India's 31 January selection of the Dassault Rafale for its more than $10 billion medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) requirement launches the next stage in a tortuous competition that had its origins a decade ago, when the Indian air force favoured the French company's Mirage 2000-5 fighter.
The Rafale (below) and Eurofighter Typhoon had been in contention for the 126-aircraft deal since April 2011, when a downselect decision eliminated previous rivals the Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Lockheed Martin F-16 Block 60; RSK MiG-35; and Saab Gripen NG.
If exclusive negotiations with Dassault prove successful, the Indian air force will receive 18 Rafales delivered by the company in fly-away condition, with the remaining 108 to be produced in India by Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). India requires offsets valuing 50% of the total MMRCA price tag as part of the acquisition.
India's initial tender for the MMRCA capability stipulated 660 requirements, and the first proposals issued by the airframers ran to 5,000-6,000 pages each. Comprehensive field tests of each aircraft were then undertaken, including flying the aircraft - borrowed from various air forces - to India at the manufacturers' expense.
There they were subjected to batteries of tests reflecting India's varied geography. Flights were conducted from Bengaluru in tropical conditions, over the desert of Jaisalmer and at Leh in the Himalayas, said to be the highest operational air base in the world.
"We spent quite a lot on the tests with no guarantee of a sale," said an executive involved in the race. "That said, the air force got a very good impression of all the aircraft."
The downselect decision was not without controversy. One of the original stipulations of the tender, for example, was an operational active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar. At the time of the tests, only the F-16 and Super Hornet had operational AESA sets.
US industry sources hinted that bitter memories of arms sanctions in the 1990s prompted New Delhi to eliminate both American fighters.
Once acquired, the Indian air force's new MMRCA fleet will replace its aged RSK MiG-21 interceptors, which have become the subject of national scrutiny because of a high accident rate involving the type. The incoming model will join a growing combat inventory of Sukhoi and HAL-built Su-30s, plus upgraded Dassault Mirage 2000s, Sepecat/HAL Jaguars and Aeronautical Development Agency Tejas light combat aircraft. Other assets include MiG-23, -27 and -29 strike aircraft.
Although New Delhi's move to start negotiations with Dassault stems from the Rafale beating the Typhoon on price, the French type also performed well during NATO- and US-led operations over Libya during 2011, including flights performed with M-model aircraft from the deck of the aircraft carrier the Charles de Gaulle.
Additional reporting by Craig Hoyle in London