Like an able pilot with his wits about him in an out-of-control warplane, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar may be preparing to ditch Rafale touted as the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) answer, which the Indian Air Force has set its heart on procuring at any cost, and going for the more economical and sensible Su-30 option instead.
It has been repeatedly emphasised by this analyst that the IAF misconceived the MMRCA requirement, disregarded the uncommonly high costs involved in procuring the chosen Rafale and France’s past record of unmet transfer of technology promises, and the Su-30s/MiG-29M2s as sustainable alternative. I also warned that the massive expenditure on the Rafale would starve the indigenous programmes (Tejas and the advanced medium combat aircraft — AMCA) of funds, and stifle the Indian aviation industry trying to get back on its feet.
The reasons for the nose-diving deal are many, and they are serious. The unwillingness of Dassault Avions, the Rafale manufacturer, to guarantee the performance of this aircraft produced under licence at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd despite the original RFP (Request for Proposal) requiring bidders to transfer technology, including production wherewithal, procedures and protocols, to this public sector unit for the aircraft’s local assembly, has been reported. There’s, however, an untold back-story revealing France’s intended duplicity.
Perceiving India as the perennial sucker, Dassault chose Reliance Aerospace Technologies Pvt Ltd (RATPL) as partner in the hope that the fabled Ambani reach and influence in Delhi would help it get around the HAL production obligation. Problems were not anticipated as evidenced by RATPL approaching the Andhra Pradesh government in 2013 for land around Hyderabad to set up a factory. But because RATPL has zero experience in producing anything remotely related to aviation, Dassault saw it as an opportunity to “double dip”, meaning arrange it so India would pay it twice for the same aircraft! This was to be managed thus: Dassault would set up a production line under RATPL aegis importing every last screw and production jig and collect the money for the 108 Rafales it puts together here at the cost-plus-profit price HAL would charge IAF. In other words, Dassault would export the Rafale assembly kits and wherewithal virtually to itself and pocket the proceeds while paying a premium to RATPL.
But this double dipping ruse in the works merely whetted France’s appetite for more. Capitalising on the IAF brass’ penchant for newer French aircraft and the Indian government’s tendency eventually to cave into the military’s demands, Dassault proposed an enlarged Rafale deal with the cost revised upwards from the $30 billion level to a $45-$50 billion contract. For such enhanced sums, Dassault sought to replace the Rafale originally offered with the slightly better “F-3R” version, promised a mid-life upgrade involving retrofitment of the Thales RBE2 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, and suggested India’s future fifth and sixth generation combat aircraft needs be met by the “F-4R” and “F-5R” configurations (or whatever designations they are given) now on the drawing board featuring crystal blade for jet turbines, “fly-by-light” technology, etc. Such contract extension suits the IAF fine because it plays on Vayu Bhavan’s antipathy for Russian hardware (expressed in terms of “diversity of suppliers”) as well as indigenous aircraft, and undermines both the multi-billion dollar project jointly to develop the fifth generation fighter aircraft, Su-50 PAK/FA with Russia and the Indian AMCA with its design finalised.
But for Parrikar’s welcome show of common sense this French plan would have rolled out nicely. Inconveniently for Dassault, he publicly disclosed that the far deadlier and more versatile Su-30 MKI costs `358 crores (roughly $60 million) each compared to the `700 crore price tag for the Rafale, meaning two Su-30s could be secured for the price of a single Rafale. Implicit is the reasonable conclusion that it made more sense to buy a much larger fleet of 4.5-plus generation Su-30s than to get stuck with a 4.5-minus generation Rafale sporting 5.5 generation aircraft prices. The cost comparison remains skewed even when the “super Sukhoi-30”, costing `70 crores, is considered, when the added advantage of the plunging the Russian ruble kicks in, allowing India to extract far more bang for the buck from Moscow.
Looked at another way, the original allocation of $12 billion for the MMRCA could fetch IAF at current prices a whole new, augmented, and more capable fighter/bomber armada and raise the force strength to 50 frontline combat squadrons. This because the $12 billion can buy 20 Tejas Mk-Is (in addition to the 40 already ordered), 150 Tejas Mk-IIs, some 35 super Sukhoi-30s, and around 50 MiG-29Ks/M2s (with the M-2s nearly equal of the MiG-35 the Strategic Forces Command wanted for delivering nuclear bombs, but were denied). In short, a composite additional fleet of 255 aircraft can be acquired for the initial price of 126 Rafales, with “incalculable” savings in streamlined logistics, training, and maintenance but absent the cost-hikes, delays, and aggravation of setting up a new production line (as HAL already produces Su-30 MKIs).
Besides, France’s extortionist attitude is offputting. In response to the IAF’s request not too long ago for an immediate transfer of two Rafale squadrons from the French Air Force as a quick-fix, Paris agreed but demanded these would have to be paid for at the same rate as new aircraft and that these planes could carry only French sourced weapons. Worse still, France’s reputation for fulfilling technology transfer provisions too is suspect as past experience reveals.
The IAF trusts Paris not to cutoff the supply of spares if India follows a foreign policy not to France’s or even America’s liking. Except, heeding Washington’s directive, France recently stopped the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia has paid for. What’s the guarantee Paris won’t sever supply links and leave HAL stranded mid-production and IAF frontline squadrons grounded in case India resumes nuclear testing, say?
The larger question is: How come France’s record of defaulting on technology-related parts of contracts combined with the unaffordability of French aircraft generally using any metric, were not factored by IAF and Ministry of Defence when shortlisting Rafale?