France tries to prevent collapse of fighter jet sale to India

An Indian committee that is looking into the deal has reportedly found that it was not the cheapest option.

A French Rafale jet made by Dassault performs during the “Aero India-2015” showcase at the Yelahanka airbase in Bangalore, India on February 19, 2015. Jagadeesh NV/EPA
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NEW DELHI // France’s defence minister will visit New Delhi this week in a fresh bid to secure a troubled deal to sell 126 Rafale fighter jets after a three-year delay and new questions about its cost.

Jean-Yves Le Drian will meet his counterpart Manohar Parrikar and other officials on Monday and Tuesday to prevent the sale’s collapse ahead of an upcoming visit to Paris by India’s prime minister Narendra Modi.

French company Dassault Aviation won the right in January 2012 to enter exclusive negotiations with India to supply 126 Rafale fighters, with experts saying a final deal could be worth US$12 billion (Dh44.1bn).

The idea is for Dassault to supply 18 of the twin-engine fighters later this year while the remaining 108 would be made by state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd under technology transfer agreements with India.

But negotiations have proved fraught, both under Mr Modi’s government and its Congress predecessor, while a committee which is looking into the deal has reportedly found that it was not the cheapest option.

France’s defence ministry has said the visit will give the governments a chance to discuss “international affairs and defence industry issues”, but there is little doubt that Rafale will dominate proceedings.

Mr Le Drian’s visit comes barely two months after he also came to India for talks with Mr Parrikar when they both agreed to push on with negotiations.

Prime minister Modi’s right-wing government, which swept to power last May, has been blowing hot and cold about the progress of discussions.

A defence ministry spokesman said during Mr Le Drian’s last visit in December that outstanding differences “would be resolved in a fast-track manner”.

But the government has also commissioned a report about the project’s costs, adding yet more uncertainty.

Mr Parrikar said last week that he expected the contract negotiation committee (CNC) to submit its report within weeks.

“I have asked the CNC to speed up the process of completion of the report for us to take a decision on the acquisition of Rafale,” he said.

India's Business Standard newspaper reported earlier this month that the committee had found the Rafale proposal was in fact more expensive than a rival one put forward by Eurofighter for its Typhoon jets.

The paper quoted defence ministry sources as saying the Rafale deal was “effectively dead” although the Indian top brass is still publicly backing it.

One of the main sticking points has been over who should carry the responsibility for any problems with the 108 planes that would be made in India, with the government in Delhi wanting guarantees from Dassault – something that the French company has balked out.

* Agence France-Presse