2 May 2015

The mysterious Rafale riddle

Abhijit Bhattacharyya

When analysing a subject like India's air force, it is important to rely only on facts. Thus an air force, which is one of the top five forces in the world, today has an ageing asset, with "some 500 fixed-wing operational aircraft, significantly down from the total of 850 in 2006". Printed open source information like that of the (latest) Jane's All the World's Aircraft shows that India has nine types of combat aircraft, the breakup of which gives a rather dismal scenario as on date. Of the "original total of 29 year old 70 MiG-29" (1986) only 53 are flying. The strength of 30-year-old (1985) "46 Mirage 2000H is down to 38". Also 30-year-old (1985) "165 MiG-27ML number has dwindled to 89". The 1979-inducted "125 Jaguar IS number stands at 89". The strength of "14 (original) maritime version Jaguar" (1986) too has come down to 10 after 29 years. Upgraded since 1999, the strength of MiG-21 Bis stands at 117. The other version of MiGs which has completed its golden jubilee in the IAF still flies with its 78 aircraft. The only exception fighter aircraft is 200 Sukhoi-30MKI, which has been operational for the last 13 years, from 2002. The other new (limited combat capable) flying machine is the BAE Systems manufactured Hawk Mark-132 advanced jet trainer (AJT), 66 of which, covered by the original contract, were delivered by mid-2012. Interestingly, it was only after a 21-year wait that the Indian government completed negotiations concerning the purchase of 66 BAE Systems aircraft. Delivery began in 2007. What sort of cost overrun had resulted owing to the time overrun, in turn resulting in the loss of public money and adversely affecting the IAF's operational preparedness and morale?

Thus, every combat aircraft of the IAF inventory is of foreign origin, all imported and most of them now vintage. Indeed strange as to how India, in spite of its indigenous missile development programme, its success in combat ship-building, the manufacture of the Arjun main battle tank, commendable space research and progress in nuclear science and technology, continues in its total dependence on foreign manufacturers for its air fighting machines. This is because India has miserably failed to take up indigenous combat aviation research, development and production seriously. All governments have failed to give direction and make officials in charge complete a long-term indigenous military aviation plan. Deep inside perhaps was the feeling: "Why should my political rival in future enjoy the benefit from a plan of action conceived and initiated by me?" Similarly, there also existed a powerful 'import lobby' to get the 'latest and the best of technology', thereby resulting in the slow progress in combat aircraft development in India. Times moved fast but Indian aviation technology failed to keep pace.

That is not all. Overthe years, one of the most 'critical problems' faced by the IAF has been its poor safety record and high accident rate. In the region of 1000 combat aircraft have been lost to accidents since 1970. In 2012, the defence minister said that "33 fighter aircraft and 10 helicopters had been destroyed in accidents between 2008 and March 2012". Further, it had earlier been reported by the "Defence Ministry in August 2011 that of the total of 946 MiG-21" inducted into the IAF, "476 had been lost in accidents". If one tries to calculate the cost and loss of men, material and money to the nation, one shudders to contemplate the result.

In August 2007, when India released a request-for-proposal for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft to replenish its depleting air assets and to keep pace with the modernization of China and Pakistan, one sincerely wished the government the best of acquisition and quick recovery from a prospective grim scenario. But that was not to be. It took four years and five months for the government to announce in January 2012 that it had chosen (French) Dassault Aviation's Rafale over the Euro-fighter Typhoon, as its preferred bidder for the contest.

One thought that at last things will be on the move. Again that was not to be. "Rafale was selected as it was the lowest bidder." And the joint contract negotiating committee of the MMRCA was soon bogged down owing to "rising inflation, a more than 20% fall in the value of the Indian rupee against the US dollar... and over 40-50 'un-priced items' reportedly listed in Dassault's original bid as miscellaneous". Reportedly, the "price of each aircraft shot up from around US$ 65-70 million to US$ 110-120 million". The original ministry of defence sanctioned US$ 10.4 billion dramatically shot up thereby putting the entire request-for-proposal up for various evaluation processes, which had "643 technical aspects in desert, coastal and high-altitude conditions across India and in the respective vendors' countries", and the final selection of the aircraft into jeopardy. Indian air force stared at the grim prospect of being "all air and no force", thanks to the monumental failure of the government of India to take a decision. Indian defence faced perhaps the worst crisis since the Nehru-Menon era when China attacked in 1962.

The immediate fallout of this protracted negotiation and the consequential adverse effect on the forces appear to have inflicted an invisible cost overrun on another front. Delays of Rafale procurement compelled the IAF to extend the operational life of its ageing and vintage air assets well beyond their retirement date/life. Understandably, successive air chiefs were upset and expressed their concern. And rightly so, because old machines mean more time on the ground and less time in the air. Its logistics, spares, maintenance and technical personnel, all become more expensive and at times scarce. It simply compromises the quality of operational preparedness as well as training of the flying and technical crew. It is a nightmare and a potential failure on and off the air.

What then was the course of action available to India when the Indian delegation, led by the prime minister, faced a stark reality in Paris? Rafale had been chosen but the final contract was in deep freeze. Almost 30 per cent of air force operational squadrons were virtually non-operational owing to the under-strength fleet. Cost escalation had reached alarming proportions. Defeated rivals were up in arms to make ano-ther desperate attempt to push out the Rafale. Foreign ambassadors were giving audacious press statements castigating the Indian choice of an 'inferior' flying machine. The cancellation of the Rafale contract would put the clock back. Again another request-for-proposal to selection of the aircraft would mean an additional 4-5 years. And by that time the IAF would emerge as a force on paper. Not a very pleasant situation to be faced by any Indian prime minister when his foreign visit is meant to be for capital infusion, trade collaboration, favourable investment environment and industrial co-development. It was an unthinkably adverse climate. The IAF compelled India to go for a deal which is bound to be raised by critics and cynics alike in the future, especially by those who had a high stake (legal or illegal) in the continuation of the original deal which had begun in 2007. Hence, though the present outright purchase of 36 aircraft (which means two squadrons) cannot be faulted tactically and technically, the strategic acquisition needs urgent overhaul.

No comments: