Rafale: Justifications Weaken, Suspicions Deepen


DEFENCE Minister Nirmala Sitharaman and an echo chamber of other senior ministers, unfortunately followed by the Air Chief and other IAF brass, have been rushing about holding press conferences and releasing statements justifying the modified government-to-government Rafale deal for 36 bought-out fighters as negotiated by Prime Minister Modi, suddenly terminating the near-completion negotiations for 126 Rafale fighters with 18 aircraft in fly-away condition from Dassault Aviation with the remaining to be built in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). With the deal already mired in many swirling controversies, these efforts have only made matters worse for the government, raising more questions than answers, and fuelling even more suspicion, since several of the statements are downright incorrect, misleading or aimed at creating a haze of confusion.

The main arguments put forward by way of justification have been: (a) by the IAF chief, that the Rafale is a very good fighter, badly needed by the IAF, and pleading that the deal not be jeopardised; (b) that restricting the order to 36 fighters from the originally tendered 126 was justified; (c) that the tender for 126 Rafales had to be cancelled in favour of the inter-governmental deal for 36 bought-out aircraft because negotiations between Dassault and HAL had collapsed; (d) that Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) in any case “did not have the capacity” to make Rafales in India; and (e) that the Indian government had no role in choosing Anil Ambani led Reliance Aerostructures as an offset partner, a decision left to the foreign commercial entity, the OEM Dassault, as in other offset deals.

On a charge of cronyism or worse involved in the totally inexperienced and deeply indebted Reliance company obtaining a windfall by way of a lucrative offsets contract, the government was even earlier highly vulnerable. It now truly finds itself in a corner after former French President Francois Hollande, during whose tenure the Modi government struck the government-to-government deal, dropped the proverbial bombshell by declaring that Reliance had been pre-selected by the Indian government for Rafale offsets, and that France had no choice or role in the matter, flatly contradicting repeated assertions by defence minister and other government spokespersons in India that this was a purely commercial decision by Dassault. Dassault’s weak statement that they had indeed selected Reliance on their own carries little credibility, since Dassault has obvious vested interest in not going against the Indian government position and jeopardising the deal.

This aspect and the major points made by the defence minister and the IAF brass require to be clarified, so that issues of vital national interest are not lost sight of in the din of sensationalism and a cloud of confusion.

The chief of the IAF has no cause for worry regarding the choice of the Rafale. During this entire Rafale controversy, nobody, especially not this column, has questioned the quality or choice of the Rafale fighter. It is interesting to note that in the ecosystem of corruption in India, illegal gratifications are not always a reflection of the product’s quality, and kickbacks or quid pro quo may be demanded simply to sign on the dotted line! In the case of the Bofors howitzer, no one had questioned its quality, which stood out during the Kargil conflict.

The Rafale was indeed selected from among all other contenders in the MMRCA tender after extensive trials under different conditions in India. However the main question about the Rafale, which the IAF chief did not deal with, remains why the number of aircraft required as per the tender was changed? Was the IAF wrong about its carefully worked out requirement of 126 fighters (7 squadrons)? Who decided that 36 will do? And, after all this and the Rafale having proven its suitability to IAF specifications, why was a fresh tender issued soon after for 110 fighters, forcing India to go through the arduous process all over again, causing further delay in the IAF’s dire need for new fighters and, inevitably, additional expenditure? It is not the public furore that should be troubling the IAF chief, but the flip-flops by the Modi government!

It is also shameful that the government is seeking to fend off public criticism by hiding behind the IAF, and in pressuring its chief to publicly defend it, especially when, as widely reported, the IAF was not involved in the decision by the political leadership to change the terms of the Rafale deal. 

In fact, given the current low fleet strength of the IAF and the long history of this particular acquisition, there is no reasonable explanation for the abrupt decision to restrict the order to 36 fighters. The IAF chief and the defense minister tried hard to justify it by citing the ‘emergency’ requirement for aircraft and for quick processing through the inter-governmental route, giving examples of similar earlier acquisitions of Mig-29s and Mirage-2000s. The actual facts and circumstances of these deals are at variance. 

India did indeed order these aircraft in an urgent mode, prompted by Pakistan’s acquisition of F-16s from the US. But after the initial order of 50 Mig-29s, India acquired a total of 78 including naval variants. Similarly, the Mirage 2000 order was for 40 fighters including four two-seater trainers, albeit against a requirement of 150 fighters involving licensed production by HAL. This order had been pruned to 40 due to the usual combination of bureaucratic dilly-dallying and financial short-term decision-making. After the Mirage’s huge success during Kargil, India even sought to acquire more aircraft, but decision-making took so long that Dassault had meanwhile closed its production line!

In fact, due to such flawed decision-making especially by the civilian bureaucracy but also contributed to by the IAF’s frequent and unexplained changes of mind and lack of strategic planning, the IAF is today stuck with an unwieldy fleet of small numbers of too many aircraft types, namely MiG-23/27s, Jaguars, Mig-29s, Mirage-2000s, and now wants to add to the logistical nightmare by adding a mere 36 Rafales! The IAF may need divine assistance if conflict breaks out! The original MMRCA decision to buy 126 Rafales would have gone a long way to ameliorate this problem, fitting nicely in an IAF fleet comprising sizeable numbers of Tejas/LCA and Sukhoi-30s. The Rafales are also in contention for the Navy’s forthcoming tender for 57 Naval, which should have been factored into the IAF’s Rafale acquisition. But all these considerations were set aside in the capricious decision to buy just 36 Rafales.

Defense minister too justified the limited acquisition by arguing that buying more aircraft all at once would strain infrastructure and logistics. What a strange argument, coming from a minister no less! No Air Force buys, and no manufacturer supplies, hundreds of aircraft at one go, and logistics and infrastructure are always readied to keep pace with deliveries. In any case, even the ‘emergency’ purchases of Rafales are arriving at a leisurely pace, over 3 years, starting in 2019. While there has been carping criticism of HAL for long delivery schedules, it should be noted that Dassault itself had supplied and the IAF was able to induct 40 Mirage 2000s almost within a single year, that too several decades ago!  

The most astounding claim by the defense minister, now being repeatedly advanced as the chief reason for scrapping the earlier tender for 126 fighters, is that HAL does not have the capacity to make Rafales, the quality of its production is questionable, and the earlier tender negotiations were bogged down because of HAL over price, quality, product guarantees and delivery schedule. This is a clear attempt by government to shift scrutiny away from itself and on to HAL, in the process causing huge damage to the reputation of India’s premier public sector aircraft manufacturer, and throwing HAL under the bus. 

First, as to capability. HAL is manufacturing over 200 advanced Sukhoi-30 MkI aircraft from basic raw materials. It is currently making almost 100 Hawk-132 Advanced Jet Trainers under license from BAe. It has set up a completely new helicopter plant near Bangalore where it will make hundreds of choppers including the Kamov 226 from Russia. It has also earlier undertaken a major upgrade of its over 40 Dassault Mirage-2000s, and has also manufactured under license 200 upgraded RD-33 engines for Mig-29s. It has also started serial production of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, with a recently stepped-up schedule of 18 aircraft per year.

It is a joke that this demonstrated HAL capability is being questioned and cited as a reason for cancelling the MMRCA tender by the government, which has however cheerfully accepted the selection of Reliance with ZERO experience in aircraft manufacture!

As for Dassault-HAL negotiations being bogged down, recent information emerging in the public domain seems to have nailed this is a blatant untruth.

It was known even earlier, but is reinforced by recent re-appearance of video recordings of press conferences by Dassault CEO Eric Trappier, in the presence of senior government and HAL officers in 2015 just a few weeks before PM Modi’s visit to France when the earlier deal was inexplicably scrapped, that the negotiations with HAL were “almost 95 percent completed,” that a workshare agreement had been arrived at between Dassault and HAL, as also confirmed by many international defence and aviation publications around that time.

Most importantly, other reports also confirmed that Dassault and HAL would be guaranteeing their respective work, so this was not a hurdle either, directly contradicting such a claim made by the defense minister herself. Some press reports have additionally revealed, based on interviews with Dassault officers, that extensive e-mail exchanges between Dassault engineers showed deep disquiet about working with the inexperienced Reliance.  

Recently retired HAL CMD Suvarna Raju, rarely for a retired PSU official, has confirmed that full license-manufacture details had been worked out with Dassault, and that HAL was fully prepared to stand guarantee for aircraft made by it. He agreed that HAL prices were high. However, government could have negotiated this with HAL by playing a forceful role and pumping in finances for necessary infrastructure, in the interests of self-reliant capability.

Importantly, HAL and the IAF have long been at loggerheads over delivery schedules, quality and cost. HAL must take its considerable share of responsibility for this state of affairs and its poor work culture. Yet the IAF too must overcome the persistent preference of many of its brass for imported equipment compared to indigenous HAL-made hardware, with a variety of sometimes questionable motivations. But above all, it is the role of the government, the political leadership, to bring to bear a strategic vision, and discipline, efficiency and work culture in its defence PSUs which function under the defence ministry and over which she has complete oversight. This accountability for DPSUs is completely missing, including but not only under, the present government. It will simply not do for the defense minister to say that HAL and Dassault were unable to agree on manufacturing in India, it is government’s job to bring about such an agreement. And it is even worse that inspired leaks to sections of the press have cited reports supposedly by the US Ambassador to India and by Dassault questioning HAL’s capabilities. Ever since independence, India has known that the US and other western powers have done their best to prevent self-reliance in S&T in India. It is a real shame the same forces are now being cited to discredit our own DPSU! 

Lastly, on offsets. Defense minister and other government spokespersons have frequently sought to hide behind various procedural stipulations related to defence procurement, for instance arguing that as per rules the foreign OEMs will select their own Indian partners for offsets work. All procedures are, or ought to be, subordinate to overarching strategic goals. Offsets are meant not just for keeping part of the expenditure within India, but to acquire advanced technologies and build self-reliant defence industries. This requires that offset activities and local partners are carefully selected with a strategic vision for expanding the technological base in identified sectors. This in turn requires a pro-active government role, not leaving it to commercial agreements between overseas and Indian partners.

Defense minister’s defence that choice of partner and offset task had been left to Dassault which picked Reliance for the purpose, defies common sense. Would Dassault or any other OEM, who have supposedly found even HAL wanting, choose an Indian partner like Reliance, with a poor financial record and no experience in aviation or even other manufacture? And even had they done so for whatever reasons, should the government have stood by silently instead of insisting on genuine technology transfer of some kind? It should also be realised that any foreign defence manufacturer would prefer to have a small, inexperienced Indian partner rather than HAL since the latter would actually absorb advanced technologies and potentially deprive the OEM of future markets, while the former could only do screw-driver assembly and be no threat whatsoever.

All the actions by the government on the Rafale deal, and all its attempts at post facto rationalisation, show it in a poor light, with no strategic vision for the defence sector, for defence manufacturing in India, and for self-reliant development. The Rafale deal is a hopeless mess and the longer the imbroglio drags on, the worse it will get, exposing India’s soft underbelly in the defence sector for all the world to see.

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