“Sharpening the Tusks”: The “Rafale” deal and India’s military modernization


In the annual edition of Foreign Policy’s top 10 missed stories of 2011, India’s Military buildup found itself on the top of the podium, and rightly so.i Not only the magnitude of modernization, but also the variety of countries selling weaponry, technology, blue-prints and know-how to India seems breath-taking. The elephant is on the rise. India today, according to SIPRI (Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), is the world’s largest weapons importer.ii This new wave of arms deals covers all branches of the Armed Forces: Indian Army, Indian Navy, Indian Coast Guard, Indian Air force and Indian Paramilitary Forces. What is the strategic rationale behind these purchases? This essay seeks to answer this question by reference to the recent multi-billion dollar military aviation deal between India and France and analyze the implications and factors of India’s decision-making process.

The “Rafale” deal revisited

According to several analysts, the act of buying time, outsmarting other nations and securing relative autonomy during big trade deals, is something India has perfected over time.

These tactics were best exemplified during the “Rafale Deal”, one of the biggest military aviation deals in history, where India turned down offers from the EU, Sweden and the US and went for 126 French twin-engine delta-wing fighter aircraft designed and built by Dassault Aviation worth $10 billion.iii

This seems quite surprising since the “Rafale” has repeatedly been turned down by countries such as South Korea, Singapore, Switzerland and the Netherlands.iv

Even though the deal has not been finalized yet, most observers are quite certain that India will sign on the dotted line rather sooner than later. But why would New Delhi chose France over a consortium of four European countries making the case for the “Eurofighter” (Germany, UK, Spain and Italy), Sweden, promoting its “JAS-39 Gripen”, and the U.S. pushing for the sale of the “F-16 Fighting Falcon”? This question seems even more pressing when one takes into consideration that several military experts have deemed the “Rafale” inferior to its counterpart the “Eurofigher”.v

It would be short-sighted to reduce India’s considerations to technical aspects of the fighter plane. As Gunjan Bagla of the Californian-based Amritt Inc, an advisory service puts it, “ Patience is a key aspect of doing business in India, so long as a product meets the minimum threshold of performance, it then seeks the best value for money.”vi

On the back of this the fact that Spain and Italy, two of the four nations of the EU consortium, are battling with austerity measures would make additional payments for potential further weapons integration, a gamble India was not prepared to take. New Delhi was scared of signing a contract that might not be able to be fulfilled by nations suffering from a crumbling economy.vii

In addition, India’s decision to engage in a bilateral rather than a multilateral arms trade agreement with the EU is in accordance with New Delhi’s international demeanor, favoring face-to-face negotiations over multiparty talks.viii

Economics always plays a decisive role in any arms purchase. Far more interesting however, are the implied short-term and long-term strategic and tactical considerations the actors bring into play. The Indians did not merely buy a plane, but deepened an already strong relationship with France.

Benevolent Indo-French Ties

Indo-French relations have historically been marked by a rejection of US hegemony and in accordance with this notion, both have been proponents of a multipolar world. France often sided with India when other nations turned their backs on the South Asian giant. And as we all know, elephants are known for having an outstanding memory. France was one of the few countries that refused to cancel its maritime exercises after India’s first underground nuclear detonation in Pokhran in 1998.ix

When the Kargil conflict between Pakistan and India erupted, Paris as well as Moscow and Tel Aviv stood firmly behind India. It was the French “Mirage” fighter which was able to penetrate bunkers, at times where Russian MiGs had failed to live up to expectations.x But France was also a reliable partner within the civilian sector. In 1998 Jacques Chirac’s visit initiated talks between “Areva”, a French public multinational industrial conglomerate, and the Indian government regarding the construction of up to six nuclear power plants. At the same time the rest of Europe and the U.S. were trying to sanction the Indian nuclear industry by placing technology transfer restrictions and blacklisting Indian companies.xi

The Maritime Dimension

It seems that trust and reliability built by former cooperation as well as a common vision are factors New Delhi takes very seriously when contemplating arms purchases. The hardware obviously needs to meet basic criteria, but who is selling might at times be more important than what they are selling. But is a common vision of multipolarity, past ties and trust really persuasive enough for India to buy an inferior aircraft? There are two factors which could convince realists. First, as a French industry executive put it, “Sarko is willing to give them whatever technology they want”.xii India knows that Dassault Aviation is under enormous pressure to make its first sale of the “Rafale” outside of France. The hawks in New Delhi knew that they had leverage over Dassault Aviation and could demand conditions and obtain further technology from the state-owned company. Paris gave the green light to a full technology transfer of the Rafale to India, including the RBE2-AA AESA radar as well as software source code.xiii The source code is essential because it will enable Indian scientists to re-program radar or sensitive equipment. Without the software source code the Indian Air Force would have to seek assistance of foreign manufacturers to enable the reconfiguration of their radar, which would have a severe impact on security issues and above all autonomy.xiv

There is an additional attribute the “Rafale” has to offer that is somehow often left out of the equation; an attribute that goes hand in hand with India’s bold maritime ambitions. Unlike the Eurofighter for example, the “Rafale” is carrier capable, thus embodying an attractive asset to the Indian Navy.xv So the purchase of the “Rafale” could also just very well be a further mosaic in the ever-growing maritime aspirations of India. Ensuring safe navigation in the Indian Ocean is a necessity in the global trade system and transit of resources.xvi With extended carrier capabilities power projection within the Indian Ocean as well as the Asia-Pacific could be intensified. India would be able to secure and protect the openness of nine “bottlenecks”: the Strait of Hormuz, Suez Canal, Strait of Bab-el-Mandeb, Malacca Strait, Lombok Strait, Six Degree Channel, Nine Degree Channel and Cape of Good Hope.xvii India is planning to invest around $45 billion dollar over the next 20 years in its sea power. Safeguarding canals and straits is of utmost importance due to the fact that India is the world’s third-largest energy consumer, importing close to 30 % of the energy it consumes.xviii In order to live up to its Maritime Doctrine formulated in 2004, which visualized four crucial pillars for the Indian Navy (military, diplomatic, constabulary, and benign) India has acknowledged that it would need at least two, if not three carrier groups to be capable of exercising hard – as well as so soft – power. In addition to humanitarian missions as well as protecting Indian trade, representing the soft-power dimension, the hard-power component of power projection is seen as vital for loosening the grip of Chinese encirclement, also known as the “String of Pearls”.xix Russia is currently finishing paint on the INS Vikramaditya, which will most likely replace the aging INS Viraat and be handed over to India this June.xx The INS Vikramaditya will most likely be joined by India’s first domestically built aircraft carrier, the IAC-I within the next two years. These two carriers are equipped with STOBAR (short-takeoff, barrier-arrested design) which allow the fielding of 12 slightly modified MiG-29K aircraft.xxi

When the IAC-I sets sail the Indian Navy is expected to officially announce the production of a second indigenously built aircraft carrier, deemed to be named IAC-II. Thanks to its larger size this 50,000 ton colossus will have a more modern launch system. This would in turn enable the launch of multi-role fighters such as the “Rafale”.xxii

Does this major arms deal strengthen the ties between France and India? Most certainly. Does it alter the relations between India the U.S.? Not really. U.S. Companies such as Lockhead-Martin and Boeing have clinched several multi-billion arms deals with India in the past years, mostly on a government-to-government basis without competitive bidding. India still imports most of its military hardware form the US and plans to spend over $100 billion over the next four years.xxiii

i Foreign Policy, India’s Military Buildup, December 2011, http://www.foreignpolicy.com/articles/2011/11/28the_stories_you_missed_in_2011

ii Ibidem.

iii http://www.dassault-aviation.com/fileadmin/user_upload/redacteur/Defence/Rafale/Fox_Three_N_14_UK2.pdf,p.6

iv The Economist, Bomb Bays to Delhi -India favours France’s Dassault, February 4, http://www.economist.com/node/21546054

v Die Welt, Doppeltes Spiel-Rüstungsexperte krtisiert Sarkozys Rafale-Deal, February 1, http://www.welt.de/wirtschaft/article13845139/

vii Royal Aeronautical Society, Rafale wins MMRCA-analysis and industrial implications, February 9, http://media.aerosociety.com/aerospace-insight/2012/02/08/rafale-wins-mmrca/6231/

ix The Hindu, Strategic Lift in Rafale Tailwind, February 2, http://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/article2851361.ece

x Ibidem.

xi Ibidem.

xiii Aviation & Aerospace, Dassault ups the ante with full technology transfer for Rafale, November 5, 2008, http://www.domain-b.com/aero/mil_avi/mil_aircraft/20081105_dassault.html

xiv Ibidem.

xv Royal Aeronautical Society, Rafale wins MMRCA-analysis and industrial implications, February 9, http://media.aerosociety.com/aerospace-insight/2012/02/08/rafale-wins-mmrca/6231/

xvi Russia & India Report, High sea: Indian Elephant versus Chinese Dragon, March 21, http://indrus.in/articles/2012/03/21/high_sea_indian_elephant_versus_chinese_dragon_15211.htm

xvii Ibidem.

xviii Ibidem.

xix(Cohen,S.P; DasGupta,S. 2010. Arming without Aiming-India’s Military Modernization,Brookings,Washington D.C. p. 92-93

xx Russia & India Report, Aircraft Carrier on Course, February 7, http://indrus.in/articles/2012/02/07/aircraft_carrier_on_course_14751.html

xxi Institute for Defence Studies & Analyses, India’s Future Aircraft Carrier Force and the Need for Strategic Flexibility, June 1, 2010, http://www.idsa.in/idsacomments/IndiasFutureAircraftCarrierForceandtheNeedforStrategicFlexibility_irehman_010610

xxii Ibidem.

xxiii Stagecraft and Statecraft, May 19, Is the U.S.-India Relationship losing Steam?, http://chellaney.net/2012/05/19/is-the-u-s-india-relationship-losing-steam/

About Author

Djan Sauerborn

Djan Sauerborn is editor in chief at the International Security Observer. Djan was born in London. After spending his childhood in Boston, USA and Burkina Faso he moved to Germany and is now based in Berlin. He is currently the assistant director of "Active International Consulting". He has a dual Masters Degree in Political Science and Anthropology from Heidelberg University, Germany. Previously Djan was a senior researcher and policy advisor for a think tank in Brussels. Furthermore he is a contributor for the Human Interest Publication “ZERO Magazine”. He is a German and English native speaker and is also fluent in French.


  1. For a nation that has faced sub-conventional threats since the late 80s, we are remarkably lacking in terms of ‘threat-response’ effectiveness in terms of linking our ‘aspirations’ to actual threats we face/are expected to face in the future. The essence is to plan ahead and think in terms of indigenising equipment in order to be contextually focused. I think our economic clout in defence matters needs to plug this gap for the future.

  2. Dear Saurabh,

    Thank you so much for your insightful post! Corruption and the lack of an indigenous weapons industry (unlike china for example) coupled with sometimes contradicting visions and white papers from the military and the political brass definitely underpin the arguments you made. I am also very anxious to see how India deals with its “submarine sintuation”. The modus operandi, the difficulties and the contradictions experienced in the Rafale case also remind me of India’s light Helicopter deal in 2003 where Eurocopter’s AS550 C3 Fennec and Bell Textron’s 407 competed in the second and final round of summer trials before the process experienced a complete derailment.

    Thank you for the interesting article as well!



  3. Djan,

    Thanks for your thoughtful piece. There are all sorts of theories as to why the Rafale was chosen, many of them provocative.

    But I’d like to address the issue of India arming itself. The reason for this that is often ignored in any discussion on this subject is something that few outsiders are able to realize, without having studied the Indian defense procurement system.

    India hasn’t suddenly decided over the last couple of years that it needs to buy weapons and equipment. The headlines of arms purchases that seem to be converging in the same time-frame are largely a result of the long delays, corruption, indecision and absence of a budget for these purchases.

    Indeed, many of these programs were planned in the eighties. One example is artillery. India hasn’t been able to buy any artillery weapons since the eighties, when a program to buy Bofors artillery howitzers was cut short due to a corruption scandal. Since then, tenders have been floated and cancelled 5-6 times. It is only a couple of months back that the first new procurement of artillery was announced since the eighties.

    Take submarines. The tender for six submarines is running at least 13 years late and work still hasn’t begun on it.

    SIPRI might say that India is the largest arms buyer in the world, but it’s largely because India hasn’t acquired any new systems for a long time and all of these procurements are now coming together because budgets have finally been allocated and decisions are finally being made.

    There’s much to discuss about this, and indeed the selection of the Rafale, but I’ll end here. Thanks again for your piece.

    And if you want to read one theory about the Rafale selection here’s a link to something that was published by the website I run, and judge for yourself how crazy you think it is.




  4. Djan Sauerborn on

    Thanks Glokas for yor reply! I can understand that you have some doubts due to the fact that one of the stated sources is german. But it is defientely not the only source that ranks the Eurofighter over the Rafale. The following excerpt is from a report written in 2008 by Prof. Keith Hartley from the Centre of Defence Economics, University of York, England:

    “Eurofighter has provided a ranking of rival aircraft in terms of cost and combat effectiveness. This ranking shows that for similar cost, Typhoon is more combat effective than Rafale, JSF, F-15E and F/A-18E; the F-16 and Su-35 are cheaper but considerably less capable; and only the F/A-22 is superior to Typhoon on combat performance, but at considerably higher cost. One study reported that in simulated combat against a Su-35, the F-22 shoots down 10 for every one of its own losses; Eurofighter just under half (some 4.5 Su-35s for every Typhoon); and Rafale was next best which lost one for one.”


    Nevertheless, I will agree that there still is a huge and vibrant ongoing debate on which fighter is the better plane. The fact that the Rafale will be able to operate from India’s planned indigenous aircraft carrier defintely played a decisive role in decision making. More significant I find however is Dassault’s commitment to guarantee total technology transfer to New Delhi.



  5. With no offense, it seems that the rafale is much better and cheaper than EF ! And the source you quote on that issue is “Die Welt”, a GERMAN newpaper ! The Rafale was ranked FIRST in the technical evaluation of the Netherlands and Switzeland. It was not choosed because of political (US pression for the JSF) and budgetary reasons ! The Rafale have indeed a fully multirole capacity, as it was designated from the very begining for that purpose. While the Typhoon in painfully acquiring a partial air to ground strike capacity !

  6. I was constantly asking myself why the Indians are choosing the French “Rafale” over the American “F16”. Now I know! 🙂 Thank you Djan!
    Nevertheless I still don’t get why they are expanding so much on weapons. In the last decade the relations to their “enemy” Pakistan become more and more constructive. Even after Mumbai the so called “India Pakistan Composite Dialogue” did not get interrupted. India’s relations to their other “enemy” China also improved in the last years. So why is India spending so much on weapons, when at the same time the relations to the former enemies becoming more and more constructive?!

    • Djan Sauerborn on

      Glad you liked it Safak!

      Well I would argue that relations to Pakistan and China are only warming up on the surface. China is endagering India with it s build up of naval ports encirling India and tensions still run high between Pakistan and India. In addition the Indian Ocean is a main transport hub for energy ressources, of which India’s vibrant economy relies on heaviliy. Furthermore India is interested in expanding its area of influence beyond its region. Some would argue that India is using France as a Partner/Proxy to establish itself in Africa. The massive recent build up of embassies in Africa would give weight to that argument. The aircraft carriers which will be able to launch/catapult the Rafale will probably be used as instruments of “coercive diplomacy”. Furthermore India is increasing joint maritime operations with Southeast Asian countries as well as Japan, Korea and Australia and needs a fleet that can keep up with these nations. For further information I would advise you to skim through this interesting article:




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