Sir Stephen Dalton, the U.K.’s chief of air staff, hurtled down the runway behind the controls of a Russian-designed Sukhoi-30 at the Kalaikunda air base in West Bengal. The deafening roar of the engines of the mainstay of the Indian air force swept over a small band of observers gathered just over a year ago in the rising tropical heat.
Minutes later, a Royal Air Force Eurofighter Typhoon built by a British, German, Italian and Spanish consortium took to the skies as part of a staged dogfight with India’s French Mirages and Russian aircraft, designed to impress officials seeking to modernize an aging fleet. Its near-vertical takeoff was met with awed admiration.
Within the sights of Sir Stephen, a veteran of the first Gulf war – as well as his political masters and hundreds of aerospace executives – was one of the world’s most sought-after jet fighter contracts. London, Paris and Washington were all vying to re-equip the world’s largest democracy with 126 fighters – about a 10th of the force – seeing it as a chance to put a seal on a defining bilateral relationship of the 21st century.
Worth up to $20-billion (U.S.), the deal to supply India – with its fast-growing economy and geopolitical status, and its concerns about the threat from Pakistan to the north and China to the east – offered a European defence establishment suffering shrinking military budgets back home the chance to reshape the industry landscape.
But the mock battle was the closest the Typhoon came to the target. New Delhi last week chose Dassault’s Rafale over the Eurofighter at the end of an 8-year competition. The significance of the agreement is being compared to that of the U.K.’s record al-Yamama deal with Saudi Arabia, signed in the 1980s. Optimists say it could be signed within eight months, joining a $9.3-billion agreement for France to supply India with two nuclear plants and another to build it a modern conventional submarine fleet worth $4-billion.
“This is a major win for France, and a major loss for the U.K. … French political backing has been essential in strengthening the French bid and the Rafale win is therefore also a major victory for President Nicolas Sarkozy,” says Endre Lunde, an aerospace and defence consultant at IHS Jane’s, a defence consultancy.
Rafale’s selection is a bitter disappointment for all four nations in the consortium, and highlights Indian doubts about a pan-European partnership at a time of financial and political strain on the continent.
It has a particular sting for David Cameron. The British Prime Minister identified the Indian market as one of the most important for Britain’s exporters – but this opening gambit to his premiership has shown scant return even though accompanied by £1-billion ($1.6-billion U.S.) of aid in the next four years.
The decision also deals a blow to Mr. Cameron’s attempt to style himself a champion of trade missions led by the private sector – unlike France’s dirigiste approach – and of Britain’s dwindling manufacturing base.
Eurofighter’s backers thought it the lead contender, bringing more advanced technology and strategic clout than the Rafale, which had not been sold outside France. Their confidence soared after U.S. rivals – Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Super Viper – were knocked out of the highly secretive medium multi-role combat aircraft contest last year.
In London and Berlin, contractors salivated at the idea of harnessing via industrial partnership a greater share of India’s $36-billion annual defence budget – one of the world’s largest, and probably a third of China’s. A big European purchase would shift India away from reliance on Russia and show the U.S. was not the only alternative as Delhi sought to rearm itself in light of mounting concerns about a more assertive Beijing.
The executives of the consortium partners were convinced Eurofighter offered a superior so-called “4th generation” aircraft suited to aerial combat and able to strike targets on the ground. They were also confident they had priced it competitively, in spite of some analysts’ claims that the Rafale was up to 10-per-cent cheaper.