Weekend Ruminations
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It can be no one’s case that buying complex weaponry like fighter aircraft or helicopters is easy business. The Comptroller and Auditor General’s (CAG) report on air force purchases mentions 660 specifications in the medium fighter order, and 42 for a radar system. Nor can it be a cut-and-dried process — for that might lead to all bidders in most contracts being disqualified at the outset. Besides, the relative importance given to individual specifications or product features can significantly affect judgements on what the best offer is and (let’s face it) these are often matters of judgement. In the real world, there would also be user preferences as with the air force, which kept insisting in the early stages that it wanted the Mirage because of its performance in the Kargil war. Did similar air force pressure explain the choice of the Rafale (Mirage’s successor) in 2012, though the aircraft did not qualify?

The choice can be between tweedledum and tweedledee. The Eurofighter Typhoon must have been as good as the Rafale, since it too was shortlisted; and, earlier, the French alternative as good as Sweden’s Bofors gun. But would choosing the Eurofighter have obviated the “India-specific enhancements” and its bill of $1.4 billion or more, incurred basically to make the Rafale meet the required specifications? On top of that, diplomatic considerations can and have influenced choices. What else can explain why the benchmark price for heavy-lift helicopters was changed after the financial bids had been opened?! In the end, therefore, while audit strictures must be taken seriously, real-world perspectives do intrude into the frame.

Audit reports themselves don’t do much better than the more complex business of buying weapons. It passes understanding, for instance, as to why the CAG acquiesced to the defence ministry’s insistence on financial secrecy with regard to the Rafale contract, when all the financial numbers are laid out for all the other weapons acquisitions reviewed in the same CAG report! Also, it is obvious that the CAG has given the government a free pass by not putting a number to the amount that the Rafale was allowed to save by avoiding financial guarantees. So much for auditors.


Also read: Modi’s BJP is sliding down the Rafale slope. It must stop outraging and come clean


Are the elaborate processes and procedures for buying weapons sub-optimal precisely because they are so elaborate? Put into the equation the time factor, for it takes eight to 10 years in many cases for a selection process to be carried through while the defence services wait. Indeed, in the end there may be no acquisition at all (as with the AgustaWestland), or technology has changed in the interim. Is a simpler, shorter process possible for choosing between competitive bids? After all, most acquisitions in recent years have been done with no competitive bidding at all. As for the perennial issue of pay-offs, only the naive would think there are none when the purchases are so large that they can make or break vendors, when decisions are taken at multiple levels over years, and the choices are so complex as to be capable of endless fiddling (an air chief faces charges for allegedly having fiddled one number).

Meanwhile, there are no real answers to the larger questions. There is, for instance, no satisfactory explanation why only 36 fighter aircraft were ordered when the air force needed 126 necessitating now a second round of bidding for the same kind of aircraft and possible delay of several years in getting the balance aircraft. The defence ministry’s response on the issue (says the CAG) is that light combat aircraft were also being ordered. That treats medium and light aircraft as interchangeable. But with the Tejas also making slow progress, the air force is now trying to get hold of extra Sukhoi-30s, which are heavy aircraft! On top of this haphazard building of the fleet, we have the air force’s seemingly ingrained distaste for putting in the effort to support a domestic aircraft manufacturing industry (such as the navy has done for shipbuilding). So the country gets locked into permanent import dependence of the kind that no other country with a large defence budget (other than Saudi Arabia) is exposed to. Something sure is rotten in the state of Denmark.


Also read: Modi should not allow Rafale jet deal to become another Bofors


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7 Comments Share Your Views

7 COMMENTS

  1. I have a simple question.
    When can we learn to respect a doer? Rajiv Gandhi did a lot but got trapped in the Bofors muddle. The one sided JPC and the investigations by ‘The Hindu’ turned it into a big mess. Anyway that is history.
    Now, not withstanding his style of functioning, Modi has done a lot for the country. However, the opinion makers and the media is taking great pains to prove him as a failure.
    I look forward to objective writings on the Rafale episode. As things stand, Congress wants to paint it as a financial scandal. The journalists and the columnists want to prove it as some kind of bungling. We the readers are left with a confusing mess. As a nation, who is responsible for providing cutting edge equipment to our Armed Forces. Is the Congress styled inaction , the answer?
    If our forces fail at the time of reckoning who will take the responsibility?

  2. The whole problem is we don’t have statesman. We don’t have people who can take decision
    With due regards to Sri Antony , the moment that some irregularities are aired ,Antony prefered to cancel the whole exercise.

  3. If the ISEs were a favour to Rafale, they should not have been so frightfully expensive, accentuated by the cost being shared by very many fewer aircraft. The saving on account of the bank guarantee not being provided ought to have been clawed back, at least 50%, if not all of it. The normal CAG guidelines that precluded post tender negotiations are meant for lesser beings, not the sovereign itself. So either Eurofighter could have been entertained, or its 20% discount could have been used as a lever to drive a hard bargain with a Dassault.

    • Actually, Typhoon is a death trap : Austria and Spain are trying to sell theirs on 2nd hand market and Germany does the same for their block-1.
      Typhoon is extremely costly to maintain, moreover upgrading block1 to actual standards costs more than buying a brand new one.
      Now another point : Malaysia published the annual cost of maintenance of their Mig-29 which are newer than Indian ones…
      $13 millions a year to keep each airborne… Rafale costs $5M/year. Rafale won the competition, the AF wants Rafale but MoD has prefered postponing the purchase to buy means of recon, fearing a Daesh spillover from the Philippines.
      AFAIK, Su-30 is even more costlier to maintain than MiG-29…
      Beware of BAe bargains : they convinced Brit MoD to let them fully build the 2 aircraft carriers instead of building two thirds of 3, 1 third going to the French, as would have the 3rd ship… UK ended paying more than the double of what they would have paid hadn’t they cheated the agreement with France.
      BAe lobbied like hell to push the French out of the Eurofighter consortium, convincing the Germans that building a multirole aircraft and having it optionally carrier-capable would be more expensive. So they did an air superiority specialised aircraft which ended… Way more expensive than Rafale and… Inferior at ding air superiority!
      Fighter-jets are not Arabian carpets, you know… Rafale has serious stealth features, the method is different but as if not more efficient than F-22 or F-35…. Typhoon is not stealth at all…. Good luck if there are J-20 or J-31 to confront…

  4. Very well written and thought provoking article. I would like to add few thoughts of my own: (1) What could the government had done after realising that 7 years of acquisition process has yielded an absurd situation that no supplier was eligible.? (2) It is now undoubtedly established fact that price was around Rs.1600 crore per plane , (+) /(-) few hundred crore based on the method of calculation. Could India have afforded to buy 126 planes? The cost is exorbitantly high, in the range of 1.7 trillion Rupees! (3) Does resorting to transfer of technology lead us to self reliance.? We are manufacturing Sukhoi planes with the help of Russia. The engine and all the critical parts are still imported from Russia. Cost of servicing these planes is exorbitantly high. High percentage of planes remain grounded. Is it self-reliance? (4) Kaveri project for designing Tejas engines stands abolished. India can launch Mangal Abhigyan, can sent record number of satellites in the space, but is unable design a fighter plane engine! Why have we neglected indigenous research and development in aeronautical engineering.?

    • Pramod Patil : there is no Rs.1600 crore per plane! 50% of the contract is an offset to be reinvested in India through oint ventures with Indian companies. The goal is to create an ar-industry in the private sector, and this includes jet engines, avionics, electronic warfare, radars, etc etc etc!
      Now, when you have such a contract, you don’t just buy the aircraft, you buy the weapons, e.g. the long range Meteor missile is able to shoot down another fighter plane at ???? (classified) km (some experts consider that having the same weight as AIM-120D which ranges 180km but using a ramjet instead of rocket engine, the range is likely to be about 250, maybe 300km!). Such an asset is pretty expensive, knowing that the smaller MICA already costs about €1.1M, nevertheless, these missiles are barely inescapable : if dodged, they’re the only ones to re-lock on target. There are other stuffs in the weapons package.

      Now, IAF wants custom options onboard, e.g. being able to not only use EU or US weapons (all MBDA, some from Raytheon, Boeing or Lockheed) as do all NATO aircraft, but also Indian, Russian and Israeli ones.
      From there, you need custom hardpoints for the Russian weapons, but also, for ANY weapon not already available onboard, to integrate each into the weapon system (computer, sighting, etc). This has to be done once per type, but… Well, ask a single additional weapon to Lockheed for a F-16 e.g. carrying a Russian laser guided bomb and they’ll bill you $100 millions!
      Another mod was to fit the Elbit HMD, the super hi tech helmet initially supposed to be used in F-35. Well, Dassault propose their own model, but IAF wants the Israeli one, so, again, you have to integrate this.

      In fact, the flyaway cost for a Rafale is said being inferior to a Super-Hornet or the last F-16V while you have a platform rivalling F-22 and F-35 in the same airframe. Now, the mods to do are not deep ones : all that is needed is to be able to connect the helmet and having the custom pylons, but, even if India is said having obtained a super-bargain price for integration of other weapons, such a process, even for just a dozen, can be very costly.

      Add to this : professional simulators, dedicated maintenance facilities, spare-parts, training, etc etc etc, now you get that there are many other things than the flyaway cost of the aircraft!.

      A point that you also may seem to ignore :
      HAL-made Su-30MKI, due to numerous customisations, already costed $76 millions per unit, with the last upgrades which include re-skinning with Su-35 adar absorbent materials, these end bein more expensive than a Rafale… And Rafale can carry more payload, has more range, and even much more through mid-air refuelling since engines can run for a longer time, but moreover, Rafale is way more reliable (zero crash due to failures, all were man-induced) and easier to maintain, in intensive use, a Rafale can fly 3-4x more missions per day.
      In fact, it would have been a better idea to order Rafales instead of Su-30MKI in 2001 and having Dassault re-implied in Tejas.
      Just consider this : a Mig-29 costs $13M a year in maintenance and Su-30 even more. Rafale’s cost is $5M a year. In the end, it even costs less to buy new Rafales than maintaining Su-30 and Mig-29 in service, especially since Mig-29 and Su-30 engine need factory full overhaul ever 1000 hours, then you trash the Su-30 engine after 3000h of use and the Mig-29’s after 4000h. Rafale’s engine needs only the overhaul of it’s (removable) core every 4,000 hours and the engnes will last as long as the airframe if not more. If one of the module starts having problem, you can replace the module.
      When it comes to INAF’s Mig-29K/KUB, everytime they deck-land on the aircraft carrier, the landing gear breaks.
      Having 45 Mig-29K/KUB, INAF never managed to have a full squadron (18) airborne at the same time…. In fact, they wanted Rafale-M instead of Mig-29K but were rebuked by the MoD…
      Sorry, you don’t make a Bugatti out of a Volkswagen…

      Now think about some other stuff coming from the offset :
      Rafale’s RBE2/AESA radar has been a bit modified to fit in HAL Tejas’ nose and DRDO has given the green light… The initially planed Elta radar ranges 150km… Here you have a monster ranging 300km making Tejas able to use the Meteor missile that all experts consider being the best AAM on market.
      Safran has prepared a 98kN version of the Rafale’s M88 engine, it’s has simply revived the Kaveri engine program and will soon be flight tested onboard Tejas! Moreover, Dassault has already purveyed blueprints to modify Tejas for M88, actually it’s not a problem since… Tejas came from Dassault blueprints for a single-engine baby-Rafale! They received the bueprints for a demonstrator using the General Electrc F404 engine, just like Rafale-A since the Safran M88 wasn’t available at the time, but both Rafale and Tejas were initially conceived with M88 in mind! India bought the blueprints and 1 year Dassault assistance in 1988.
      So, what can come from this?
      – M88 is smaller and lighter than GE F404 (Hornet+Gripen-A engine) and F414 (Super-Hornet+Gripen-E engine) planned for Tejas Mk1 and Mk2. Mk1 lacks internal fuel and F404 lacks thrust. The ongoing idea was to make a Mk2 with F414 and an elongated fuselage to allow more fuel. With the smaller M88/Kaveri, you can pack the needed fuel in a modifed Tejas Mk1 with the same thrust you”d have in Tejas Mk2 while ending with an empty weight inferior to Mk1! In fact, Mk1 will end with as much fuel and thrust as a Mirage-2000 which is 1,800kg heavier.
      And both the engine and the radar would be made in India!
      – The Rafale’s active stealth into its SPECTRA electronic warfare suite has been isolated by Thales+DRDO, Tejas will receive this (Tejas is too small to receive the full SPECTRA system), it’s likely that the last upgrade to Su-30MKI will also receive it: they’re being modified to receive Su-35’s radar absorbent skin but DRDO rejected the Russian active stealth system.
      Moreover, both Rafale and Tejas use the same materials ad actually, 70% is to be subcontracted in the private sector.
      Now, will these mods be applied and Tejas Mk2 scrapped? Thus now They’re speaking about a dual engine Tejas with two F414 onboard…
      Well, I’m very dubious about it, it will take more than a decade : you have to fully change all the aerodynamics, F414 is outdated, large and heavy, it’s also not a modular engine = maintenance hungry, it’d become a flying-cow just like Super-Hornet while, let’s suppose that Yanks had fit M88 into the classic Hornet and made it with composite, the additional fuel and payload would have been obtained with minor mods…
      I’m not the one who decides, but I know a lot about aviation, so was I in charge… Well, if Indian MoD is looking for a French advisor with serious understanding of weapons systems to help taking the right decisions (not only about aircraft) and not affiliated to any company…. I can even advise them how to modify a 5.56 assault riffle to shoot at 1km and I’m not against the idea of becoming an expat if my conditions of living are OK. I can make ’em sparing many many Rs crore.

      Now you start to get what the 1st Rafale contract is all about!
      Having Dassault, Safran, Thales and their subcontractors settling in India through joint-ventures is a win-win thing, even more now FGFA/Su-57 has been scrapped.
      Now think about this :
      2 thirds of Indian AF are obsolete. there is a need for 14 (2 to be delivered) squadrons of 18 medium weight fighters and also 14 squadrons of 21 light weight ones, add to this 3 squadrons of catapult-capable fighters for the INAF and the future INS Vishal aircraft carrier and add 1 aircraft per squadron as a spare.
      And you’d end with Rafale and Tejas sharing the same engine, radar, materials….
      => scale economy, easier logistics
      Nevertheless, this would mean that Indian industry would have to build 287 Rafale (incl. 57 Rafale-M) and 308 Tejas/M88-Kaveri
      => Need to have 2 Rafale assembly lines (18 units/year) and 4 Tejas assembly lines (8 units/year) . Count at least 2 years b4 starting buildinf if you fast-track the building of an assembly line, then 2 more years until deliveries start as it takes 2 years to build a fighter jet!

      The problem : decisionship! I’m sorry to say this, but you Indians are, at least when it comes to military gear, are changing advice just like I change my underwear, moreover, any decision is as epic as the Mahabharata.

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