France plans to sell four Rafale-M to India, slashing Charles de Gaulle’s carrier air fleet

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Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P Chacko
Joseph P. Chacko is the publisher of Frontier India. He holds an M.B.A in International Business. Books: Author: Foxtrot to Arihant: The Story of Indian Navy's Submarine Arm; Co Author : Warring Navies - India and Pakistan. *views are Personal

The Indian Prime Minister is expected to visit France, which is determined to focus on the ongoing major combat aircraft contracts. It includes the 114 Rafale for the Air Force’s MMRCA 2.0 deal and up to 57 Rafale for the Navy, divided into two batches, 26 and 31, for the two aircraft carriers, INS Vikrant and INS Vikramaditya. To cope with the rise of China in the Indo-Pacific, Delhi is in a race with Beijing, which is building its third aircraft carrier.

As per the French news outlet La Tribune, France is considering the sale of four used Rafale Marines to India. The Indian Navy is looking to arm its first “Made in India” aircraft carrier, the 262 m INS Vikrant, scheduled for commissioning in 2023. In January, the Rafale-M carried out trials in Goa on a shore-based test facility as part of the tender. The French Navy was able to demonstrate all its expertise in naval aviation and convinced the Indians of the performance of the Rafale Marine, says the newspaper. Earlier, Frontier India reported that India might lease Rafale-M from France.

India has launched the MRCBF [Multi Role Carrier Borne Fighters] program to acquire between 26 and 57 aircraft carrier capable combat aircraft that can operate both from an aircraft carrier in STOBAR configuration [with Skijump] and CATOBAR [with catapults and arresters]. 

Dassault competes with Boeing’s F-18 Super Hornet. F-18 began testing for Ski Jump operations in December 2021. It was discontinued due to logistical setbacks and is scheduled to resume in May in India. Boeing will have to show F-18s efficiency on take-off and landing and sneak into the elevators of the aircraft carrier. India could make its decision at the end of the year for 26 aircraft, including two two-seaters dedicated to training.

La Tribune, quoting an Indian media source, says Rafale-M is well suited for the INS Vikrant in size, while F-18 may not fit into the elevators without folding its wings. It adds that the four recently modernized planes could be quickly put into service on the Indian aircraft carrier.

Loss for Charles de Gaulle’s airwing

In July 2021, the Chief of Staff of the French Navy [Chef d’état-major de la Marine, CEMM], Admiral Pierre Vandier, said he fears a reduction in the number of Rafale M used by naval aviation by 2030/35. And this is for a simple reason these planes are older than those of the French Air Force and Space Force [Armée de l’Air et de l’Espace, AAE]. CEMM says the Rafale-M’s will logically be the first to be withdrawn from service, primarily due to the physical constraints when flying from the aircraft carrier Charles de Gaulle, as they generally tend to wear out more quickly. He said the French Navy has kept its planes since the beginning of its service and has had no new planes. All the upgrading of the Rafale-M fleet is carried out by retrofitting. 

But, the French Navy may lose 10% of the fleet even before 2035 as Paris now plans to sell four used planes of this type at the F3R standard to the Indian Navy to get an advantage over the American manufacturer Boeing, whose F/A-18 Super Hornet is yet to demonstrate its capabilities.

When the transfer to India happens, the French Naval Aviation will only have a smaller fleet to carry out the missions. Of the 42 Rafale-M it has, thirty-six are used by the 11F, 12F and 17F flotillas, three are assigned to the Rafale 3/4 Aquitaine transformation squadron, based in Saint-Dizier, and three others are in reserve for maintenance periods. Finally, one plane was given to the Directorate General of Armaments [DGA] for testing purposes. 

Given that 24 Rafale B and C were taken from the AAE fleet to fulfil orders placed by Greece and Croatia, the Rafale Marine could be put to use until new planes are delivered.

Having started receiving Rafale M F2s, the French Navy had retrofit the first ten F1 standard aircraft. The idea was to have a homogeneous fleet and “retrofit” these aircraft directly to the F3 standard. The retrofit of the F1 standard aircraft meant about 2,200 modifications were made to the Rafale M F1 to be then able to install standard F3 equipment. The aircraft thus modified were subsequently delivered to Flotilla 17F, which was then able to abandon its Super Étendard Modernisés [SEM]. By the end of the military programming law [LPM] 2019-25, the French Navy should have 42 Rafale M, all brought to the latest standard, F3R.


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