Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha has repeatedly and publicly declared “there’s no Plan B”, that in effect it is Rafale or nothing with respect to the Indian Air Force’s dubious Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement. It merits his dismissal from service, because these words denote gross incompetence, failure to anticipate the unexpected and prepare for it—axiomatic in all military planning and, hence, of leadership. For every plan there is always an alternative plan of action in case things don’t work out as envisaged.
The absence of a fallback scheme is, of course, a ruse by Raha to pressurise the government into acceding to IAF’s wishes for the Rafale, despite defence minister Manohar Parrikar spelling out an alternative—the cost-effective, Nasik-produced Su-30MKI, which won’t require multi-billion dollar investment in another production facility and beats the French combat aircraft by any performance standard.
The prohibitive cost and questionable fighting qualities of the Rafale apart, the unwillingness of the French consortium headed by Dassault to guarantee the aircraft licence manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), and to fully meet transfer of technology (TOT) obligations involving Indian public and private sector entities directly or by way of offsets, too, are factors of serious concern. Source codes, flight control laws, and “black box” technologies, including all aspects of the engine, advanced sensors and avionics are likely to be left out of any TOT agreement or worse, paid for but not delivered, if previous defence deals are any guide. Dassault plans on supplying critical components and technologies for the entire production run of the “Indian-made” Rafale to ensure massive recurring profits, whence its insistence that its novice Indian partner, Reliance Aerospace, be part of the local production cycle. One other aspect is equally worrying. HAL assembling Rafale may face the kind of troubles Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd. is experiencing with the French Scorpene submarine where French vendors are delaying the supply of material and hence delaying induction and raising the direct and indirect costs.
The Price Negotiation Committees (PNCs) instituted by the defence ministry to hammer out contracts with foreign firms are to blame for such flawed transactions. Voluminous contracts are drawn up—the Rafale document reportedly exceeds 1,500 pages—but the use of indistinct language deliberately leaves large enough loopholes for even middling technologies, what to speak of the more sensitive “know why” knowledge, to be legitimately denied even as the suppliers pocket the monies the defence ministry is quick to disburse in full at the start. The PNCs need investigating, particularly for the vast leakage of the national wealth through this route.
A recent visit to HAL facilities by Dassault officials is a pointer to things to come. They complained to the US-based Defense News about the low productivity of HAL workforce and lack of economies of scale to argue that Indian-built Rafales will be costlier. Besides indicating that defence PSUs are not proficient in even the low-end screwdriver technology, the French hinted at further escalation of realistic cost beyond the presently estimated $30-$35 billion!
Flawed contracts drafted by PNCs that do not insist on penalties for time and cost overruns, and on staggered payments to fit delivery schedules, moreover, substantiate the fear repeatedly voiced by this analyst, of manipulation of assembly kits and spares supply, for foreign/economic policy reasons by France to ground the IAF squadrons at any time, is real. Such apprehensions are sought to be doused by Paris claiming that owing to TOT India will achieve “industrial autonomy”. But considering the guaranteed high level of French content in the supposedly “indigenous” Rafales, this is a laughable claim.
There are operational reasons as well why Rafale will be a liability. The IAF has always been wary of buying foreign aircraft accessible to its Pakistani counterpart. This was a reason for the rejection of F-16s as MMRCA given that they outfit the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) strike squadrons. Now consider this: Dassault is cock-a-hoop about the likely purchase by Qatar of some 66 Rafales. The Qatari Air Force (QAF) has traditionally been run by PAF pilots, with the understanding that these squadrons will switch to PAF use in any conflict with India. So, IAF Rafales will go up against Pakistani-flown Qatari Rafales that potentially will be better equipped and periodically upgraded with more sophisticated sensors, avionics, and weapons that Saudi Arabia will happily finance, as it did the $500 million deal for PAF’s F-16s and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile technologies from China. The Gulf regimes, after all, consider the Pakistan military their palace guard.
And, Rafales cannot be effectively used against China either. Why? Because, firstly, it will not survive sophisticated Chinese air defence; secondly, Dassault won’t allow the indigenous Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to take out targets inside China from standoff range to be integrated with it; and thirdly, because the Rafale is a compromised system for another reason. Pakistan is the prime conduit for Western military, especially aerospace, technologies to China. A Qatari Rafale will be disassembled in Pakistan for Chinese engineers to scrutinise, or wing its way to a Chengdu Aircraft Industry Groupsite for its best features and technologies to be reverse-engineered and incorporated in Chinese combat aircraft, and otherwise permit the Chinese military to familiarise itself with its technical weaknesses and configure appropriate counter-measures and counter-tactics.
Every demerit attends on the Rafale aircraft deal, including its outrageous cost and negligible effects in growing a self-sufficient Indian defence industry. It should be terminated also because of the country’s meagre resources—the capital defence budget of `94,588 crore for 2015-16 remains unchanged from last year, and careful inter se choices will have to be made from among myriad military procurement programmes. In the competition for the defence rupee, the Rafale is eminently expendable. It is time Parrikar told IAF, using the words of former US defence secretary Robert Gates, that “there’s no endless money”. If a Rafale deal is still signed to crown Narendra Modi’s April 10 visit to France, the government will have much to answer for.