He has been facing a lot of flak for the acquisition of Rafale fighter jets in a fly-away condition. Yet, there are rational and logical reasons for this move
R Swaminathan | May 5, 2015
Prime minister Narendra Modi is getting a lot of stick for suddenly placing an order for 36 Rafale aircraft to be bought off the shelf in a direct deal with the French government. A lot of it may seem justified on the face of it. It flies against everything that Make in India stands for. The medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) deal was tightly tied in with the offsets part of the defence procurement policy (DPP). Ever since Rafale emerged as the lowest bidder in the MMRCA tender competition and price negotiations started, the offsets benefit for India was pegged at '27,000 crore.
Several Indian high-end defence manufacturers of ancillary equipment had already started ramping up their production capacity in anticipation of additional business. Samtel, for instance, which has technology ties with the French defence multinational Thales, had ramped up its production facilities. The company produces avionics and display systems and avionics, especially heads-up display (HuD) systems critical for modern fighter aircraft. It had in recent years bagged a contract to supply its HuD systems for the India-produced Sukhoi-30MKI.
In theory, the setting up of the production facilities for the fighter jet would have also created an ecosystem of aircraft components industries, somewhat like how the entry of Suzuki in the Indian car market gave a tremendous boost to the indigenous automobile manufacturing capacity. The MMRCA tender specified sourcing of components, at least 30 percent of the value of the deal, from Indian companies. Modi’s seemingly sudden decision needs a larger context.
The first is that despite the various political noises made by defence minister Manohar Parrikar against his predecessor AK Antony and the battle of words with senior Congress leader Digvijaya Singh, Modi and his core team at the prime minister’s office (PMO) accepts the robustness and the transparency of the tendering process of the MMRCA deal. Antony was an absolute nitpicker, no doubt, but he was exceedingly conscientious about not even allowing any whiff of corruption to taint the deal (See: The Stubborn Man & His Flying Machines, Governance Now issue dated February 16-29, 2012). It’s also worth remembering here that Parrikar was honest enough, even if a bit naïve, in revealing to the media that he took close to two months to get the various designations of the armed forces correct. It’s a fair assessment that his role in Modi’s decision would have been at best marginal.
The second is that Modi, for all his adeptness at political posturing, realises that Rafale is quite possibly the best aircraft for the specific needs of the Indian air force (IAF). The IAF’s extensive trials brought about the robustness of the French aircraft and its ability to integrate itself effectively with the existing fleet, operational requirements, tactics and strategy. The IAF has had a greater experience operating the Mirage 2000 fighter jets. Truth be told, and according to some IAF officers, the Mirage outperformed almost every single aircraft, with the surprising exception of MiG-21, in the high altitude environment during the Kargil war. The Rafale is a logical evolution of the Mirage, though it’s a completely new platform.
With the exception of the Eurofighter Typhoon and JAS-39 Gripen, none of the other aircraft on offer – MiG-35, F-16, F-18 Hornet – were new platforms in that sense. In short, the airframes of these planes were at the fag-end of their development cycle. This meant that the aircraft would have taken a couple of upgrades at the most. As the script played, Gripen lost out because it had close to 40 percent of its components being sourced from the US, most notably its engine. India has always been ticklish about the American defence cooperation. Typhoon turned out to be the second lowest bidder, but the fact it was run by a consortium was deemed to be a risk factor.
The third, and the most important, context was the emergency visit made by IAF chief Air Marshal Arup Raha to Modi about a few months back stating in no uncertain terms that the air force’s abilities are now seriously eroded. From around 34 squadrons five year back, the number had come down to just 25 squadrons. This grim picture was discovered by no less than a high-powered parliamentary panel in December 2014. Moreover, 11 of these squadrons are composed of MiG-21 Bisons and MiG-27 aircraft. Both are extremely versatile and capable aircraft and had been upgraded. In fact, the upgraded MiG-21 Bisons, with the Russian Kopyo radars, regularly defeated the American F-15C and F-16D aircraft during the various Cope India exercises.
The fact is, however, that they are at the end of their lifecycles and will have to be phased out more or less en mass between this year and 2022. India needs at least 45 squadrons to take care of a two-front attack scenario, a critical requirement considering the scale and speed with which China is beefing up its air force. It is now also very clear that Tejas Mark-II, which has got the IAF excited, will take at least another five years to start appearing in big enough numbers. The 36 Rafales will equip just two squadrons (each squadron has 18 aircraft), and is quite clearly an emergency response.
The fourth context is long-term. One of the main roadblocks in finalising the MMRCA deal was Dassault’s insistence that they will not stand any guarantees for the quality of any aircraft either assembled or eventually produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The licence-produced HAL fighter aircraft, especially the MiG series and now the Sukhoi 30 MKIs, have been showing an alarming tendency to crash due to mechanical failures. It is a problem that Modi and his team are acutely aware of. Dassault was quite open to consider partnering an Indian private company, and the PM in his own way has cleared the decks for private participation by this government-to-government decision. Such a decision more or less eliminates middlemen, brings down the per-unit cost of armament and brings in the much needed private sector participation. Almost all of the major defence cooperation of the nature intended by India has been through a large-scale private participation, or through the development of a consortium.
It’s now fairly well established that our defence production structures need to be completely revamped. Seen together with the summary shunting of the DRDO head Avinash Chander and the short shrift given to RK Tyagi, the former chief of HAL, this particular decision of Modi actually signals yet another clean break from the past. India’s defence preparedness is of paramount importance and cannot be left to the mercy of bureaucrats and turf wars any more.
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