Rafale hype aside, hamstrings in defence procurement need to be addressed
ANALYSIS

New Delhi (NVI): The arrival of 5 Rafale fighter aircraft in India from France has been accompanied by a huge euphoria. The first batch of the omni-role combat planes reached India five years after the deal for procurement of 36 such aircraft was announced during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s first visit to France in April 2015.

The unexpected announcement of the inter-governmental deal had come against the backdrop of scrapping of negotiations for procurement of the same fighter plane after it was shortlisted and finalised in 2012 through a tendering process.

According to the deal announced on April 10, 2015, all the 36 fighter planes are to be delivered in flyaway conditions. While the first batch of 5 aircraft has arrived, the remaining 31 jets are slated to be delivered to IAF in next two years.

Significantly, the induction of these fighter planes in IAF, which is part of an effort to correct military imbalance in the region, comes at a time when India is locked in a military faceoff with China, with prospects of an armed conflict looming large.

According to experts, the Rafale fighter plane, manufactured by French company Dassault Aviation, has several advantages over China’s J-20 jets and US-made F-16 fighters being used by Pakistan Air Force. The J-20s and the F-16s are the best among the planes that China and Pakistan have.

A Rafale, whose literal meaning is ‘gust of wind, is a twin-engine aircraft which can be equipped with a wide range of weapons, including nuclear missiles. Its capabilities include in-depth air-to-air and air-to-ground strike, aerial reconnaissance and interdiction. Guided by latest avionic systems, the Rafale can hit a moving target more than 120 kms beyond the field vision of the pilot, which makes the fighter plane all the more deadly.

However, amidst all the euphoria surrounding the arrival of the five Rafale jets, there are several aspects of concern which need to be addressed. The major one is that it took five long years after announcement of the deal for the 5 planes to arrive. Delivery of the entire package is to take two more years – meaning 7 years in all – which is not a good sign if the thrust is on emergency procurements.

Another aspect that needs to be highlighted is that even after the delivery of all the 36 planes, which constitute two squadrons, the IAF will still be way short of its sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons.

The entire issue boils down to the worrying factor about lack of futuristic vision that has ridden the country’s policy-making and huge delays in the procurement process in the defence sector. After all, these aspects are limiting India’s military capabilities to a large extent, which can have dangerous consequences since our two adversarial neighbours China and Pakistan don’t have good intentions.

Take the example of the latest induction. It took place 19 years after the last acquisition of a fighter plane – Sukhoi-30 MKI. The indigenously-built Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas were also delivered to the IAF in the interim period but their induction had begun before that of SU-30 MKI.

It was way back in 2001 that a decision was taken to procure new fighter planes to meet the requirements of the IAF, particularly against the backdrop of its depleting strength due to frequent crashes of Russian MiG fighters of 21 and 27 variants.

But then it took six years to float a global tender, which was done in 2007, for procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA).

According to the Request for Proposal (RFP), the winner of the contract was to supply 18 of the 126 aircraft to the IAF in 36 months in flyway conditions and the remaining were to be manufactured at Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) facility in Bangalore.

The bidders were American F-16 and F-18, Russian MiG-35, Swedish Saab Gripen and French Rafale. Eurofighter, manufactured by French company Airbus and British BAE, was also in the race along with the initial bidders.

However, by April 2011, the F-16, F-18, MiG-35 and Saab were knocked out of the competition after extensive field evaluations by the Indian Air Force at several locations across the world. Thus, Eurofighter and Rafale remained in the race for the final phase of selection.

On January 31, 2012, Rafale was declared as the winner of the proposed biggest defence deal. The contract was to be signed in the next fiscal.

But the deal got stuck during contract negotiations because of issues like pricing and the question of warranty related to 108 fighters which were to be manufactured by government-run HAL.

According to people familiar with the developments, HAL asked for huge amounts of money and resources for manufacturing the 108 aircraft. On the other hand, Dassault insisted that it would not issue certification for the planes built by HAL.

The problems in these negotiations could not be resolved even till February 2014 and when the Lok Sabha elections were announced, the talks were frozen.

The lack of decision-making was more shocking as the IAF, in April 2012, had told the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that it had only 34 fighter squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons and the number is likely to reduce further to 31 during the 12th plan period.

The IAF told the committee that it was “very much apparent” that the induction process has not been commensurate with the de-induction exercise as the different variants of MiG-21s and MiG-27s were being phased out.

After the Narendra Modi government was elected in May 2014, the IAF took up the matter related to shortage of fighter planes with the Defence Ministry and things started moving.

A decision was taken to procure Rafale fighters through an inter-governmental agreement, rather than pursuing the tendering process. Accordingly, when Modi undertook his first visit to France and held talks with the then President Francois Hollande, the announcement was made about procuring 36 Rafale jets.

Procurement of Rafale fighter planes is not only the defence deal which has witnessed such problems. There have been several other defence deals which were cancelled over the last several years following allegations of kickbacks or due to some other reasons.

These included scrapping of a deal for procurement of 197 Eurocopters in 2007 from European aviation consortium European Aerospace and Defence Systems (EADS), for allegedly “deviating from approved parameters”.

Earlier, an international tender for purchase of 400 upgraded 155 mm .52 calibre guns for the Army was also cancelled.

There was also an understanding with Russia for jointly manufacturing Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) but the proposal was junked in 2017.

In 2016, the government also junked a proposal to buy Black Shark torpedoes intended to be mounted on six Scorpene submarines from WASS, a subsidiary of Italy’s Leonardo-Finmeccanica.

The decision was taken against the backdrop of corruption charges against AgustaWestland, another subsidiary of Leonardo-Finmeccanica.

These are just a few examples of how defence acquisitions, including critical ones, have been hampered due to the lack of bold decision-making and futuristic planning and other reasons. These aspects need to be addressed urgently, if we have to be ready for a two-front war.