India Seeks to Integrate Indigenous Weapons Onto Rafale Fighters: A Path to Greater Missile Exports

The Indian Air Force is seeking to integrate indigenous missile classes onto its Rafale fighter aircraft acquired from France, with support from Dassault Aviation having been requested allow the aircraft to use both the Astra air to air missile and the Smart Anti Airfield Weapon (SAAW). A leading objective of this program is to then allow India to export both these weapons classes to other operators of the Rafale in particular the United Arab Emirates and Egypt which are the leading overseas clients for the aircraft. India has notably failed to attract foreign interest for its Tejas fighter jointly developed with Israel and the United States, which otherwise would have facilitate exports of these air launched weapons. The Rafale has failed to gain sales among developed economies and consistently lost contracts to the American F-35 and F-15, both of which are considered significantly more capable. The fighter has been relatively successful, however, competing for sales in countries which for political reasons are unable to acquire either F-35s or non-Western aircraft such as the Russian Su-35 or Chinese J-10C. The Indian Air Force itself fields 36 Rafale fighters, which are split between deployments in Haryana and West Bengal. 

India’s acquisition of Rafales has been highly controversial, with an original contract for 126 fighters having been abandoned leading Delhi to acquire 36 fighters for over $240 million per aircraft under a 2016 contract – over double toe price at which the United States has exported the F-35A. The deal sparked multiple corruption scandals within the country. The Rafale is nevertheless considered the second most capable fighter in the country’s fleet after the Su-30MKI, the last order for which was placed in 2020. Over 270 of the heavyweight Russian aircraft have been acquired, with these having advantages over the Rafale in almost all parameters from range, manoeuvrability, altitude ceiling and payload to their air to air and anti ship engagement ranges using missiles such as the R-37M and BrahMos. India’s most outstanding domestically produced missile class the BrahMos is notable too heavy to be employed by the lightweight Rafale. In seeking to modify its Rafales to carry indigenous weapons, the Indian Defence Ministry has significant leverage due to French aspirations to market the Rafale-M fighter for use in the Indian Navy for aircraft carrier operations. Preliminary agreements on the sale of the fighters have been signed, although acquisitions have not been finalised.