Earlier this year, India's prime minister announced the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from France. The air force says it needs 108 such planes, but this demand does not fit in with Modi's "Make in India" plans.
The original Rafale deal, agreed upon with France in 2012, foresaw India buying 126 Rafale fighters from France. The new government under Narendra Modi however decided to scale down the contract to just 36 planes, saying the original deal was not in line with the prime minister's "Make in India" policy, which required foreign manufacturers to produce their goods in India and share technical information locally.
India's own 'Tejas' not good enough?
Officials at the Indian defense ministry also said the jets were too expensive and that an indigenous fighter would cater to the air force's needs very well. "The IAF [Indian Air Force] needs to have a minimum number of aircraft at all times. The LCA [Light Combat Aircraft] is our best option at this stage, given our resource constraints," a ministry official told Reuters news agency, referring to the "Tejas" jet, developed as an Indian government project.
However, experts said the LCA was not capable of fighting today's wars. "It is a very short-range aircraft which has no relevance in today's war fighting scenarios. If you are trying to justify this as a replacement for follow-on Rafales, you are comparing apples with oranges," retired Air Marshal M. Matheswaran, who also served as the Deputy Chief of the Integrated Defence Staff, told Reuters.
More Rafales needed
The Rafale once more became a topic for discussion. Last week, air force officials said the number of new Rafale fighter jets would not be enough to prepare the country for potential threats from Pakistan and China.
Speaking to journalists on October 3, Indian Air Force Chief Arup Raha said two squadrons of 18 jets each would not be enough. "Definitely, we would like to have MMRCA [medium multi-role combat aircraft] variety of aircraft. At least about six squadrons come to my mind," he said.
The air force was also open to getting fighter jets from other "equally good" aircraft companies, Raha added. "There are alternatives. I cannot say I only want Rafale," he told the press.
A share of the pie
Dassault, the French company that manufactures Rafale fighters, has declined to comment on the debate in India, but other European dealers, like Sweden's Saab, want to be involved as New Delhi goes fighter jet-shopping.
"There's still a huge gap that needs to be filled. We are marketing it [the Gripen fighter jet] under the 'Make in India' umbrella," a source close to Sweden's Saab told Reuters.
India is in the process of upgrading its military hardware and has announced a program of $100 billion for new fighter jets and equipment. The Indian Air Force currently has 35 active fighter jet squadrons, but the number would be down to 25 once the Soviet-era MiG21 planes are withdrawn.
Prime Minister Modi wants to end India's status as the world's number one weapons importer and wants to manufacture 70 percent of the country's defense hardware within India by the end of this decade.
mg/msh (Reuters, AFP, PTI)