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The Rafale Storm

What does it say about the Government of India that it took an ad hoc decision on the Rafale?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in Paris during his visit to France that India had decided to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in a government to government deal and in a flyaway condition has at one stroke undone close to a dozen years of planning and negotiations. Giving up the earlier commitment to buy only 18 Rafale in a flyaway condition and for state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) to progressively manufacture 108 more (with an option for an additional 55) effectively kills the Prime Minister’s “Make in India” programme for the defence sector which he himself trumpeted as recently as during Aero India in Bengaluru in February. It is now clear that the multirole combat aircraft programme, whose origins go back to the last National Democratic Alliance government of Atal Behari Vajpayee and was meant to quickly add lighter aircraft of the Mirage 2000 class is now dead in the water.

It is tempting to believe that the Rafale (squall or storm in French) deal is the result of a last-minute decision to cosy up to France while throwing a carrot to an obdurate Indian Air Force which has been demanding early acquisition of medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA). Buying 36 such aircraft over a two to three year period may fill a capability gap resulting from the rapid retirement of hundreds of MiG-21s and MiG-27s over the next few years and the Dassault Rafale is by all accounts a capable multirole combat aircraft. But the Rafale, along with the Eurofighter, shares the dubious distinction of also being by far the most expensive fourth generation jet fighter. This is mainly a result of small production runs, compounded in the Rafale’s case by an insistence that almost all systems and weapons should also be French. High initial acquisition costs carry a double whammy because operating modern combat aircraft over a lifetime of decades typically costs three to five times as much as what an air force pays while acquiring them.

Admiral Arun Prakash, a former chief of the Indian Navy, has insightfully pointed out after the Rafale deal was announced that “Had the IAF assumed positive ‘ownership’ of aircraft projects, starting with the HT-2 trainer and the HF-24 Marut fighter, it may not have had to seek a basic trainer, an advanced trainer and a MMRCA from abroad today. Even at this late stage a Directorate of Aircraft Design in Air HQ would help create a symbiotic linkage between the Air Staff and India’s aerospace industry.” He also said that Dassault should have brought up its misgivings about HAL’s quality control when submitting its bid and not when contract negotiations were at an advanced stage. This, he added, appears to have been almost a replay of the French electronics firm Thales’ strategy after the contract for Scorpene submarines was signed with the Indian Navy, leading to huge time and cost overruns. Incidentally, Thales is the primary supplier of the Rafale’s avionics.

It would be ludicrous to replace the MiGs on a one-to-one basis; not only does each Rafale cost as much as two squadrons of MiG-21s, each is also capable of replacing several of the latter. It is extremely unlikely that the Rafale purchase will stop with the 36 now on the anvil, about 50 will need to be ordered if two squadrons are to be operational in the long run. This will make an already expensive deal astronomically expensive with no positive spin-offs by way of any offsets (domestic production by the supplier of spares or rather defence equipment).

The one thing that the acquisition of the Rafale will do is buy enough time to breathe fresh air into the indigenous light combat aircraft (LCA) programme. Accelerating the LCA’s induction can only be done by improving the current version rather than developing a virtually new variant as has been suggested. Grossly inadequate recruitment during the 1980s and 1990s has meant that HAL has very few experienced design engineers left with it.  HAL and the Aeronautical Development Agency should ask for design and manufacturing help from EADS (now Airbus) and/or Saab in order to bring a hundred lcas into service at the earliest.

Only the Prime Minister knows why his government has made such an ad hoc decision on the Rafale without any wider review. Ad hoc purchases of expensive weapon systems will show any government in a poor light. It is laughable that there has not been a comprehensive defence and security review in India since the one carried out soon after the India–China war of 1962. Although there have been some reviews since then, they have been mainly to ratify single service demands with no attempt to holistically derive synergies from the operations of all three major services, leave alone also looking at diplomatic and intelligence inputs. Ad hocism can be shown to be a thing of the past only by ensuring that fresh purchase of arms or equipment involving an annual outflow of, say, over Rs 5,000 crore occurs only after such a national defence review.


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