PARIS: Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi said on Friday he had ordered 36 “ready-to-fly” French-made Rafale fighter jets to modernise his country's ageing warplane fleet as neighbouring states upgraded their military hardware.
Indian military officials have warned that their air force risks a major capability gap opening up with China and Pakistan without new western warplanes or if local defence contractors cannot produce what the military needs in a timely manner.
“I have asked President (Francois Hollande) to supply 36 ready-to-fly Rafale jets to India,” Modi said at a news conference on the first day of a state visit to France.
“Our civil servants will discuss (terms and conditions) in more detail and continue the negotiations,” he said, speaking in Hindi through an interpreter.
The deal, another boost for French manufacturer Dassault Aviation after it sealed its long-awaited first export deal to Egypt in February, could be worth about 4 billion euros.
President Hollande said Defence Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian would travel to India soon to finalise the deal. India and France have already been in exclusive negotiations for three years. The value of a larger 126-plane deal being negotiated is estimated to have grown to about $20 billion from an initial $12 billion, primarily because of an Indian requirement that 108 of the jets be built in the country.
A French defence ministry source said the deal announced on Friday was separate from the original negotiations and came about after new Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar indicated the country's urgent requirements. “We informed them we were ready to respond to their operational needs separate from the tender under discussion for three years,” the source said.
India's military has said it needs to start replacing its ageing jet fleet from 2017.
“There was a real operational need because India needs combat jets because a certain number of countries have been equipping themselves, so there was a desire to speed up the process,” Dassault Chief Executive Eric Trappier told Europe 1 radio.
The country already has previous ties with Dassault, having bought Mirage 2000 fighter jets. In March, Dassault delivered two modernised Mirage jets to India.
Analysts say Dassault's deal with Egypt may have helped break the logjam in negotiations with other customers, since they are now on notice that if they want to have Rafales they may have to wait for them.
Once persona non grata in Europe, Indian Premier Narendra Modi was welcomed with open arms in Paris on Friday as he kicks off his maiden visit to the continent to woo investors to his fast-growing economy.
'Jobs for the young'
“It's not a coincidence that France is the first country that I am visiting as part of my first official trip to Europe,” Modi told French daily Le Figaro before his arrival, pointing to cooperation in a number of sectors such as space, nuclear energy and defence.
“Just like in the nuclear sector, defence cooperation is a key part of our traditional ties with France,” he added.
French nuclear giant Areva is still awaiting the go-ahead to install six reactors in India's western state of Maharashtra, five years after a bilateral civil nuclear accord.
A French diplomatic source said agreements would be signed in the “renewable energy, sustainable cities, transport and cultural sectors”.
After a two-day whistle-stop tour that will take him from northern to southern France — with a short breather to take in the Paris sights on a river boat — Modi will jet off to Germany. He will end his trip further afield in Canada, home to a large Indian diaspora.