New Delhi has moved its decade-long search for a next-generation combat aircraft to the final stage, and kept faith with Dassault. Closing the deal could transform Europe's fighter sector
India's prized medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal is there for France to lose, with its Dassault Rafale bid having smoked the rival Eurofighter Typhoon on one critical factor: price.
A European victory - potentially worth $20 billion - had been assured last April, when New Delhi rejected four other bidders. Reports since then had pegged the Rafale and Typhoon as running neck-and-neck, but all that changed on 31 January, when the former was confirmed as the lowest-cost compliant bidder for the 126-aircraft buy.
Questions remain as to the role played by the French government in ensuring that the Rafale International team could outbid its four-nation competitor and edge closer to securing its first export sale of the "omnirole" type. In an election year, this was a battle President Nicolas Sarkozy was determined to win. Equally, the Eurofighter consortium's third competitive defeat in little over a month will prompt further scrutiny of the Typhoon's prospects on the international stage.
The MMRCA contest has previously been described as a "must-win" opportunity, but while production of the Eurofighter is safe only until 2017 on current orders, further business is expected. Likewise, earlier contender Saab will also continue building its Gripen for some time yet, following its recent selection by Switzerland. That means all three European fighters will remain in production for several more years.
Boeing will do fine with its F-15 and Super Hornet lines, while Lockheed Martin will make do with potentially building more than 3,000 F-35s for the USA and its allies. Russia will also remain in the game with more RSK MiG-29, Sukhoi Su-30 and PAK-FA sales. Put simply, the global fighter sector will fly on.
What has really changed with the Indian decision is the dynamic in the fierce rivalry between the Rafale and Typhoon. Eurofighter's past dismissal of its peer as a sales flop will be turned on its head if Dassault clears negotiations with India. The deal would see it soar past the Typhoon's current export total of 87 aircraft for Austria and Saudi Arabia. With the possibility of also closing near-deals with Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, the French upstart could begin to draw on the nation's past global success with its Mirage line.
Cynics will point to Dassault's failure in converting past selections to contracts as offering hope yet for Eurofighter. But they should also consider its recent major Mirage 2000 upgrade deal with New Delhi, with whom the company has decades of business experience.
(This article appeared as the main leader in the 7 February issue of Flight International)