I asked the President (Francois Hollan-de) to supply us with 36 Rafale jet fighter planes, the ready-to-fly models,” Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at the joint press conference during his France visit, adding that terms and conditions of the contract would be finalised and details worked out.
Responding to those who criticised this move through the media, defence minister Manohar Parrikar solidly supported Mr Modi, stating in a news network interview that the deal is good for the country as defence purchases had been lagging behind for many years. Mr Parrikar also clarified that while both countries have principally agreed for 36 planes, the final decision regarding how many planes India will build indigenously, as per the “Make in India” concept, will be decided later when both India and France discuss and finalise the finer points of the deal.
Mr Parrikar further clarified that Rafale was not going to replace MiG-21, which instead would be replaced by the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.
“Make in India” is a sound and long overdue policy, which the Modi government is expected to pursue, but it cannot fulfil Indian Air Force’s urgent requirement of replenishing its much aged, depleted fleet. India’s initial plan was to purchase 18 jets from Dassault Aviation off-the-shelf and assemble 108 others in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bengaluru. The aim of ordering 36 off-the shelf Rafale fighters during Mr Modi’s visit is seen as a move to speed up the purchase and immediately give the Air Force at least two squadrons of the jets that it urgently needs to plug critical gaps.
On BJP leader Subramanian Swamy’s threat to move the court against the Rafale deal, sources confirmed to this newspaper that Mr Parrikar said that he has known Mr Swamy since 1978 and that he will soon call him to discuss this deal with him. Mr Parrikar said he was confident that he will convince Mr Swamy.
In a lighter vein, he said, as a student of IIT Mumbai, he worked for Mr Swamy when he contested for the first time from Mumbai and ensured his victory.
Rafale was chosen in 2012 over rival offers from the US, Europe and Russia and the original proposal was for 126 Rafale fighter jets. For three years, the deal had been dragging owing to Dassault’s reluctance to provide guarantees for the aircraft to be produced in India.
In February 2015, Mr Parrikar had urged officials to expedite Rafale negotiations and submit the final cost negotiation committee report by early March, just in time before this financial year ending on March 31. A major stumbling block in the talks was that Dassault refused to give warranty for the 108 aircraft that would be built by HAL. Meanwhile, the Indian Air Force was concerned over the French firm’s rigidity to resolve the issue. But Dassault cannot be blamed for this rigidity because the track record of HAL is not very encouraging. However, some hard bargaining must have resulted in the Rafale contract being agreed to on the final price of an estimated $20 billion for the 126 aircraft.
Air Force veterans involved in the past with the process of evaluating and selecting the Rafale have lauded PM Modi’s move as very good because: (a) a major factor is that this is a government-to-government deal which means that the price India pays for this aircraft will be the same as that for the French Air Force, (b) it is a good aircraft, in fact one of the best, which will be a telling asset for IAF. A look at some characteristics of the Rafale and American F-35 is relevant. F-35 costs $ 350 million per aircraft as against $ 156 million for a Rafale. According to Defence Issues, F-35 has a far higher baseline drag than the Rafale, which means Rafale’s baseline performance is much better. In order to initiate a turn, F-35’s tail momentarily provides download before settling into a lift-producing position. Rafale’s canards momentarily provide upload before settling into a neutral position in which they create no lift by themselves, but improve wing lift and reduce drag. Rafale can achieve Mach 1,8 and cruise at Mach 1,2-1,4 with 6 missiles. F-35 can achieve Mach 1,6 and cruise at Mach 0,95 with 4 internal missiles. This makes it quite clear that the F-35 has inferior acceleration (and thus lift-to-drag and thrust-to-drag ratios) compared to Rafale, even when both aircraft are in air-to-air configuration.
News reports of 14 April cited Mr Parrikar stating that the decision to buy 126 fighter jets from France, cleared by the previous Congress-led government, was not thought through properly. The purchase, he said, should not have been made through a global tender, but through a government to government transaction, which makes it cheaper. On his predecessor, he reportedly commented: “There was hardly any supervision or control. A defence minister needs to monitor but that was hardly the case.”
He informed that new acquisitions worth Rs 5,40,000 crore cleared by the previous government would be reviewed. Another report stated that the defence minister indicated the $25-billion Indian tender for buying 126 advanced combat aircraft had virtually been scrapped, with the government stressing that any future deal for Rafale fighter jets would be through direct negotiations with the French government.
That may mean, as also stated by IAF veterans, that the 126 jets may not all be Rafales. They may be a combo of Rafales and the HAL’s LCA Tejas, about which Mr Parrikar is reported to have said “Today we have only 40 LCAs, why can’t we have 100 of these?” The proportion of Rafale and Tejas fighters will depend on negotiations with the French government on any further purchase from Dassault, he said. Earlier, IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha had spoken about phasing-out of Mig-21s and Mig-27s, and being replaced by Indian LCAs and fifth-generation fighters from Russia.
Hopefully, the era of ridiculous delays in crucial national security related acquisitions is over.