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The Indian Air Force’s (IAF) long-pending requirement for 114 multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA) seems to be nearing a resolution, with Dassault Aviation, France’s principal combat aircraft manufacturer, emerging as a strong contender. Recent developments and growing ties between India and Dassault have positioned the Rafale as a potential choice for the IAF’s MRFA.

The journey towards potentially selecting the Rafale as the MRFA for the IAF is an interesting one, with historical connections. The IAF had originally planned to procure 126 Rafales in 2007-08, but the tender was eventually scrapped in 2015 due to various challenges. However, the IAF went ahead with the purchase of 36 Rafales in 2016, a decision that proved to be crucial for the aircraft’s future in India.

The Indian Navy (IN) also evaluated the Rafale for its carrier-borne fighter requirements and subsequently chose it for deployment aboard INS Vikrant. This decision further strengthened the Rafale’s position in India, given its “commonality” with the IAF’s existing Rafales.

With the IN ordering 26 Rafale-M fighters for deployment on its aircraft carrier, the total inventory of Rafale variants in India will reach 62. Military veterans and industry officials suggest that increasing this number further to meet the IAF’s requirement for 114 MRFA would make operational, commercial, and logistical sense. This move would expedite the fighter inductions, reduce costs through an existing maintenance and overhaul facility at Ambala Air Force Station, and streamline the IAF’s fighter fleet, which currently features seven different aircraft types.

To bolster its chances of securing the MRFA deal, Dassault is reportedly in advanced negotiations to acquire a majority stake in its joint venture with Anil Ambani’s Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL) in Nagpur. This acquisition would enhance Dassault’s position and contribute to meeting the offset obligations for the MRFA procurement.

While the MRFA tender is expected soon, Dassault Rafale appears to have an advantage over other contenders. The ongoing conflict in Ukraine has raised concerns about evaluating Russian fighter types, and other options present logistical challenges or have been previously rejected by the IAF.

The Rafale’s operational superiority, acknowledged by both the IAF and IN, positions it favorably, along with the familiarity gained from the existing fleet. Additionally, resolving earlier glitches in the MMRCA contract template, which had led to the deal-breaker for the 126 Rafales, could facilitate a smoother MRFA purchase process.

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