While many issues of common interest and concern to both countries were discussed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to India, it was clear from the outset that the primary focus would be on one over-arching background theme: India’s acquisition of the Dassault Rafale fighter jet the future medium multi-role combat aircraft for the gravely fighter-impoverished and equipment-undernourished Indian Air Force, desperately seeking a replacement for its aged MiG-21 fleet. It is with this in mind that soon after assuming office, one of the earliest decisive steps taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to cut the Gordian knot and finalise the acquisition of an initial batch of 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force through direct negotiations with Dassault Aircraft Corporation. The PM himself pushed the deal through, seemingly oblivious of its tortured historical background. The case for early acquisition of such an aircraft had been dragging on since 2008, and the almost peremptory decision to acquire the Rafale was a bold, perhaps even reckless step, given the fraught, bitterly adversarial political environment in India.
The Russian MiG-21 was a sturdy, faithful warhorse which had seen the Indian Air Force through the Bangladesh war of 1971 and the Kargil conflict of 1999. But it had aged much beyond its service life, and was now regarded as a totally unforgiving “widow maker” for its tragic record of fatal accidents. The Indian Air Force had long decided that the MiG-21 had to be replaced at the earliest. The process to select such an aircraft was begun by a team of test pilots of the Indian Air Force (and there are none better in the world) who flight-tested and technically evaluated six competing aircraft which had been lined up behind the starter’s tapes for the Indian Air Force sweepstakes. The participants were the Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG-35, the Dasault Rafale from France, the Saab Viggen from Sweden and the F-16 Block-D Viper and F-18 from the United States, and the trophy was the glittering $10 billion MMRCA (Medium-Multi Role Combat Aircraft) deal. Extensive flight testing and technical evaluations were conducted under the severe summer and winter operational conditions prevalent in the Indian environment. Two aircraft emerged as the winner and runner-up respectively — the Rafale, which was in service only in the “Armee de l’aire”, the official designation of the French Air Force; and the Eurofighter Typhoon, designed as a common fighter aircraft for Nato.