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India Signs $8.7B Deal With France for 36 Fighter Jets

FILE - A Rafale fighter jet is seen during a demonstration flight at the Paris Air Show, in Le Bourget, north of Paris, June 19, 2015. India on Friday signed a $8.7 billion deal with France to buy 36 of them.

India, which has emerged as the world's largest arms importer in the last five years, signed an $8.7 billion deal to buy 36 fighter jets from France - one of the biggest defense deals in recent years.

The high-tech Rafale jets will modernize the air force of the South Asian country that faces rivals Pakistan in the west and China in the north and east.

Indian Defense Minister Manohar Parrikar and his French counterpart Jean Yves Le Drian signed the pact on Friday in New Delhi.

Parrikar tweeted that “Rafale (jets) will significantly improve India's strike & defense capabilities.”

Aging fleet

The first of the jets will arrive in 2019 and all 36 will be delivered in six years. India’s air force has been in urgent need of an overhaul as its aging Russian-made fleet of MiG-21s has been dwindling.

Pointing out that the jets in India’s air force date back to the 1970s and 1980s, defense analyst Gulshan Luthra in New Delhi says “this gives them (the air force) a cutting edge technology, and although the number of aircraft is small, it will be their spearhead.”

The deal with France went through several ups and downs. While New Delhi decided to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets in 2012, it later scaled down its initial plans to acquire only 36, apparently because the jets were too expensive.

But although the Rafales will help plug the gap in the air force capabilities, the air force will still not match China’s, says Luthra. “With China we are very weak, because China has been doing a lot of military buildup. We don’t have the kind of capability,” he points out.

Seeking to boost regional status

India is in the midst of a major modernization of equipment for its armed forces, partly with an eye on China and partly due to its ambitions to be counted as a major regional or even global power.

Defense experts estimate that India will spend nearly $100 billion over the next decade on buying new weapons systems.

According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, India accounted for 14 percent of the total global arms imports between 2011 and 2015 - three times greater than that of its rivals China and Pakistan.

India’s huge arms imports are partly due to its failure to build a local industry to produce weapons. “Unfortunately we do not make critical technologies in India” says Luthra.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi hopes to increase domestic production of defense equipment under a "Make in India" program, but that could take years.

India’s biggest military suppliers are the United States, Russia, France and Israel.

While many of the deals involve joint production, India decided to buy the jets outright because the needs of the air force were seen as urgent.