant given India's current inventory.  The Rafale was designed to be France's sole fighter, after all, allowing it to fulfill just about any and every role.  These roles are already being filled, however...  So what is the point?

Su-30MKI
Perhaps cooler heads have prevailed somewhere in the Indian government and all these contract negotiation stumbles are an attempt to get out of an unneeded purchase without losing face.  India does seem to be looking whatever reasons it can to get out of the deal, including citing France's refusal to sell Mistral-class carriers to Russia.

Canceling the Indian Rafale deal would likely cripple Dassault's attempts to find other foreign sales.  The large number of Rafales (126) ordered for India likely would have helped decreased costs for the French fighter, as well a given it a fair amount of prestige.  Instead, France and Dassault are finding themselves being dragged through the proverbial mud.  Accusations of cost escalation, refusal to guarantee airframes, and being labeled an unreliable supplier could be devastating.

If Dassault had managed to find any other buyers for the Rafale, all of these issues could be hand-waved away as being unique to the Indian deal.  Without any other buyers to prove otherwise, these issues could scare other potential buyers (like Canada) away.

It really is too bad.  The Rafale certainly does deserve better.


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