New Delhi: India will soon send a Letter of Request (LOR) to the French government seeking financial quotes for the procurement of 26 Rafale-M fighter jets for the Indian Navy’s second aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
However, while the Indian Air Force (IAF) is also looking at procuring 114 Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) for which the Rafale is the natural choice, no joint acquisition has been planned.
French aviation major Dassault Aviation, maker of the Rafale-M, has previously made it clear that it would need an order of at least 100 Rafale fighter jets to manufacture them in India.
Aviation experts said joint acquisition of aircraft would have made sense since the IAF already operates 36 Rafale aircraft procured on an emergency basis and it would have been better to merge the Navy and Air Force’s joint requirement.
Joint acquisition would have meant that the cost would have gone down and India would have another line of fighter aircraft manufacturing, besides the Tejas fighter, they said. This is because Dassault would have then got the numbers to set up a production line in India.
Meanwhile, the Navy is hoping that the deal to procure the 26 Rafale-M, which will be bought off the shelf, will be fast-tracked.
Sources in the defence and security establishment said that once an acquisition project has been cleared by the defence ministry, the next step involves the issuance of Request for Proposal (RFP). The present acquisition deal was cleared in July.
Since the deal for Rafale-M is going to be a government-to-government one, a LOR would be issued within six to eight weeks of clearance, sources added.
“An LOR will be issued shortly. It is in the final stages of vetting by the defence ministry,” said one source. He added that it was being hoped that the procurement would be fast-tracked. “While a contract usually envisages deliveries starting three years from the date of signing, talks are on with the French for faster processes,” the source explained.
Training could also be fast-tracked as Indian naval pilots could train on French navy fighters rather than wait for the delivery of Indian fighters, said sources.
Explaining further the process for the Rafale-M acquisition, sources said a negotiating team will be formed by both India and France to thrash out a contract which, is likely to be inked only after the 2024 general election.
Sources also said that INS Vikrant, which is currently undergoing a scheduled compulsory refit/maintenance process, will be using the Navy’s MiG-29K fighters to become fully operational in the meantime.
Rafale-M Over F/A-18 Super Hornet
In December last year the Indian Navy’s decision to shortlist the Rafale-M over American firm Boeing’s F/A 18 Super Hornet. The naval headquarters had then sent a report to the defence ministry mentioning the “positives” — and stating that Rafale-M met all criteria — while leaving out any mention of the Boeing aircraft.
The Navy will procure 22 single-seat Rafale-M and four trainer aircraft to arm INS Vikrant.
The deal, valued at an estimated 5 billion Euros (Rs 45,000 crore), will include weapons packages, besides the cost of training and infrastructure.
The new contract for the procurement of 26 aircraft is meant to be an interim arrangement, given that India is building its indigenous Twin Engine Deck-Based Fighter (TEDBF) — a prototype of which is expected to be ready by 2026-27, followed by the beginning of production around 2032.
However, it is not yet clear how the Navy will operate three different fighters from its two carriers. Sources said that by the time the TEDBF comes in, the MiG-29Ks being operated from INS Vikramaditya will be on their way out.