Since 2001 the Indian Air Force has been seeking 126 new jet fighters to fulfill the need for a MRCA or Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft. The initial foreign candidates were the French Rafale, the European Typhoon, the U.S. F-16V and F-18E, the Swedish JAS 39 NG and the Russian MiG-35. For a while the Indian-made Tejas was a contender, but soon fell out of the competition because the Indian Air Force and Navy openly criticized and rejected the Tejas for not being reliable and its promised improvements unlikely to materialize.
The selection process took over a decade and was not completed until 2012 with Rafale the winner. Rafale was built by Dassault, which also sold Mirage 2000 fighters to India in the 1990s and the Indian Air Force was quite pleased with them. Rafale was the clear favorite for Indian pilots and the Indian Air Force agreed. In 2016 India finally signed a contract for 36 Rafales plus an option to buy 18 more in three years. India would not commit to the purchase of 126 Rafale until two issues were resolved. One was Rafale’s rising price tag and the second was whether India would be able to produce the fighter domestically. India insists on co-production, with some Rafale component manufacturing done in India. France believed India overestimated its capabilities in handling some of the advanced technologies that go into Rafale.
India insisted that local manufacturers could handle that advanced tech and co-production is how you learn. At the same time India also wants France held responsible for the quality of items produced in India. These problems were resolved but details were not released. Eventually the details were released. Poor quality parts were a known problem with Russian aircraft components made in India. Russia demonstrated that the Indian parts for MiG-21s and Su-30s were often produced to the same quality and specifications of the Russian parts. When there were problems, it was the Indian parts that were not produced to specifications. Indian manufacturers were eager to work on Rafale and felt the French would be better teachers than the Russians. The delays in settling this were due to Indian politicians insisting that the French do the impossible. Political interference is still an issue, which is why France has only delivered 36 Rafales so far.
Another issue was Russia still seeking to grab the rest of the MRCA contract with a new entry; the Su-35. Russia initially offered the MiG-35. This is an upgraded version of the MiG-29, with thrust vectoring for higher maneuverability, along with improved electronics. Indian pilots tried out the MiG-35 and found problems, as did other countries Russia was trying to sell the MiG-35 to. The Su-35 was a clear improvement over the Su-30s India had long operated. So far only China and Egypt bought Su-35s, in each case 34 aircraft for each country. Potential export customers are increasingly backing away from Su-35 because of the growing list of sanctions against Russia for its 2014 attack on Ukraine. The recent Russian invasion of Ukraine increased those sanctions to the point where the Su-35 was not worth the trouble of buying and then trying to obtain spare parts, maintenance and upgrades from Russia. Su-35 entered service in 2014 and was successful in Syria. The Russians seem less willing to use the Su-35 much in Ukraine, where Russia does not have air supremacy and Ukrainian air defense and fighters are still operating.
Rafale has gained another ally in India because Rafale was built to operate from aircraft carriers and does so regularly from a French carrier as well as American carriers. India was unsatisfied with Russian carrier aircraft and has been looking for a replacement. The carrier version of Rafale is seen as an ideal solution to the Indian Navy’s needs and the navy wants 54 Rafales.
The politicians are still making demands on France that have nothing to do with the capabilities of Rafale and everything to do with scoring political points. This has long been a problem in India and in the last few years the government has finally resolved to solve the problem by putting more military people in the Defense Ministry, especially the procurement section. For decades these jobs were exclusively for politicians with military personnel excluded. That is gradually being changed and that may enable Rafale to fulfill the MRCA requirement as well as the needs of the Indian navy.