Rafale Success Hits Headwind Over India

Indian Air Force Rafale DH.
Indian Air Force Rafale DH.

It is 35 years since the Dassault Rafale first took off from Istres Airbase in France, on 4 July 1986. France was originally a partner in the Future European Fighter Aircraft (FEFA) programme, but withdrew due to disagreements about production and its requirement that the multi-role aircraft should be carrier-capable. 

After a protracted development of France’s own future fighter, named Rafale, it was ordered by both the French Air Force (FAF), and French Naval Aviation which received its first of 60 single-seat Rafale M carrier-borne fighter aircraft in December 2000. Entering service in 2004 the Rafale M order was subsequently reduced to 42. The FAF’s requirement for 234 aircraft, made up of 95 two-seat B models and 139 single-seat C models, was reduced to 212 and later to only 132. The first FAF Rafale entered service in 2006.

It was almost a decade before Egypt became the Rafale’s first international customer when it ordered 24 Rafales, comprising six two-seat Rafale DMs and 18 single-seat EMs in February 2015. In May 2021, Egypt ordered 30 additional Rafales worth $4.5 billion. This opened the door to a rising tide of export orders for the Rafale which would see Dassault’s production lines busy until 2030.

On 4 May 2015, a $7.4 billion contract for 24 Rafales was finalised with Qatar which included Meteor missiles and the training of 36 Qatari pilots and 100 technicians by the French military. On 7 December 2017, the option for 12 Rafales was exercised for $1.3 billion at $108 million each aircraft while adding an additional option for 36 additional aircraft. The first Qatari Rafale was delivered in February 2019.

On 31 January 2012, the Indian Air Force (IAF) announced the Rafale as the preferred bidder for 126 aircraft for its Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) competition. It was proposed that 18 Rafales would be supplied by Dassault 2015, while the remaining 108 would be manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in India under transfer of technology agreements.

On 23 September 2016, India and France signed a $9.2 billion contract for 36 off-the-shelf Rafales with an option for 18 more at the same inflation-adjusted price. Delivery of 36 Rafales to the IAF started July 2020.

Rafale is also a contender for the procurement of 114 medium multi-role combat aircraft for the IAF while the Indian Navy is also combining its plan for procuring 57 new carrier-capable fighter aircraft with this same programme.

French Air Force Rafale DH.
French Air Force Rafale DH.

In January 2021, the official agreement with Dassault Aviation was ratified in the Hellenic Parliament for the purchase of six new built, and 12 former French Air and Space Force (FASF) Rafale F3-R aircraft at total cost of $2.8 billion, including armament, training and ground support. In April 2021, it was reported that Greece was considering an option to acquire six additional Rafales.

In February 2021, Indonesia’s Minister of Defence announced that the purchase of 36 Rafales was part of an ambitious procurement programme. The financing of the acquisition would be similar to the one proposed by France to Egypt, namely a loan guaranteed for 80 percent of the total amount of the contract.

The Croatian Government’s decision to buy 12 former FASF French Rafale F3R fighter aircraft, 10 single-seat C model and two two-seat B models, was announced on 28 May 2021, to replace the Croatian Air Force’s MiG-21bis fighters. The total package including weapon systems, logistics and training was offered at $1.1 billion. However, Croatia may be required to submit a deposit of $177 million although the repayment period of an 80 percent of the total contract loan amount of 10 years is to be settled. Sources also say that the official contract could be signed by the end of 2021.

One of the reasons for the resurgence of interest in the Rafale is that Dassault had been successful in selling its predecessor, the Mirage 2000, to eight countries including coincidently, Egypt, Qatar, India and Greece.  Also, Dassault, with the support of the French government, has been able to offer favourable financing agreements that include long-term loans against the contracts.

However, not all the sales have gone smoothly. In July 2021, a judicial investigation was ordered by France’s national financial prosecutors’ office (PNF) to look into alleged ‘corruption’ and ‘influence peddling’ in the Rafale deal with India. It has been reported that the PNF will, among other elements, examine questions surrounding the actions of former French president Francois Hollande, who was in office when the Rafale deal was inked, and current French president Emmanuel Macron, who was at the time Hollande’s economy and finance minister, as well as the then defence minister, now foreign affairs minister, Jean-Yves Le Drian. On earlier occasions, Dassault Aviation and India’s Ministry of Defence had denied allegations of any corruption in the deal.

Dassault has denied any wrong-doing but as these cases can sometime go on for several years, no one expects an early answer to the allegations.

by David Oliver