India will buy 36 Rafale fighter jets from France in an effort to modernise its air force and build up its defence capabilities to cope with growing threats in a difficult neighbourhood.
Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his visiting French counterpart, Mr Jean-Yves Le Drian, yesterday signed the deal - worth around €7.87 billion (S$12 billion) - for the medium multi-role combat aircraft. The planes will be inducted into the Indian Air Force between 2019 and 2023.
The 36 Rafales, manufactured by Dassault Aviation, could be used to deliver nuclear weapons, according to some reports in the Indian media.
"Rafale will significantly improve India's strike and defence capabilities," tweeted Mr Parrikar, who also called it a "potent weapon".
India has been trying to modernise its armed forces with equipment from foreign countries. It is also trying to boost defence manufacturing in India against the backdrop of the growing assertiveness of China in the region and tense ties with Pakistan.
The Rafales, which are being used by France for missions in Syria and Iraq and can fly up to 3,800km, are much needed by the Indian Air Force, experts said.
"It will add to the firepower. It brings in capabilities which the air force has been asking for in terms of range and weapons and the avionics it can carry," said Air Vice-Marshal (Ret) Manmohan Bahadur, a distinguished fellow at the Centre for Air Power Studies.
"We have got heavy-class fighter jets and light class. This comes under the medium category," he added. "It is a very modern fighter."
The deal caps nearly a decade- long process that started out as a proposal for 126 fighter jets, but that number was reduced over price considerations and a push to boost the domestic defence sector.
In July, for instance, the Indian Air Force inducted the first two of 100 homemade and designed Light Combat aircraft called the Tejas, which will be put in service over the next 13 years. The single- engine and tail-less jet will be deployed to guard the border areas by next year.
Since coming to power in 2014, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has increased foreign direct investment in defence by allowing foreign companies to own as much as 100 per cent equity in that sector.
Under the agreement, India also has the option of acquiring 18 more Rafales, which come with a Beyond Visual Range Meteor missile with a range of over 150km. The agreement includes spare parts, maintenance and support.
The Indian Air Force is in dire need of replacements for ageing jets like the Russian-made MiG-21s, which have such a poor safety record that they have come to be known as "flying coffins". It also has to increase the number of squadrons it needs to protect India's borders from 33 to 42.
Each squadron has 18 aircraft, and 10 of the existing 33 squadrons consist of MiG-21s, which the air force is phasing out.
Senior air force officials have gone on record to say that India does not have the adequate jet numbers to undertake an air campaign in case of a war on two fronts.
Some experts believe India needs to move away from importing its weaponry and start building jets such as the Tejas domestically.
"The state of the Indian Air Force is that it is basically an import-dependent air force," said Professor Bharat Karnad of the New Delhi- based Centre for Policy Research.
"We have to get on with building domestically. We have the capabilities," he added.