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The Rafale conundrum: Lessons to be learnt

Sentinel Digital DeskBy : Sentinel Digital Desk

  |  13 April 2015 12:00 AM GMT

By Admiral Arun Prakash

The Indian decision to purchase 36 Rafale multi-role jet fighters from France in ‘fly-away’ condition will no doubt redress a critical inventory gap for the Indian Air Force (IAF) but it may turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory for French aerospace giant Dassault Aviation rather than the ‘coup’ it is being made out to be. This is a complex issue, with serious implications for India’s security and cannot be viewed in simplistic win-lose terms.

Aircraft attrition, obsolescence and declining numbers constitute a triple spectre that haunts every air chief, making him ask for more. The IAF’s problem has been aggravated by the fact that a significant proportion of its combat strength consisted of the Soviet-era MiG-21s ,of which about 850 were licence-produced by HAL (Hindustan Aeroutics Limited). Its planned indigenous replacement, the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, promised by the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organization) by the early 1990s, has come 25 years late and is too little, too late.

Dwindling numbers, coupled with the operatiol challenge posed by rapidly modernising air forces of neighbouring Chi and Pakistan, led the IAF to decide that a quick-fix for its problems was to induct additiol numbers of the French Mirage-2000. This aircraft had an excellent record in IAF service and Vayu Bhavan, the air headquarters, felt that it could become the future medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) not only bridging the gap between the Su-30 and the Tejas but also compensating for the eventual de-induction of the MiG-21s.

However, the India’s Ministry of Defence (MoD) was aware that Dassault was on the verge of closing down the Mirage-2000 production-line and switching to the more advanced Mirage-2000-5 version, a substantially different machine. Refusing to treat the IAF proposal as a repeat order, Dassault insisted that a fresh staff requirement be drawn up and followed with a “request for proposals” (RFP).

Once responses to the RFP were examined, the IAF wasted no time in initiating a rigorous evaluation process in which each of the six competing aircraft were assessed over the full range of maintence and operatiol criteria laid down in the staff requirement.

However, the IAF had rendered an already complex process even more problematic by casting its net too wide. The six aircraft, short-listed for evaluation, fell into conspicuously different categories of vintage, weight, sophistication and cost, making it truly a contentious contest between apples and oranges.

More than a decade after initiation of the MMRCA proposal, the MoD declared in January 2012 that the Rafale had been selected for induction into the IAF. A letter of intent for acquisition of 126 aircraft was issued to Dassault Aviation - with 18 to be built in France and the rest to be assembled and manufactured by in India by HAL. Contract negotiations commenced soon after, with the programme costs being estimated at between $12-15 billion.

Although there has been no official pronouncement, in the 27 months since the conclusion of the MMRCA competition, negotiations appeared to be deadlocked with no contract in sight. Media speculation has focused on Dassault’s lack of confidence in the ability of HAL to attain requisite aviation manufacturing standards. The direct implications are that Dassault will not stand guarantee for HAL-produced Rafales and there will be significant cost escalations with figures of $22-30 billion being mentioned.

Given HAL’s dismal track record of poor quality control in every product it has delivered to the three Services, Dassault’s reservations are understandable. However, this issue should have been addressed by the French company before it submitted its bid and not at the stage of contract negotiations. This appears to be almost a replay of the serious problems faced by the MoD in the Scorpene submarine project. It that latter case, M/S Thales of France invoked some fine print in the contract after it had been signed in good faith, leading to huge time delays and cost overruns. Obviously, there is need for caution when dealing with French firms.

The hiatus in conclusion of the Rafale contract has led to conjecture in the media, perhaps fuelled by losers in the MMRCA competition. Apart from picking holes in the Rafale, some commentators have castigated the IAF for a flawed force-planning process, focusing on three issues: the high cost of the Rafale, especially when compared to the ‘formidable’ Sukhoi-30 MK, which awaits further upgradation, with dire prediction that the hidden costs of the Rafale project could bankrupt future defence budgets; the ‘operatiol niche’ into which the IAF intends to place the Rafale seems odd, given that it has the Sukhoi-30 and Tejas at the ‘heavy’ and ‘light’ ends of the combat spectrum with the Indo-Russian 5th generation aircraft (PAK-FA) on the horizon; and aggravation of the IAF’s logistical nightmare when an 8th type is added to its existing inventory of seven combat aircraft of Russian, British, French, and Indian origin.

Some of the observations merit the IAF’s consideration. However, all is not monochromatic and four points deserve objective review. The egregious failure of the DRDO and India’s defence industrial complex to meet the operatiol needs of the IAF is matched only by the detachment shown by the latter towards the indigenous aeroutics industry.

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 aircraft 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.

The persistent clamour for aircraft numbers or squadrons sounds convincing when cited in the context of a ‘two-front’ war. However, these numbers were stipulated in an era when two squadrons of MiG-21s could have been bought for the price of a single Rafale today. Conversely, the versatile capabilities and the invulnerability of a modern multi-role combat aircraft make it the equivalent of a dozen or more of its predecessors. The emphasis now must shift from dumb numbers to smart capability.

There is food for thought in the fact that against the IAF’s strength of 750-800 combat aircraft, the Royal Air Force and the French Air Forc, undertake world-wide commitments with just 225 aircraft of two types each — the FAF with the Rafale and Mirage-2000 and the RAF with Tordoes and Typhoons.

The above comparison is not really fair to the IAF since most of its inventory is of foreign origin. There is no guarantee, whatsoever, of how many aircraft will be available for combat on any day, given that the non-availability of even a small imported component can instantly ground an aircraft fleet. Here it must be noted that the Russian system has, despite repeated promises of reform, been the worst culprit for the past 25 years and its abysmal product-support has debilitated all three Services.

The fifth generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) or PAK-FA, being touted as an Indo-Russian joint project, is yet another example of rank bad faith on Russia’s part. Based on a Russian pledge that they would share the design, engineering, testing and intellectual property in a 50-50 proportion, India was asked to contribute US $300 million, up-front, and 35 percent of the $15 billion project cost eventually. While details are under wraps, currently three prototype PAK-FAs are already flying in Russia with no Indian participation or contribution. This project promises to become a clone of the BrahMos; a Russian product that carries an ersatz Indo-Russian trademark.

Eyebrows may be raised as to why a major announcement regarding outright purchase of 36 French-built Rafales should have been made in Paris rather than New Delhi. It is understood that the critical capability gap of the IAF compelled this expedient decision and to that extent it is to be cautiously welcomed.

However, delivering 36 Rafales to the IAF in two years is only possible if some aircraft are withdrawn from French service and refurbished, as was done in the case of British supplied Jaguars in 1978-79. This development reflects French politico-commercial compulsions and perhaps Modi’s persuasive skills. If this is just a modification of the origil MMRCA deal to expedite deliveries, it will further complicate the already complex negotiations and render a severe blow to the ‘Make in India’ campaign as well as the MoD’s ‘Defence Offsets’ initiative. Presumably the whole contract will need to be re-drafted and re-negotiated. However, if it is a change of heart on India’s part, it may constitute a good all-round compromise. While partially satisfying French commercial interests, it permits India an honourable exit from the Rafale commitment; allowing it to review other options. The IAF, too, can look forward to an early boost for its combat capability, without being saddled with a crippling fincial liability.

However, India will keep encountering such conundrums unless the politician acquires comprehension of complex security issues and installs a professiolly competent organization for acquisition of military hardware in MoD. IANS

(Admiral Prakash is a former val Chief and a decorated fighter pilot. He was awarded the Vir Chakra in the 1971 operations when he was part of an IAF squadron. The views expressed are persol. He can be contacted at

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