Rafale deal: View: In all the chatter on Rafale, it’s the IAF that’s losing out


Nobody with even a rudimentary interest in national security will dispute that the Indian Air Force (IAF) needs more firepower. Currently, it has 600 combat aircraft, and 33 active squadrons against a sanctioned strength of 44. We face two implacable foes, on our western and northern borders.

India’s 2018-19 defence budget totalled Rs 2.82 trillion, 11.6% of total budgeted expenditure and a modest 7.7% rise on the previous fiscal year. But as an Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses paper (Defence Budget 2018-19: The Imperative of Controlling Manpower Cost, Laxman K Behera, goo.gl/DXCWS1) noted, 44% of the defence budget goes towards pay and allowances: there are 2.5 million pensioners. There is very little money left for capital expenditure, for modernisation. From this small pie, IAF gets a measly 23%.

Any talk of a leaner and meaner military is met with shock and horror. The government has declared it will open up defence production to the private sector. But at least as far as the air force is concerned, no private plane contract has been handed out.

Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is India’s only military plane-maker. Like other defence public sector undertakings (DPSUs), it has enjoyed a monopoly for most of the past 70 years. It does not have IAF personnel embedded in its ecosystem. There is no partnership. It makes products for the IAF, but there is mutual suspicion.

The mud is flying over the Rafale deal. Not surprisingly, some of it is sticking to HAL, which has been churning out MiGs, Jaguars, Mirages, Hawks and Sukhois — and probably charging the government more than it should, if you heard defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman last week.

HAL has produced about a hundred each of the Jaguars and Hawk trainers. It is nearing the end of its licenced production run of 222 Sukhoi Su-30MKIs. It wants more work. Its last chief was quoted as offering to make 40 extra Sukhois for the IAF at onethird the price of a Rafale, if given the chance. But will it?

Not Until It’s Rocket Science

Along the way, the Sukhois have been modified and upgraded, but nowhere is the Indian talent for jugaad more on view than with the Jaguars. The IAF is the world’s only air force flying the planes now, and Air Chief Marshal B S Dhanoa said in July that we hope to fly them for at least another decade by cannibalising parts from other Jaguars. He called it “obsolescence management”.

That is a sad thing to say in the third biggest market for weapons (after the US and China), in a nation that is building world-class rockets but cannot build a state-of-the-art combat aircraft.

More than three decades after the light combat aircraft (LCA) project was kicked off, the IAF is still flying the obsolete MiG-21s. (It also has a handful of upgraded MiG-21Bis and a hodgepodge of MiG-27s and 29s.) It took until July 2016 for the first Tejas to be inducted into the IAF’s No 45 Squadron. So far, HAL has delivered only nine Tejas aircraft, although 40 are on order and the IAF wants another 83. The government boasted that Tejas was the first fighter “designed, developed and manufactured in India” — more than 60% of its parts are imported.

The Tejas has flown over 4,000 test sorties, successfully test-fired the Derby beyond visual range (BVR) missile, and recently carried out a successful mid-air refuelling. The IAF is already asking for more — typical ‘requirements creep’ where the customer’s demands steadily rise. Those changes mean more time and escalating prices. “The loser in all of this is the user, the air force,” one expert told me.

Fighter technology is moving rapidly. Lockheed Martin may license Tata Advanced Systems to build all its F-16 wings in India. But the US Air Force no longer buys the plane, the IAF does not want to be an also-ran because Pakistan already has it, and the technology is nearly half-a-century old. India can, and should, buy the latest technology.

Rivals are also turning allies. Airbus’ Eurofighter Typhoon is considered more advanced than Dassault’s Rafale. Although both were finalists in the IAF’s stillborn 2007 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) contest, and are Generation 4.5, the two companies announced in April that they plan to cooperate on developing Europe’s Future Air Combat System.

China has developed the Chengdu J-20 stealth fighter. Others in the fifth generation are Lockheed Martin’s F-22 and the Sukhoi Su-57.

The Rafale Raffle

In April, the IAF announced a new MMRCA contest, this time for 110 single-engined fighter aircraft, with the stipulation that not more than 15% of them would be bought off the shelf. The remainder would be built in India with an Indian ‘strategic partner’.

The six vendors who entered the 2007 contest have again thrown their hats in the ring. A seventh, Russia’s Sukhoi, has made a late bid with the Su-35. The 36 Rafales, to be delivered between 2019 and 2022, will be built at Dassault’s Bordeaux plant in France. This deal has no value for India in terms of technology or jobs.

But don’t hold your breath over MMRCA 2.0. The heat over Rafale has poisoned the chalice, and nothing will happen until after the general election. Once again, the IAF gets short shrift.


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