The 12 billion dollar discussions centred on whether India will buy 126 Rafale fighter jets from France have made some progress, sources said today, a day after Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar met his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian in Delhi.
Major kinks remain in need of ironing, but are unlikely to be deal-breakers, said sources involved in the talks, though they cautioned that it's unlikely that the deal will be signed before Prime Minister Narendra Modi travels to Paris in April. However, by that time, some officials who are part of the negotiating process are hopeful that a statement of intent can be agreed upon by both the Indian and French governments for the contract that has been stalled for nearly three years.
The plan is for France to supply 18 fully-made fighter jets to India, with the other 108 being produced by the state-run Hindustan Aeronautica Limited (HAL) in Bangalore. There is an option for India to acquire 63 more Rafale jets.
Dassault Aviation, the French manufacturer, has concerns about the carbon-fibre composite material that would be used by HAL to form the skin of the Rafale fighter. Though HAL prides itself in having mastered the use of these composites (which are also used on the indigenous Tejas fighter plane), HAL uses a manual technique. Dassault, on the other hand, uses an automated and much quicker process to manufacture super-critical carbon-fibre composite structures such as the wings of the Rafale. HAL and Dassault will now need to arrive at a consensus on how best to speedily develop carbo-composites to ensure that the time-frame for the manufacture of Rafale fighters is met. A slower process by HAL could mean that Dassault's delivery deadlines for the Rafale will not be met.
French negotiators have indicated that that while they are obliged to train Indian engineers on the assembly of key components of the Rafale fighter, they need specific assurances to ensure that the engineers they train remain deployed and committed to the manufacture of the Rafale, again, to ensure that the jets are manufactured and delivered on time to the Indian Air Force.
The Rafale's primary sensor, the RBE-2 Airborne Electronically Scanned Array, is manufactured in state-of-the-art laboratories in France to exceptionally rigid production and quality standards. HAL's avionics labs, which presently work on radars for the Air Force's Sukhoi 30 have different standards and technologies in place. French sources say HAL engineers will need a change in the work culture and the avionics labs in Bangalore will need upgrading to meet the French standards. This is, again, not seen as a deal breaker, but the French have flagged a concern that the modernization of HAL's technology could be a time-consuming process.
While the Ministry of Defence may be aware of HAL's limitations, the government is clear that these are issues that need to be negotiated between Rafale and HAL and that its primary concern is the eventual delivery and performance of the Rafale fighter according to its advertised design specifications. NDTV has learned that the first batch of Rafale fighters assembled in India would take approximately 44 months to be manufactured, though this time-frame is likely to be reduced as HAL gains in experience and systems are fine-tuned. The final, fully made-in-India examples of the jet would likely be constructed quicker.
Hindustan Aeronautics, for its part, is positive about its capabilities in manufacturing the Rafale fighter. At Aero India, Asia's largest air show, last week, the new HAL chairman Suvarna Raju told reporters that HAL "is the lead production agency for the Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (ie the Rafale) which gives us [the rights] for manufacture and testing. We don't want others to stand guarantee for our product." This would be welcome news for Dassault as it seeks to close the Rafale deal, negotiations for which have continued for more than three years.
The Dassault Rafale was shortlisted by the Indian Air Force as its fighter of choice in a fly-off involving some of the world's leading fighters in 2011. For years, the Air Force has made it clear, that the induction of the Rafale is imperative to ensure that its dwindling fleet strength is replenished with modern aircraft to counter the rapidly modernising Chinese and Pakistani Air Forces.