New Delhi: India signed a deal Friday to buy 36 Rafale fighter jets for 7.9 billion euros ($8.8 billion), France’s biggest ever such sale, as it seeks to bolster its military against an increasingly assertive China.
Defence experts say the aircraft, manufactured by France’s Dassault, will bring a much needed boost to India’s air force as it struggles to renew its Soviet-era military hardware.
India, the world’s top defence importer, is conducting a $100-billion upgrade of its military hardware, facing border disputes with its northern and western neighbours, China and Pakistan.
“Rafale will significantly improve India’s strike & defence capabilities,” tweeted India’s Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar shortly after signing the deal with his French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian.
Friday’s agreement follows years of tortuous negotiations and represents a substantial reduction from the 126 planes originally mooted.
But it is still France’s biggest ever aviation defence deal in financial terms and was hailed as a vote of confidence by French President Francois Hollande, whose administration has lobbied heavily for the Rafale.
“The agreement… is a mark of the recognition by a major military power of the operational performance, the technical quality and the competitiveness of the French aviation industry,” he said in a statement.
It is the biggest order for the Rafale after Egypt agreed to buy 24 of the jets in 2015 and Qatar purchased the same amount later that year.
– ‘Flying coffins’ -The highly versatile aircraft is currently being used for bombing missions over Syria and Iraq as part of an international campaign against the self-styled Islamic State jihadist group.
It has also been deployed in the past for air strikes in Libya and Afghanistan.
The first planes will be delivered in 2019 and the 36 jets will form two new squadrons of the Indian airforce, which is trying to renew its dwindling fleet of Russian MiG-21s — dubbed “Flying Coffins” because of their poor safety record.
The air force currently has around 32 squadrons, each comprising 18 aircraft, but has said it needs at least 42 to protect its northern and western borders with Pakistan and China.
India has signed a number of major defence deals since Hindu nationalist Prime Minister Narendra Modi took power in 2014.
The Rafale purchase was first mooted under the previous administration in 2012, but faced major delays and obstacles over the last four years.
India entered exclusive negotiations on buying 126 Rafale jets four years ago, but the number of planes was scaled back in talks over the cost and assembly of the planes in India.
Modi announced on a visit to Paris last year that his government had agreed in principle to buy the jets as India looks to modernise its Soviet-era military.
But it continued to be held back by disagreements such as Delhi’s insistence that arms makers invest a percentage of the value of any major deal in India, known as the offset clause.
Hollande again pushed the deal on a visit to India in January, when he was Modi’s guest for Republic Day celebrations, but officials privately acknowledged that price had become a sticking point.