India has secured 36 Rafale multi-role fighters from France’s aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation IMAGE PUBLIC DOMAIN
India has secured 36 Rafale multi-role fighters from France’s aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation IMAGE PUBLIC DOMAIN

France’s recent arms sale to India is not in itself a game changer in South Asia’s balance of power, but, coupled with the United States’ decision to cut military assistance to Pakistan (Delhi’s arch rival), it is destined to produce some aftershocks in the region’s defense dynamics.

India secured 36 Rafale multi-role fighters from France’s aircraft manufacturer Dassault Aviation – an $8.8 billion deal was signed by French Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian and his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar on September 23, after almost 18 months of quarrels over the contract terms. The first delivery is expected by September 2019 and all jet fighters will be at the disposal of the Indian Air Force (IAF) within six years. It took 16 years for an Indian government to fulfil its commitment to reinforcing the national air force with new generation fighters.

The new arms sale arrangement highlights a breakthrough in the Indo-French defense relationship. Apart from Delhi-Paris joint cooperation to manufacture six Scorpene submarines, from 2000 to 2015 France provided India with military items worth $715 million, as opposed to the $966 million in military goods that Pakistan bought from French defense producers. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), however, between 2011 and 2015 Islamabad received only $24 million in military-related supplies from France. Clearly there has been a shift in the French defense manufacturers’ business opportunities from Islamabad to Delhi.

A valuable asset against Pakistan?

The nuclear-capable Rafale can mount 150-km range Meteor air-to-air missiles and 300-km Scalp air-to-ground cruise missiles. Some Indian observers view Rafale’s capabilities as a combat advantage over Pakistan’s F-16 jets, at a time when tensions between Delhi and Islamabad over the disputed Himalayan territory of Kashmir have again reached boiling point. That escalation is a result of the armed raid on the Indian military outpost in Uri on September 18 and the subsequent “surgical strikes” by the Indian armed forces on terrorist launch pads across the line of control in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.

Currently, India’s air force can deploy in large part outdated Russian-built Sukhoi 30-MKI fighters to challenge superior Pakistani F-16s.

Rafale fighter jets will be modified to meet specific Indian demands. As part of the deal, Dassault will provide a weapons package and reinvest 50% of the value of the contract in India, with the participation of indigenous enterprises. Still, the French aviation company is ready to produce Rafales in India in the event Delhi makes a bigger order, declaring that it is committed to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” project, designed to turn the country into a global manufacturing hub.

Filling the gap

Due to the high costs, Rafales’ acquisition has drawn a great deal of criticism in India. Modi’s government has so far rebutted the argument, underlining that it sealed a better agreement than the one the previous United Progressive Alliance (UPA) cabinet had tried to conclude.

Immediately after the announcement of the purchase, the Indian National Congress leadership blasted Modi and his Bharatiya Janata Party. The Indian major opposition force contends that 36 Rafale fighter jets do not serve IAF’s operational needs and that, during its tenure, the Congress-led ruling UPA coalition worked to buy 126 omni-role fighters (including relative technology), the minimum number for IAF’s requirements.

The IAF would need 42 fighter squadrons to counter threats from Pakistan and China, according to Congress top brass and former Defense minister AK Antony. In his estimate, Delhi’s air force has now only 32 squadrons up and running and, without new inductions, they will drop to 25 by 2022. By and large, Antony’s figures match those of many military analysts – 42 to 45 squadrons of fighters as an optimal level and 32 to 33 the current Indian fleet’s size.

Pakistan lags behind

In the past months, the Pakistani government has stressed that its air force would have to retire 190 planes by 2020. That will prompt Islamabad to buy new fighters if it wants to maintain the current level of 350 to 400 aircraft and try to catch up with India’s fresh acquisitions.

The US Senate blocked a deal for eight F-16 Block-52 fighter aircraft with Pakistan in May and refused $300 million in defense aid to Islamabad in August. Many congressmen in Capitol Hill think that Islamabad is an unreliable ally in the war against terrorist organizations operating on Pakistani soil and in Afghanistan.

Without the US-made F-16s, and with reduced political and financial cover from Washington, Pakistan will have to turn either to Russia for its Sukhoi Su-35 or to China for its J-20 stealth fighter (which is still under development) and Chengdu J-10 to modernize its jets fleet with fifth generation aircraft. That is unless logistical and financial hurdles push the Pakistani Air Force (PAF) to veer to fighters of inferior caliber, like it already did with the procurement of used F-16s from Jordan in the past.

France is yet another option for the PAF, but it remains to be seen whether, in the presence of a relative tender or request from Islamabad, Paris wants to incur Delhi’s inevitable displeasure and thus jeopardize potential military agreements with the Indians that are already in the offing, not least possible new orders of Rafales for the IAF.