A predatory China and toxic Pakistan are waiting for India to stumble.
The Bofors mummified our defence acquisitions, Rafale could entomb it, wrote ThePrint’s Editor-in-Chief Shekhar Gupta. It is a profound statement. The Rafale deal debate is snowballing and now the Supreme Court and the CBI have been drawn into it.
After a 15-year search, we can count only two squadrons of fighter aircraft. Overall, fighter aircraft procurement is facing a big crisis. A blight seems to be enveloping us. However, the crisis also presents an opportunity to de-mummify defence acquisitions. The S-400 deal with Russia, despite huge US pressure, and the complete turnaround in procurement of 155mm artillery guns indicate so.
36 vs 126
The fallout of the decision to go in for 36 Rafale jets in fly-away condition and scrapping the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) deal is bleak. Beyond a jump capability of two squadrons, there is an abyss. The RFI process for 110 aircraft has just commenced. This will take about 15 years to fructify. Is there scope for more Rafale jets in the present Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA)? Not clear. Can Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) step up with Tejas? Given its track record, it’s doubtful. If the vitiated political atmosphere continues, nothing can happen. The Indian Air Force (IAF) will continue undergoing an ageing implosion.
HAL has a poor production and maintenance track record. This was an opportunity to break HAL’s monopoly, reform it and create a strategic aerospace alternative. However, we might end up with Reliance ADAG. Dassault was free to choose its offset and maintenance partner. To think, it did due diligence and then chose Reliance ADAG! A rethink on Dassault itself is needed. Overall, we have lost an opportunity in creating a competitive and stable ‘Make in India’ aerospace environment.
Prime Minister Narendra Modi took a good call on outright purchase of 36 jets. However, was due diligence done? Was it an informed decision? It appears that many knew about this development only through newspapers. The defence procurement procedure (DPP), which was re-written by the government as the panacea for all procurement ills with much fanfare, has been allegedly bypassed. It has, in fact, been used to rubber stamp the decision. A decision to procure 36 fly-away Rafale with a provision for more would have been better.
Offset & maintenance worries
First, Reliance can be an offset partner, among others, for Dassault. However, I suggest Dassault Reliance Aerospace Limited (DRAL) or Reliance should not be middlemen entities to further dispense offsets. That’s irregular. Second, the offset and maintenance contracts must succeed over time.
If Reliance packs up and Dassault says it cannot execute its obligations, we will be left with a cold potato. Does the IGA ensure that Dassault will execute offsets or maintenance obligations then? French statements and reports indicate preparation of an exit route from the IGA. Will DRAL survive? While Dassault is the Original Equipment Manufacturer (OEM), it could renege if Reliance collapses. The maintenance issues are critical and need sewing up since the aircraft will be with us for decades.
India’s electronic media has disappointed. Discussions on TV on Rafale degenerate into a political ‘tu tu main main’ of who is fairest of them all. Accompanying ‘defence specialists’ and other lightweights contribute little. Debates end in limbo with ill-informed anchors hurriedly thanking all guests since time has run out. Print media has focused on current issues only – costs, legal and political. What about the issues beyond our noses? None. The media must feature debates to suggest the way ahead.
In 1962, when Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru put troops in a forward posture without adequate thought, we were humiliated. It has left our national psyche scarred for more than half a century. If the IAF is left debilitated for the next 10-15 years, the outcomes are scary. We might bluster our way through now. However, my bet is that cold analysis and historical judgements will not spare anyone.
The situation can be fully turned around by a statesman who can rise above the current morass of confrontational politics and inane bureaucratic procedure. A sensible and holistic middle path must be adopted. More of the same reinforces failure and is not an option. Stop applying band-aids on gunshot wounds. The nation expects visionary leadership. If the statesman among our leaders is reading this, the following five-fold multi-pronged path is recommended:
- IAF believes that the current deal is a fair one. Make it appropriately public. Adopt a consensual political approach.
- The new RFI for 110 aircraft will get stuck in a quagmire. Revisit the MMRCA deal. Ask the L1 and L2 bidders for a new commercial quote for 110 aircraft to shorten the timelines.
- Initiate reforms in HAL. Tejas production must be speeded up. This is mandatory.
- Press the eject button on Reliance from Rafale. Help Dassault choose another reliable offset and maintenance partner. That entity can be a stable and competitive national aerospace alternative to HAL.
- Reform the ministry of defence (MoD). Inject servicemen into the acquisition process. It cannot be a pure bureaucratic process. It needed a serviceman to conclude the Rafale contract negotiation committee (CNC). MMRCA failed due to standard bureaucratic procedure. The political hierarchy needs to realise this.
We are in extraordinary times of fast-depleting IAF potential. It needs extraordinary solutions. Thirty-six Rafale jets are only part of the solution. Procurement of balance fighter aircraft must be approached in a manner similar to the resolution of IL&FS case. The IL&FS case threatened national economic interests. This is worse. It severely threatens long-term national security. A predatory China and toxic Pakistan are waiting for India to stumble. There is a need to constitute a specially empowered board headed by and composed of proven, apolitical and reputed professionals, mandated to execute the suggested five-fold path.
I have seen the mummification of the acquisition process since Bofors. I don’t want to see it entombed with Rafale. That will be sad.
The author is Professor, Aerospace Dept, IIT Madras.