Indian Air Force chief eyes Rafale deal by year-end

Hasimara: The deal between India and France for 36 Rafale combat jets could happen before the end of the year, the Indian Air Force (IAF) chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, said on Saturday but to go by the manner in which the negotiations have spluttered in the last seven months, this could be a tall order.

"I hope it will happen by the yearend," Air Chief Marshal Raha told IANS, when asked when the deal for the jets, in fly-away condition, was expected to be inked.

"We expect it to happen quickly," he added.

The deal for the jets, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi's visit to Paris in April, but on the French side there is some frustration at the long-winded nature of the negotiations.

The IAF, which badly needs to replace its aging fleet of Soviet MIG aircraft, was looking forward to the new planes, but the offsets clause that requires 50 percent of the deal, estimated at $8 million, to be pumped back to the Indian defence industry, is believed to be a stumbling block, as also the pricing. While India and France are still involved in the sticky negotiations, Egypt has already welcomed three Rafale jets into the country in July - five months after inking a deal for 24 planes.

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian visited Cairo a few days after France delivered the jets. He was to visit India on August 31 during which the deal was expected to be inked.

However, he flew straight on to Europe after it became known that the negotiations were not likely to be concluded soon. The Indian defence ministry had, at the time, refused to confirm his visit.

According to French envoy Francois Richier, the defence minister had to fly to Europe to attend a EU defence ministers meeting.

The progress in negotiations was reviewed by the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), the top acquisition body of the defence ministry, chaired by Minister Manohar Parrikar on September 1. Sources said the progress in talks between both sides was "satisfactory".

"The negotiations are on the right track. The DAC was briefed about it, and they gave the go ahead," an official had told IANS, not wanting to be identified.

The Rafale had, in January 2012 emerged the winner of an IAF tender for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft beating out five other contenders in a bruising competition that began in August 2007 with the floating of a request for proposal (RfP).

Days after the announcement that India was purchasing the 36 Rafale, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar admitted that the tender for 126 air craft was "effectively dead".

Given this scenario, and the fact that Air Chief Marshal Raha had expressed similar hope on October 3, informed sources said it would be a touch-and-go affair if at all the deal for the 36 planes was to be inked by year-end.

The IAF chief was in Hasimara, around 15 km from India-Bhutan border a crucial air base in India's eastern sector for the presentation of standards by President Pranab Mukherjee to two squadrons.

The base has two squadrons of Mig 27s, which are likely to be phased out in the next few years.

According to sources, at least one of the Rafale squadrons is expected to be based here.

At an interaction with journalists earlier, Raha said that Rafale was one of the replacements for the Migs being phased out.

"The Mig 27, the ones which have not been upgraded, are going to retire in next 2-3 years. We have a roadmap for replacements," he said.

"Rafale is on the table. There are Su30 MKIs, the ones being made in India, and the LCA," he said.

The Indian Air Force is expected to be down to 32 squadrons by the end of this year - 576 fighter jets - and way below the 750-strong fleet required as per the IAF vision document, in case of a two-front war with Pakistan and China.

At least three squadrons of the vintage Soviet Union-origin MiG-21 and MiG-27 single engine aircraft are scheduled to be phased out, officially by the year-end.

The IAF currently has 33 combat squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 39.5, which is sought to be raised to 42.

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