Reports: India selects Rafale as next fighter

France's flagship wins India's competition, beating Lockheed, Boeing and others -- but the deal isn't quite closed yet.

Indian defence officials have picked France’s Dassault Rafale as the winner of their big fighter competition, according to reports Tuesday, although as always with this story, the aero-world waited to see how everything would actually play out.

The Rafale was apparently the lowest-cost option in India’s medium, multi-role combat aircraft competition, though there were no solid numbers and Dassault company officials reportedly said they still had more negotiations scheduled with India’s military. The French jet beat the Eurofighter Typhoon in the final elimination round, and before that Lockheed’s F-16; Boeing’s F/A-18; Saab’s Gripen; and Russia’s MiG 35. You may be asking yourself: Can the Rafale really be cheaper than a Viper or a Superbug, given the sheer numbers of airplanes that Lockheed and Boeing produce?

UPDATE: As commenter Common Sense points out below, this isn’t the right way to think about it: Indian officials made their decision based upon the cheaper option among their shortlisted airplanes, not the whole field. So yes a Superbug might be cheaper than a Rafale, but that wasn’t the matchup here.

At any rate, as Flight’s Craig Hoyle writes, Indian officials don’t think they’ll actually lock in a deal before April, and Dassault has ostensibly made these foreign sales before, to Brazil and the United Arab Emirates, yet never finally sewn up the deals. Steve Trimble puts it less delicately:

Please ignore, for the moment, the sound of Veuve Clicquot corks popping all over Bordeaux-Merignac. We’ve been down this runway before with the Rafale. The French have demonstrated a knack for fumbling away deals even after they seemed to eliminate all of the competition (cough-Morocco, cough-cough Brazil, cough-cough-cough United Arab Emirates).

That’s a lot of coughing. And as we’ve seen at every turn in this India story, aero-observers always hedge and make clear that things tend not to be straightforward in big India competitions. People expected the competition to fall apart after it had been narrowed down to Rafale v. Typhoon, and that skepticism apparently is still in effect.

Still, if everything holds, “Europe will continue to build three different fighters through the end of this decade, as well as begin to absorb the first F-35s,” Trimble wrote. “Now who’d have ever thunk that?”

Who indeed — and a lot has to hold for that to come true. Still, it speaks to the worry in European governments and defence circles that the Continent has built its last combat aircraft. At least eight more years of active production gives time for economies to heal, requirements to change and may preserve enough industry and know-how for yet another generation of new airplanes. Possibly.