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India Greenlights Navy Rafale and Scorpene Talks With France

On 11 July 2023, the Indian Ministry of Defence’s (MoD) Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) gave the greenlight to start negotiations for 26 Dassault Rafale multi-role fighters for the Indian Navy (IN). The decision, according to Dassault Aviation, was made after keenly fought international competition, with Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet being the other main contender.

The decision, on the surface, appears pragmatic. The Indian Air Force (IAF) already operates a fleet of 36 Rafale fighters. This allows the IN to capitalize on existing and upcoming infrastructure investments – such as the forthcoming Safran maintenance, repair, and overhaul (MRO) facility for the M88 turbofan engine – to control lifecycle costs and smoothen induction. Furthermore, the move presents an opportunity for India to build upon existing offset agreements from the IAF’s first Rafale contract, which are poised to help drive India’s aerospace, defence, and other technology sectors.

However, this does not imply that Boeing – or the U.S. at large – had less to offer. In fact, Boeing maintains a substantial presence in India with numerous offsets tied to previous and ongoing procurement projects. Notably, India is now the supplier of the Boeing AH-64 Apache’s fuselage, with the Tata Boeing Aerospace Limited facility booked with orders extending past 2030.

Moreover, General Electric (GE) is also exploring the prospect of co-producing its F414 turbofan engine in India. Though aimed at India’s homegrown fighter programs – such as the Tejas, ORCA/TEBDF, and AMCA – consideration must have been paid to the idea of sweetening a potential Super Hornet deal to the IN.

Overall, it is unlikely that Boeing or the United States balked at offering valuable offset and/or collaborative benefits to India. Rather, the IN – and potentially the IAF as well – might simply be uncomfortable with the prospect of adding an advanced American combat aircraft to their respective fleets.

India has adopted several big-ticket U.S. weapon systems, such as the Boeing P-8I Poseidon long-range maritime patrol aircraft, Lockheed Martin MH-60R Seahawk helicopters, Boeing C-17 Globemaster IIIs, and Lockheed Martin C-130J-30 Hercules transport aircraft. However, while workhorse systems in their special mission roles, these systems are still, ultimately, specialized assets. In contrast, a multirole fighter like the F/A-18E/F would become a more prominent workhorse asset in the wider IAF/IN fighter fleets. This would require additional investment in achieving interoperability (with India’s French, Russian, and locally-built combat aircraft), changing training processes, adjusting to different maintenance procedures, and a range of other obstacles that could serve to drive up costs and create delays.

Alternatively, the choice to select the Rafale over the Super Hornet could also be part of India’s own long-term strategic vision – i.e., to focus more on homegrown designs. The upfront industrial investment in the Rafale was already accounted for, and the experience gained by the IAF could be beneficial to the IN. While India’s next-generation projects are a long-term factor, the Rafale likely presented the more cost-effective off-the-shelf option compared to the Super Hornet. Otherwise, the IN and IAF may be looking to lean more on the TEBDF/ORCA and AMCA programs, but with critical input support from the U.S., U.K., and France.

This decision will also not impact the trajectory of U.S-India ties. For the U.S., its strategic vision for India is not dependent on India acquiring American fighters. Instead, the goal is to likely see India pivot from its reliance on Russian technology. American investment in India’s defence sector could facilitate this change; as such, the U.S. defence industry can still drive benefit by selling expertise and critical inputs to India for the latter’s homegrown projects, rather than selling complete weapon systems.

It will be worth seeing how the IN’s Rafale order impacts the IAF for its own off-the-shelf program, i.e., the Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) bid. The MRFA calls for 114 off-the-shelf fighters, but the bid seems to have stalled. Thus far, the IAF’s procurement budget seems to be focused more on Tejas procurement, and – potentially – any future off-the-shelf purchase may lean back towards the Rafale (so as to leverage the IAF’s existing operating infrastructure and familiarity with the aircraft).

It is also worth noting that India’s DAC has only approved a potential deal; India and France will still need to negotiate a contract. Though a small chance, there may be an opportunity for Boeing to re-insert itself into the equation and capitalize on India’s past history of pivoting its big-ticket procurement plans.

The Indian MoD’s DAC also paved the way for negotiations to take place for three additional Naval Group (formerly DCNS) Scorpene submarines for the IN. If signed, this order will bolster the IN’s existing fleet of six submarines, which were ordered in 2005 under the Project 75 program.

The induction of the first Scorpene submarine, INS Kalvari, took place in 2017, while the last one from the initial order, INS Vagsheer, is set to join the IN fleet by 2024. The procurement of a second set of Scorpene submarines is likely to see increased use of indigenous technologies, such as India’s homegrown fuel-cell-based air-independent propulsion (AIP) system.

Simultaneously, India is also inviting bids for its follow-on Project 75(I) submarine program. This program aims to add six AIP-equipped submarines to the IN fleet. Prominent OEMs, including Naval Group, Navantia and ThyssenKrupp Marine Systems (TKMS) have partners with Indian contractors (in line with the “Make in India” initiative) to compete for the Project 75(I) order.

However, Project 75(I) has encountered setbacks, mainly owing to issues in the request-for-proposal (RFP) processes. Concerns over design challenges, liability issues, and delivery schedules have surfaced from the OEMs, leading to delays in the program.

Thus, in this context, the decision to build upon the existing Project 75/Scorpene program makes strategic sense. The IN has already evaluated and accepted the Scorpene design. Moreover, the design has proven maturity at every stage from design to production to induction to operationalization. Finally, augmenting the Kalvari-class fleet also empowers the IN to re-leverage its existing infrastructure for training, support, maintenance, and logistics, thus streamlining induction and controlling cost. Given these advantages, it is surprising that the IN did not opt for this route earlier.

 

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