Today's Editorial

03 October 2016

Flying high



Source: By Harsh V Pant: Deccan Herald



Finally, 16 months after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced India's plans to buy 36 Rafale fighter aircraft in fly away condition during his trip to France, New Delhi and Paris have concluded the pact for the fighter jets worth around 7.8 billion euros. The deal signed by Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar and his French counterpart Jean Yves Le Drian is expected to save nearly 750 million euros compared to the one that was signed during the previous UPA government and contains a 50% offset clause requiring the French industry to invest half the contract value back in India. The delivery of these combat aircraft is likely to start in 36 months and completed in 66 months from the date the contract is inked.


With Rafale's state-of-the-art missiles like 'Meteor' with a range in excess of 150 km and 'Scalp,' Indian operational air capabilities can be expected to alter qualitatively. Moreover, as fighter-bombers remain the central component of India's operational nuclear strike force, India's nuclear deterrence posture will also get strengthened. With their long range and technological capabilities, the Rafales can emerge as nuclear delivery platforms in India's second-strike capability, replacing the Mirage 2000 fighters.


The Congress is not happy with former defence minister AK Antony arguing that absence of provisions for transfer of technology to build the warplanes in India would cost the country "very heavily." He questioned how just 36 fighter planes would fill the IAF's capability gaps especially when Pakistan was rapidly beefing up its air power. He may be right but Antony was one of the worst defence ministers India ever had and did absolutely nothing for Indian defence policy despite being the longest defence minister in office.


It was Modi's 'can-do' attitude and his pragmatic instincts that saw him taking a leap of faith with France as he tried to move forward on projects that have been stuck for a long time. The fighter jet purchase dates all the way back to 2007, when India first called for bids that included technology transfer as it looked to build up its local defence industry. After much deliberation and controversy, New Delhi chose Dassault over rivals such as Boeing, Lockheed Martin Corp and Saab AB after five long years for a $11 billion contract to build 126 warplanes.


But soon talks stalled over pricing and a requirement for Dassault to assume liability for the 108 jets due to be built under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. The Rafale deal went in a limbo over terms of procedures and pricing negotiations even as the Indian Air Force's worries about meeting its "critical operational necessity" continued to mount. Modi managed to break the deadlock in April 2015 with his out-of-the-box approach when he signed a government-to-government deal with France for the supply of 36 Rafale fighter jets in "fly-away" condition "as quickly as possible." Though this went against his 'Make in India' pitch, he understood the urgency of IAF demands.


The Indian Air Force is facing a dramatic depletion in its strength as it currently has only 32 fighter squadrons, and many of them, particularly the MiGs, are reaching the end of their service in this decade. The number of squadrons could fall to 25 by 2022, putting India on a par with Pakistan. But India's real concern is China, Pakistan's all-weather ally, whose military capacities remain far superior to India's.It has been estimated that by 2025, China may well be in a position to deploy anywhere between 300 and 400 sophisticated aircraft against India, in addition to some 100 to 200 advanced fighters by Pakistan. The IAF needs at least 42 squadrons of fighters to protect its western and northern borders with Pakistan and China. The induction of 36 Rafales between 2019 and 2023 would still leave a significant gap as they will make for merely two squadrons.


Light fighter plane


The present arrangement with Dassault contains a 50% optional clause under which India can procure 18 more jets at the same price but the government has so far indicated that they would not order beyond 36. New Delhi remains inclined to use the money saved from scrapping the larger MMRCA contract to invest in its first domestically developed light fighter plane, the Tejas. Yet it also remains a reality that India still lacks capacity to indigenously produce a sophisticated fighter aircraft and the IAF is now in an unenviable position of having to maintain a fleet of at least six different types of fighters, including the Sukhoi-30MKI, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, MiG-29, MiG-27, MiG-21 and the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA).

The Modi government has repeatedly and rightfully underlined its desire to end India's status as the world's number one defence importer and to have 70% of hardware manufactured domestically by the turn of the decade. But this is easier said than done. Indian defence policy continues to face serious problems partly because of the civilian dominated bureaucracy which remains ill-equipped to make the procurement decisions and partly because of corruption scandals leading to a paralysed decision-making. As of now, India has managed to fill a gap that has been haunting its defence planners but now there should be some speedy decisions if the remaining aircraft are to be bought in a timely manner. Despite the inherent complications in defence procurement and India's growing defence requirements, New Delhi will have to continue to make difficult choices in the near future. This is also the lesson from the Rafale deal!

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