France-made Dassault Rafale inched closer to clinching a $15 billion Indian Air Force contest for 126 fighter jets, edging past rival Eurofighter Typhoon, even as experts suggested an official deal was significantly far from being inked.
The Rafele emerged as the preferred bidder after bidding process was completed, government sources said Tuesday, and the final contract is expected to be signed in the next financial year that begins in March.
According to reports, while the first 18 aircraft are expected to be bought off the shelf, the rest 108 will be built by state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. through technology transfers, the royalties for which are among the details being worked out by defence ministry experts.
The French aircraft, was among the six contenders, including the Russian MiG- 35, Lockheed Martin´s F-16 Falcon, Boeing´s F-18 Hornet, the Swedish Saab Gripen, Eurofighter Typhoon, that were vying for what was touted as the the world´s biggest defence deal.
Following initial rounds, the Germany, Spain, Italy and United Kingdom-backed Typhoon and the Rafale were in the last lap for the Indian Air Force's (IAF) tender for a medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA).
The Indian Defence Ministry on Nov 4, 2011 had opened the commercial bids of the two aircrafts that were left, sparking the quest to evaluate the lowest bidder, after having rejected the other planes as they didn´t meet the technical qualifications, media reports said.
The deal comes as shot in the arm for the Dassault fighter jet that has been trying for years to land an export deal and risked being grounded after French Defence Minister Gerard Longuet last month expressed concerns over the lack pf foreign buyers.
The multi-role Rafale, billed as one of the most effective fighters in the world but also one of the most expensive, has been in service for the French Air Force since 2006, has performed air support roles in Afghanistan since 2007 and was part of NATO's 2011 Libya campaign.
French President Nicolas Sarkozy welcomed India´s decision to enter exclusive talks with supplier Dassault Aviation and promised to provide significant technology transfer to address India's needs.
"The realisation of the Rafale project shows the depth and breadth of the strategic partnership between France and India," Sarkozy said in a statement, even as French officials avoided declaring outright victory.
Several defence ministry sources echoed Defence Minister A.K. Antony, who had said earlier no deal would be signed before the end of March, saying that the process was a long drawn out one and needed approvals at multiple levels.
Government sources also said that the life-time cost of the tender including training and maintenance could reach $15 billion, beating previous estimates of around $11 billion, even though each aircraft cost about $5 million less per plane than the Typhoon.
Air Force brass have also shown a lean towards the Rafale, as it is already familiar with the French-made Mirage fighter which had also landed Dassault a $1.4 billion contract last year for upgrades, they said.