Navy had initially pitched for 57 fighter jets but is buying only 26.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to France marks a significant moment in bilateral relations as India plans to buy 26 Rafale M (Marine) fighter jets and three Scorpene class submarines.
Rafale M is widely considered one of the most advanced naval fighters. India already operates 36 Rafale C (Air Force) variants of the jet, and according to its manufacturer Dassault Aviation, all the variants have the maximum airframe and equipment commonality, which is considered one of the reasons to choose Rafale over the Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet.
The Boeing F-18, which featured in 'Top Gun: Maverick', underwent operational demonstration tests at the ski-jump facility at INS Hansa in Goa last year. However, with India's decision to opt for the Rafale, the US fighter jet failed to secure a place in the Indian Air Force or Navy.
The naval variant of Rafale is equipped with Safran Groups' reinforced landing gears, known for being one of the most advanced systems for carrier-compatible aircraft. It also features folding wings, a reinforced undercarriage to withstand harsh conditions, deck landing, and tailhooks.
These advanced 4.5th generation fighter jets will be deployed on INS Vikramaditya and on the indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant. The deal represents a significant development in the Navy's fighter fleet because the Russian-origin MiG-29K jets have been the backbone of the fighter arm since the British-made Sea Harriers were phased out in 2016 after almost 30 years of service.
In its 2015 report, the Comptroller Auditor General (CAG) highlighted issues with the MiG-29K's airframe, its RD MK-33 engine and its fly-by-wire system, and said the "Aircraft were being technically accepted despite having discrepancies/anomalies."
The CAG said the serviceability of the MiG-29K (the single-seat variant) was low, "ranging from 15.93 per cent to 37.63 per cent" and for MiG-29 KUB (twin-seat trainer), it ranged from "21.30 per cent to 47.14 per cent".
The nation's auditor warned that the issues with MiG-29K/KUB would further reduce the operational life of the fighter from 6,000 hours or 25 years, whichever is earlier.
The Navy had initially pitched for 57 fighter jets but is buying only 26 in this multi-billion-dollar deal, which would be finalised during PM Modi's visit.
It is anticipated that a squadron of the Rafale M would be deployed on INS Vikrant, while the remaining would be used on a rotational basis.
Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) is developing a twin-engine deck-based fighter (TEDBF), a powerful derivative of the LCA Tejas, which will be inducted to replace the ageing MiG-29K fleet.
In a significant milestone, the naval variant of the Tejas landed on INS Vikrant, but unlike its Air Force variant, which is operational in different squadrons, the formal induction of this variant is yet to take place.
Given that the induction of the TEDBF into the Naval air arm will take a few more years, the Rafale M deal holds importance in meeting the operational needs of the Indian Navy.