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Last Updated : Jan 11, 2019 12:25 PM IST | Source:

Opinion | Two important questions in the Rafale vs Eurofighter debate

The onus for the conviction of Christian Michel will be on the authorities who will have to prove that he fell into the illegal middleman category rather than the legal, paid employee category.

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Representative Image
Representative Image

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

Christian Michel’s revelations of lobbying in favour of the Eurofighter seem (once again) to have set the cat among the pigeons in the whole Rafale saga. This begs two questions: One, what did Christian do and was it illegal? Two, how do the Eurofighter and Rafale match up and did India get the right plane?

From press reports one is yet to discern any clear illegality in Michel’s actions with regards to the Eurofighter as opposed to a clear line of illegality with regards to the Augusta Westland helicopters. The allegations so far are of acting as a consultant to Eurofighter and writing strategy papers for them. This is common practice as many companies will seek out ‘old experienced India hands’ when entering a contest here. The role of these India hands is to advise on the Indian system and how to go about working it.

So the question is: What is the difference between the much-dreaded ‘middleman’ and ‘consultants’?

Primarily, in the Indian legal definition this depends on if the person in question is paid a regular remuneration for services rendered on a regular basis or on a one-off basis (consultants and advisers) or if the remuneration is a percentage cut depending on the outcome of a deal (middlemen). The belief (though not substantiated by statistics) is that the former is legitimate while the latter incentivises corruption.

To extend a tour guide analogy, pre-payment for your day tour of Paris might get you a horrid grumpy guide who explains nothing properly to you. On the other hand, if you hire an enterprising youngster (a la Slumdog Millionaire) with the promise of good things at the end if he/she does a good job, you’ll get an individual willing to bend/break a few rules for you including bribe the occasional museum to cut the queue.

Given this, the onus for the conviction of Michel will be on the authorities who will have to prove that he fell into the illegal middleman category rather than the legal, paid employee category.

This brings us to the substance of the Eurofighter vs Rafale arguments. I do not think highly of the Rafale jets and feel the Eurofighter is superior. However, given a choice, I would have picked the Swedish Gripen or the F-18 over the Eurofighter and Rafale.

The Eurofighter’s advantages are a mature active electronically scanned array (AESA) (the Indian Rafale has a similar radar albeit later in development), a two-way data link with the meteor missile unlike the Rafale’s one-way link (this enables the aircraft to use the missile as a forward observation post and disengage much quicker, leaving the missile to attack autonomously), better manoeuvrability, and; better on board power for brute force jamming.

On the other hand, the Rafale, unlike the all active approach to war the Eurofighter takes, has a more passive approach, preferring to control its electronic emissions instead. Its primary advantage visible then (and without the benefit of hindsight) is that it is a single nation product and hence at least in the Indian mind has a higher probability of full technology transfer (this is not true as at least 17% of the Rafale’s key technologies, contributing to a major chunk of its combat efficiency, are made in the US).

Today, with the benefit of hindsight we know three things: One, the Rafale’s range was significantly greater than the Eurofighter, as evidenced by its flight fully loaded from St Dizier in the north of France to take part in the 2011 Libyan regime change operation. Two, the French had agreed to allow its modification for the carriage of nuclear weapons. Three, and most importantly, the Indian Air Force knew by 2009 at the latest that the Sukhoi was underperforming severely in terms of range, availability and electronics.

In effect the Eurofighter was the best match going by advertised specifications. The Rafale was the best match going by unadvertised exigencies that arose in the 2004 to 2009 period.

In the end what we have to understand is that there is no ‘one fits all’ solution to the problems the IAF faces. Moreover, it must not be forgotten that India has tried thrice since Independence to industrialise its defence sector and failed all three times. Given this, you end up settling for even more imperfect solutions.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies, New Delhi. He tweets at @iyervval. Views are personal.

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First Published on Jan 11, 2019 08:33 am
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