The French Kiss
After nearly five years of tenders, trials and negotiations, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) seems to have zeroed in on the French company Dassult’s Rafale fighter aircraft. India is supposed to buy 126 of such aircraft whose cost, taking the inflation factor into account, may touch up to Rs 80,000 crore. In fact, there is every possibility of India asking for 63 additional aircraft. In that case, the total cost may well reach Rs 100,000 crore or 20 billion US dollars If so, it will be India’s biggest ever defence deal. Of course, the final contract would come only after the approval of the Cabinet Committee on Security headed by the Prime Minister. And that will depend on the resolution of all the nitty-gritty pertaining to the exact prices, service conditions and maintenance issues. But if the former chief of the Indian Air Force P V Naik, whom I had once interviewed while he was in the service, is to be believed, there should not be much of a problem as the most important factor of offsets-clause had been resolved before the Rafale and its co-contender Eurofighter-Typhoon were shortlisted last year.
India floated its Request for Proposals (RFP) for the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) in August 2007. Over the next two years, six companies entered the race—the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper, the French Dassault Aviation Rafale, the Russian RSK MiGs MiG-35, the European Eurofighter Consortium’s Typhoon, and the Swedish Saab Gripen NG (Next Generation). In between 2009 and 2010, the Indian Air Force (IAF) supervised trials and demonstrations in the home countries of these manufacturers as well as in Indian locations such as Bengaluru, Jaisalmer, and Leh. It is said that the IAF tested these aircraft by 660 technical benchmarks. It also took into account the RFP’s requirement that 60 per cent of the aircraft’s technology be transferred to India in four phases.
Of the 126 aircraft, the first 18 will be delivered in a flyaway form by the original equipment manufacturer, with the remaining 108 to be assembled in India through a combination of kits supplied by the foreign seller and indigenous Indian production. The idea is to ensure that 50 per cent of the foreign exchange component of the purchase costs was defrayed through direct of sets within the Indian aerospace sector.
That India needs quality fighter aircraft is too obvious to be ignored. Given India’s strategic vision, it was estimated way back in 1959 that the IAF would require 64 squadrons, including 45 combat aircraft squadrons. But the budgetary constraints in the sixties and seventies resulted in the reality-check and in the 1980s, it was said that the optimum requirement should be that of 45 squadrons, of which 39.5 squadrons were to consist of fighter aircraft. This strength was more or less managed for some years But over the last one decade or so, because of the retirement of older fighter aircraft (particularly the MiG-21s, MiG 23s and MiG 25s) and delays in defence procurement process, the IAF’s force levels have reached an all-time low of 29 squadrons. At a time when Pakistan and China, with which India has fought wars, are significantly modernising their air power, the IAF mandarins understandably want expanded aircraft inventories sooner rather than later.
However, it is believed that while making the final choice, the MoD took technical, economic and political considerations into account. Technical considerations, and here the IAF’s recommendations must have mattered, include the quality of the aircraft, its sensors and avionics, weapons, aerodynamic effectiveness, and mission performance. It may be noted here that since India is essentially a statusquoist country, having no territorial ambition, the IAF has been essentially patterned to be a defensive force, securing India’s air space and providing support to the ground forces. The idea here is that in case of any attack, the air force will be able to engage with the enemy air force till the forces on the ground and vital assets are relocated and redeployed. However, with India emerging as global power, and having vital economic interests spanning an area stretching from the Suez Canal to Straits of Malacca, the IAF needs aircraft that are best suited for the counter-air missions necessary to secure Indian air space, assuming they can service the anti-surface requirement satisfactorily as well.
The strategic objective here is to acquire and maintain the requisite degree of airspace control in order to protect both the Indian homeland and its forward operating military forces and to apply pressure on the adversary by interdicting its war fighting capabilities and its national assets directly. In other words, while the IAF will essentially remain a defensive force, it is to be well-endowed with capabilities for undertaking offensive and preventive operations if the situation so warrants. That is where the importance of multi-role combat aircraft lies. They can play any role to maintain air superiority. They must have both air-to-ground and air-to-air capabilities.
As regards the political considerations affecting the ultimate choice, and here more than the military leadership of the IAF, the civilian-controlled MoD might have played the determining role, ensuring that the supplier country (France) does not make India vulnerable during the war time while supplying cutoffs. Even during peace time, there must not be any problems with regard to services and spare parts. Equally important, France must agree to India’s terms and conditions that improve its larger military capacity through a substantial technology infusion.
Many Indian experts believe that technology-wise, the French Rafale suits IAF’s needs very well. The Rafale’s greatest strength, especially in the air combat arena, is its ability to acquire, process and fuse information from multiple sensors and present it to the pilot in a single tactical display. During its trials, the IAF pilots were said to be greatly impressed by the aircraft’s remarkable cockpit ergonomics and human factors engineering as manifested in its sensors, controls, interfaces, and displays. In fact, the Rafale performed, and this factor might have tilted the scale in its favour, much better than the Eurofighter in recent NATO-operations in Libya and Afghanistan. The second great advantage that it had over its rival was that it could be very well mastered by the pilots of the Mirage 2000, which India already has. A pilot of a Mirage can very easily be trained to fly a Rafale.
However, the problem with the Rafale is that it has been not sold to any other country. Recently, the UAE rejected its bid. Its original estimated price of $85.4 million a piece was already on a higher side; the cost must have gone up much higher over the last three years. Its maintenance costs are also believed to be high. Since it has not been exported as of now, nobody is sure of what technology it will be transferring to India. Given the experience with Mirage 2000, it is said that while the French have been very good at providing spares and support for their aircraft, maintenance has yielded little by way of true transfers of either knowledge or expertise. Hopefully, these issues will be sorted out before the formal inking of the deal.
It is understood that France presently has two squadrons of the Rafale which are operational and multi-role, including air-to-air, air-to-ground and exclusively nuclear capable. There are three versions. The first variant is a multi-role fighter aircraft that has been successfully proven in combat in support of operations in Iraq, Afghanistan and recently in Libya. This variant was demonstrated in India in air shows over the last 10 years. The second variant is in service with the French Navy and has been operated from French aircraft carriers. No wonder, why the Indian Navy is also reportedly keen on having this version of Rafale, which it considers capable enough to be a game-changer in the Indian Ocean region. The third variant is specifically designed to handle nuclear weapons.
Be that as it may, the Rafale has further cemented the growing Indo- French strategic relations. All told, France has been the first Western power to have supported India’s claim for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council. France, unlike its other partners in the Western Alliance, did not impose any sanctions on India after the latter went nuclear in 1998; in fact, it did not even “condemn” the nuclear tests. Besides, France was the first country with which India conducted a joint naval exercise called “Varun” after the 1998 nuclear tests; this exercise has become quite frequent over years. Similarly, the IAF’s first bilateral exercise in 2003 with a foreign counterpart—“the Garuda I”— was again the French Air Force.
India’s choice of Rafale has come at the top of three existing defence projects with France—the Rs 23,562-crore for six Scorpene submarines, the Rs 10,947-crore upgrade for 51 Mirage-2000s and the Rs 6,600-crore acquisition of 490 MICA missile systems. Additionally, France is all set to provide nuclear reactors for power generation. In short, the going is pretty good as far as the Indo-French friendship is concerned.