NEW DELHI // India's purchase of 126 French-made fighter jets in a deal worth $US10.6 billion (Dh38.2bn) reflects its growing concern with cross-border threats from China and Pakistan as well western pressure to police Asia's contested sea lanes.
The French company Dassault Rafale beat the last of its competitors, Eurofighter, to win the contract on Tuesday.
"India's grand strategy is the socio-economic advancement of its people, but if India is to be allowed to grow, we must have sufficient capability to deter our adversaries," said Kapil Kak, a retired air vice-marshal with the Centre for Air Power Studies in New Delhi. "Air power is the best way of doing that."
India has become the world's biggest arms importer as an economic boom has allowed it to push modernisation of its military, and it is being wooed by major international arms manufacturers as it replaces its obsolete Soviet-era weapons and buys new equipment. India is expected to spend around $100bn on bolstering its air defences over the next decade.
Border disputes with Pakistan and China have led to four major conflicts with India in the past 60 years. The US has also identified India as a long-term strategic partner that can serve as a regional economic anchor and provider of security in the Indian Ocean region.
"Western powers are depending on India to perform the role of stabiliser in a critical part of the world," said Mr Kak. "Protecting the global commons - like sea lanes - is part of the big-ticket stuff that India will get sucked into."
The original $10.6bn price tag for the fighter jets, set in 2007, is expected to double once inflation and the falling value of the rupee are taken into account. The Indian Air Force also has the option to buy another 75 to 80 Rafales, which would add several billion more dollars to the bill.
The Rafale was chosen primarily on price, with unconfirmed reports saying each unit came in at $5 million less than the Eurofighter. A long-standing relationship with the French, who have already sold India 51 Dassault Mirage 2000H fighters, was also seen as a factor.
With a fleet that contains everything from air-to-air combat fighters, such as the Sukhoi Su-30 and the lighter aircraft Tejas, there have been concerns about the cost of maintaining so many different fighter aircraft.
But the medium-sized Rafale, with its superior air-to-sea strike capabilities, is seen as vital to protecting shipping lanes off Asia.
The Rafale is able to refuel mid-air, giving it a strike range over 2,000 kilometres offshore. It can also be launched from aircraft carriers - seen as a significant advantage over the Eurofighter.
India's defence industry will also benefit from "offset" clauses in the contract that favour Indian companies - helping to modernise domestic production lines.
Analysts, however, cautioned that the deal could yet unravel over details as both sides pore over the fine print on pricing.
James Hardy, Asia Pacific Specialist at IHS Jane's Defence Weekly, said financial pressures on India's government could seriously complicate the chances of a contract being signed any time soon. "That, and the standard contractual wrangling that occurs during Indian procurement deals could cause delays stretching to years," he said.
* With additional reports from the Associated Press