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Rafale Deal: A Postscript

Updated: May 19, 2012 3:52 pm

In the realm of national defence, the maxim—slow and steady wins the race—can always prove to be devastating. Nation’s security needs quick and firm decision making without fail. The case in point is the proposed acquisition of a large number of Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force. Though the dire need to replenish the obsolete MiG-21 fighter fleet was being felt since the early 1990s, it was only in 2001 that the acquisition process for the successor modern combat aircraft was initiated when the IAF sent out its request for information (RFI) for 126 jets to the Ministry of Defence (MoD).

Why did the civilian bureaucracy manning the MoD float a formal Request for Proposal in August 2007, after sitting over the file for nearly six years? The avoidable delay was despite the fact that a near emergency situation prevailed in the field of India’s air defence due to the IAF’s outdated air-strike capabilities as well as potential security threats to the country from China and Pakistan.

Though the government after a long and arduous technical and commercial negotiating process, finally decided by January ends this year to go in for the French-built Rafale, the cheapest combat aircraft in its class, there will still be bottlenecks to cross to finally ink the final contract with a likely value between $12 and $20 billion. If one goes by Defence Minister AK Antony’s statement that the government was going slow on deals to modernise India’s defense forces, as it wanted to eliminate any chances of kickbacks, it will not be before 2015 or maybe later years that the much-needed new aircraft starts entering the frontline squadron service in a modest way. Mr Antony himself has revealed that the price negotiations alone could take about eight more months, and there would be “several other stages of scrutiny” before the deal to buy Dassault’s Rafale is finalised. The signs of a delay come amid allegations in India that defense deals involve bribing of bureaucrats and senior military officers, while middlemen take commissions from the foreign arms manufacturers.

The 126 fighter jet order stipulates that the first 18 planes manufactured by Dassault will be sent to India in a ready-to-fly condition while the remainder will be produced in collaboration with a vendor which is most likely to be Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). The assembly of the jet in India and transfer of technology from Dassault are still believed to be under discussion. The Rafale appears to be a good selection as it offers good aerodynamic performance, has exceptional ordnance capacity for its size, and can extend its range further via conformal fuel tanks. The Rafale also has some equipment, maintenance and spares commonalities with the IAF’s existing Mirage 2000 fleet. Nearly 50 of these aircraft, already in the frontline service with the IAF since 1980s are in need of modernisation with new electronics and weapon systems. The new selected fighter plane which has reportedly proved its role in recent combat operations in Libya and Afghanistan happens to be Mirage-2000’s heavier, highly advanced, and much more expensive cousin.

Surprisingly, it was more than a decade back that the need for MMRCA was felt by the IAF and the government with massive allocation of somewhere between $12 and $20 billion could then have opted for indigenous version of MMRCA. With such liberal infusion of funds, the new aircraft designed and produced in India could have been in the inventory of Air force by about 2015. Rafale too is likely to enter the squadron service by that time. Given the adequate funds and government’s go-ahead signal, Indian scientists could have certainly produced their own version of modern fighter in conformity with the QRs provided the IAF. Further, they could also have incorporated the technological prowess of Indian technological institutes and corporate giants offering them an opportunity to enter into the high-tech field of aircraft designing and manufacturing. If Indian scientific and technological genius can prove its mantle by launching the sophisticated ICBM like Agni-V and several types of satellites into the outer space including the moon probe, it can also be utilised to meet the emerging requirement of IAF’s fighter fleet.

In this respect, we could perhaps emulate the wily Chinese whose military competency is far ahead of India’s. China has managed to copy Western arms prototypes to build up an effective domestic armament manufacturing capability that has reduced its dependence on arms imports whereas India happens to be the biggest arms importer in the world as on today. Even Pakistan has developed an advanced fighter JF-17 jointly with China and is currently engaged in deploying it on frontline service against India. The IAF currently is believed to have mere 30-32 squadrons of serviceable aircraft which is totally inadequate to meet the country’s air defence needs. Given such a scenario, India has no choice but to try and build an effective indigenous air defence deterrent against China while matching the military capabilities of Pakistan.

Though India has its own light combat aircraft programme, the LCA christened Tejas is running much behind schedule and is now expected to be inducted into the Air Force around the same time Rafale is estimated to be available for combat service. The complementary force of 126 fourth generation MMRCAs should fit between India’s high end Su-30MKIs and its low-end Tejas LCA lightweight fighters. Last year, New Delhi has also entered into a collaborative agreement with Russia to design and manufacture the “fifth generation fighter”. However, the project has a long way to materialise and offers no solution to the immediate problem of shrinking squadron numbers as existing aircraft are forced into retirement. In the mean time, Chinese and Pakistani squadron strength continues to grow.

While the selection of Rafale may, though a bit reluctantly, be justified, Indian leadership that often harps on indigenous military hardware, could have encouraged nation’s vast pool of scientists and technocrats to prove their worth by developing a home-grown MMRCA matching Rafale or Eurofighter. Is not it high time India, an emerging economic power, started meeting the combat and support requirements of its armed forces?

By NK Pant

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