The current Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP)-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has, in its penultimate year in office, signed a flurry of arms deals, the largest among them, inevitably, enmeshing it in no end of trouble. The most important of these being for the French Rafale combat aircraft and for the Russian S-400 air defence system. Both these decisions are problematic for various reasons.
The charge of personal corruption, as alleged by sections of the Opposition, against Prime Minister Narendra Modi may not stick. However, what may be harder to defend are the procedural shortcuts adopted — no prior approvals by the Defence Acquisitions Council (DAC) and, more significantly, by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CAS) — before announcing the buy of 36 Rafale jets from the French aviation major, Dassault Avions, in April 2015.
Even worse, the Rafale was a redundant purchase that fills no clear or definite requirement or military need that’s not already being adequately met by the Su-30MKI in service with the Indian Air Force.
The long-hanging S-400 contract, on the other hand, can be faulted on the grounds that the mandatory offsets clause was waived.
At its core, the mindless hankering of the Indian military for the supposedly more sophisticated Western-origin armaments, in this case, of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for the Rafale, may be to blame. Time and again, it has led to corruption, scams, scandals and tainted regimes being voted out of power by an enraged and disillusioned public.
First, some basic facts. The Rafale is no more ‘medium’ weight than the Su-30 — both actually being in the heavy, 18-20 tonne, combat aircraft category. The concept of a medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) was invented out of thin air — advanced air forces subscribe to only the light and heavy types of fighter-bomber planes — to meet a non-existent requirement to be filled by a Western warplane.
This goal was finessed and the original Air Staff Qualitative Requirements (ASQRs) modified in 2002 by the directorate in air headquarters headed by AL Matheswaran to favour Rafale among the six aircraft in the MMRCA race — the EADS Typhoon Eurofighter, Saab Gripen, Lockheed F-16, Boeing F-18, and the Russian MiG-35.
The official explanation offered for the Rafale tilt during the Manmohan Singh decade was that it realised the strategic objective of 'diversifying' sources of military supply because over-dependence on Russia was imprudent. This flew in the face of common sense and historical record and, worse, exacerbated the logistics nightmare for the Air Force, especially in crises and war, with a mind boggling array of imported aircraft in its inventory — at last count over 27 different varieties, each requiring a separate supply line of spare parts and specialised support infrastructure.
Moreover, whether there is one aircraft or 200 of any given type, the investment in building up the repair and servicing infrastructure in far-flung air bases will be the same — humongous! The enormity of the logistics problems spawned by a too diverse inventory of planes is beginning to dawn on the IAF. For the first time a former chief, Air Chief Marshal Anil Tipnis has voiced concern.
The rationale of diversification doesn’t stand up to historical scrutiny. Russia has never sanctioned India and stopped the flow of spares and servicing support for its hardware in Indian military’s employ. What spares shortages have been experienced is because the Indian military has yet to understand the Russian system of indentation of spares.
This is not the case with the Western suppliers, with the United States, in particular, proving an extremely unreliable and punitive source. It has frequently imposed sanctions on India, cut off spares and grounded Indian capability, as happened, for instance, with the Indian Navy’s Sea King anti-submarine helicopter fleet after the 1998 nuclear tests.
In this context, the United Kingdom, Germany and France are equally susceptible to American pressure to tow its line. Around 40 percent of components and technology packages in Sweden’s Gripen is sourced to US companies. Washington can thus at any time stymie India’s military forces and who knows the stranglehold it could have in case the government follows through on its inclination to buy the F-16 or F-18.
These are the sorts of reasons that persuaded former Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar to be partial to the cost-effective option of enlarging the Su-30MKI force instead of getting embroiled in the MMRCA/Rafale deal.
Parrikar’s successor, Nirmala Sitharaman, has been vocal these past few weeks, giving interviews in a bid to staunch the criticism and stop the Rafale from becoming for the BJP what Bofors is for the Congress — the perennial sword of Damocles.
Sitharaman justified buying only 36 aircraft from France and that too without any transfer of technology (ToT) for almost the same amount as the cost of 126 Rafale as part of the MMRCA transaction that would have permitted 108 of this aircraft to be built in India with ToT. The original deal, she contends, was bad because the aircraft would not have been available for urgent induction.
Except, by her own lights the IAF will not be flying all 36 Rafale jets before 2022. But this is around the time that the first of the India-assembled aircraft would have been inducted. She brushed aside the scepticism about just two squadrons — too few aircraft to be used effectively — by saying there is a tender to be issued for 100 more of such aircrafts for production in India.
Given the controversy, Rafale will stand no chance of increasing its numbers in IAF, not even with ToT. That will mean an altogether new but still more dated single-engine aircraft from the MMRCA sweepstakes of the early 2000s (Eurofighter or F-16 or F-18 or Gripen or MiG-35) with yet another separate logistics set up and a rocketing price tag for a force of essentially antique aircraft entering the 2030s and 2040s. This is absurd, but try telling the IAF or the government that.
On its part, the IAF rationalises the small offtake of Rafale jets by talking of the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) weapons such as the Meteor air-to-air missile on board the Rafale as giving it uncommon punch. The trouble is the greater the stand-off range from which these BVR missiles are fired, the more likely they are to miss the target. If BVR ordnance are as effective as they are cracked up to be, then why is it that the 5th and 6th generation combat aircraft are emphasising their enhanced manoeuvring ability? This last would suggest that BVR missiles can be easily countered by good pilots on fast, agile, platforms.
As regards the charge of the government was favouring Anil Ambani, Sitharaman’s view that Dassault decided on its own to choose Reliance Defence as its strategic partner was refuted by a Dassault representative.
The minister’s defence of the deal for 36 Rafale jets is not credible. But is her rationale as to why the multi-billion dollar S-400 deal has no technology offsets, any more so? She says that negotiating technology offsets is time consuming and the immediate need for it led to the government fast-tracking a straightforward buy minus offsets.
In the Rafale case, the buy was likewise justified in terms of an oppressive timeline, but the outcome in both cases is that India has paid good money for no technology whatsoever. This is at a time when China too has acquired a few S-400 units and is expected to reverse-engineer this system inside of a decade, field it, and to pass it to its partners, like Pakistan.
With the defence procurement system titled towards importing arms, India’s status as an arms dependency is preserved. This gives the impression that the Make in India programme, as many long ago suspected, is only an empty slogan.(Bharat Karnad is professor, Centre for Policy Research, and author. Views expressed are personal.)