France Makes Big Move To Win IAF’s $20B Deal; Experts Say MRO Facility For Rafale Fighters A Hint To India

Besides securing Indian airspace against adversaries, the Rafale fighter jets may bolster the country’s ‘Make in India’ or ‘Atmanirbhar’ strategy of local defense manufacturing. Dassault Aviation has unveiled plans to set up a new maintenance and overhaul facility in India, a move that could be aimed at securing a multi-billion MMRCA contract.

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Reports in Indian media on July 2 stated that Dassault Aviation was in the process of purchasing land close to Jewar International Airport near the Indian capital, Delhi, to establish a Maintenance, Repair, and Overhaul (MRO) facility for India’s Mirage 2000 and Rafale fighter jets, the cornerstones of the Indian Air Force.

Further, citing some unknown sources acquainted with the situation, the reports mentioned that the facility would likely open the doors for local production of the latest Rafale variants to meet the Indian Air Force’s (IAF’s) long-term requirement of 100 twin-engine multi-role fighters over the next 20 years.

According to some reports, local manufacturing could enable India to produce the Rafale domestically and sell it to international customers.

Under the “Make in India” campaign, Dassault Aviation and the Emmanuel Macron-led French administration have pledged to produce Rafale fighters in India despite the recent political upheavals in France. This also involves satisfying the IAF’s requirement by using locally supplied components. However, EurAsian Times understands that the French manufacturer has only agreed on the MRO facility for now.

During Aero India 2019, Dassault Aviation CEO Eric Trappier said that the company could neither establish a production line nor produce Rafale parts in India with the present order of 36 aircraft. He stated that an order for at least 100 Rafale fighters could lead to the setting up of a production line in India.

Dassault’s acquisition of land for setting up an MRO dedicated to its French fighters is significant as it comes at a time when engine manufacturer Safran SA is constructing an MRO facility in Hyderabad—next to its LEAP engine plant for civilian aircraft—to service Rafale fighter engines, should there be sufficient supply. This facility is expected to be operational by 2025.

Sources accessed by The Hindustan Times have also reportedly hinted that Safran has shown its willingness to produce the M-88 engines in India if the Indian Air Force placed a Rafale order. EurAsian Times could not independently verify these claims.

The announcement by Dassault Aviation comes ahead of a key agreement for India’s purchase of Rafale-Marine jets for operations aboard its latest and indigenously-built aircraft carrier, Vikrant.

Based on interoperability with the Indian Air Force’s fleet, Dassault Aviation’s Rafale-M (Marine) edged out Boeing’s F/A-18 E/F Super Hornets.

As previously reported by the EurAsian Times, the discussions surrounding an impending agreement, which includes an intergovernmental pact for India to buy 22 single-seat and four dual-seat marine combat aircraft from France’s Dassault Aviation, have picked up pace. It would be India’s second acquisition of Rafales. Dassault has already delivered all 36 aircraft ordered by India for the IAF.

In addition, India is also looking to buy a fighter aircraft under its Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program. Rafale fighters are key contenders for the IAF deal, which means that the stakes for the French aircraft are high in the Indian market.

When asked whether Dassault Aviation and the French authorities are eyeing the contract, Indian Air Force veteran Air Marshal Anil Chopra (retd) told EurAsian Times, “If India insists on Make in India for the MRFA contract, they will have to set up production in the country. Also, this could be a way of hinting that if India selects the Rafale-M aircraft, they should also go for the Rafale for their MRFA requirement.”

Needless to say, any acquisition under MRFA would be separate from the purchase of 26 Rafale Marines for the Indian Navy.

The IAF’s tender for the acquisition of Multi-Role Fighter Aircraft (MRFA) is still ongoing, even though the Indian government has been emphasizing ‘Make in India’ and is yet to accept Acceptance of Necessity for the acquisition.

Another Indian Air Force veteran, Air Commodore S.P. Singh, said, “The lure of MRFA mega-deal has made not only France but also tech giant US to offer manufacturing in India along with Technology Transfer.”

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However, at this point, this is purely speculative in the absence of any clear communication by Dassault Aviation. Additionally, there are other major contenders in the fray, including Boeing’s Super Hornet F/A-18, SAAB’s Gripen, Lockheed Martin’s F-21, Russian MiG-35, and the Eurofighter Typhoon.

India has yet to finalize a deal. However, it insists it will buy 114 multi-role fighters only from a vendor ready to produce the aircraft in India with a local partner and provide a complete technology transfer. The Indian government anticipates floating a new tender with these conditions soon.

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The US defense firm Lockheed Martin is planning to establish an assembly line in India to produce the C-130 J Super Hercules special operations aircraft. The Indian Air Force is seeking to replace its fleet of Russian An-32 cargo aircraft. The IAF operates about 100 aircraft, which will complete 44 years of service in 2031-32, when they will be phased out.

As reported by  EurAsian Times, the other companies in the fray are Brazilian firm Embraer Defense & Security, which joined hands with Indian firm Mahindra in February to manufacture the C-390 Millennium multi-mission aircraft in India. European Airbus Defense and Space, with its A-400 M aircraft, is also in contention.

Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules - Wikipedia
Lockheed Martin C-130J Super Hercules – Wikipedia

Anthony G Frese, Vice President of Business Development (air mobility and maritime missions) at Lockheed Martin, said that the American firm was considering setting up an assembly line for the C-130 J in India. “The MTA (Multi-role Transport Aircraft) competition provides us a significant opportunity to meet IAF’s tactical airlift requirements. We are exploring options for setting up an assembly line for the C-130J in India,” Frese told HT.

Earlier, another defense manufacturer, Airbus, entered into a joint venture with Indian company TATA to deliver C295 aircraft to India. In September 2021, India finalized the procurement of 56 Airbus C295 planes. Airbus will deliver the initial 16 aircraft in ‘fly-away’ condition from its Seville final assembly line by 2025, while Tata in Vadodara, India, will manage the manufacturing and assembly of the subsequent 40 aircraft.

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A Final Assembly Line (FAL) is currently under construction in Vadodara to produce 40 of the 56 C295s ordered by the Indian Air Force (IAF).

Lockheed had also previously partnered with TATA to start production of F-16 wings in India for export.

The proponents of the ‘Make in India’ initiative believe that if Dassault Aviation sets up a local manufacturing unit in India, it would be a win-win situation for both parties as Dassault already has over 300 fighter orders from countries including Croatia, Greece, Serbia, Egypt, Qatar, the United Arab Emirates, and Indonesia with more sales under negotiations.