by Major General Harsha Kakar (Retd)

The Rafale verdict from the apex court is out. It has cleared all issues raised by the opposition. It has exonerated all stages of the acquisition process including the price negotiation, conducted by the current air chief. In its judgement the apex court stated, ‘we cannot lose sight of the fact that we are dealing with a contract for (fighter) aircraft, which was pending before different governments for quite some time and necessity for those aircraft has never been in dispute.’ Thus, it has accepted that procurement of military hardware is essential for national security.

The Rafale case was red flagged by politicians who have never been in close contact with the enemy nor have any understanding of the fact that Indian armed forces are ensuring security with outdated equipment and technology. Their emphasis has been to gain political mileage including cancelling procurement, secure in the belief that the soldier would fight for the nation and sacrifice his life with whatever equipment he is given. Such an approach by politicians lower their standing and image in public eye and displays their ignorance.

The defence ministry in its response to the judgement stated, ‘(it) brings to close an exercise of vilification and casting doubts on the defence acquisition process which has an adverse impact on the morale of the armed forces.’ There is no doubt that the Rafale controversy impacted the armed forces as the political battle seemed to indicate that the ruling party is gambling with soldiers’ lives, while the opposition is seeking to cancel procurement of an equipment which is desperately needed for national security to replace aircraft which should have been discarded decades ago.

While the Rafale deal is signed and closed and the aircraft is on its way in, yet any negative decision could severely impact future procurement, as it would impose caution on procurement processes. Consecutive Indian governments ignored the private sector in defence matters and the DRDO remained decades behind in development, compelling the nation to import military hardware to meet forthcoming security challenges.

Historically, Indian defence deals have always been under a scanner. All deals are scrutinised by CAG and many also by intelligence agencies seeking information on malpractices. Such was the fear on kickbacks that Anthony, as the defence minister, refused to ink any contracts,afraid his name would be tarnished, in case of any accusations. The result was defence procurement suffered, leading to degradation of military capabilities.

The artillery saw no induction since the Bofors in the early eighties, while the air force continued with outdated aircraft, losing pilots and machines at regular intervals. Its squadron strength kept depleting, while politicians, ignorant on national security, bickered on kickbacks.

In every defence deal, with equipment from across the globe competing, firms which miss the final contract, blame the company which bagged it, of illegal actions. This has always been the norm in India. They would garner support of politicians, influential personalities or even elements of the press to project fake claims of kickbacks. Such accusations could place an entire deal in jeopardy and lead to re-initiating the entire process, leading to delays.

Companies resort to such actions as deals are lucrative and enhance employment avenues in the production country. In many cases, senior government representatives visiting India also push for procurement of products produced within their nation. India being the second largest importer of defence equipment is a sought-after market.

The final deal, in most cases, involves not only procurement of the equipment but also its maintenance and supply of spares for its entire life cycle. This ensures that the company has an assured business for a long time.Even if an equipment has been evaluated and not selected by India, it finds a market in other smaller nations as the Indian trial process is very elaborate.

In addition, there are inimical nations which attempt to delay procurement, ensuring vital military capabilities are lacking. Most Indian neighbours would prefer a militarily weak India.

Recent deals including the AgustaWestland and Tatra truck have had proven cases of kickbacks. In both these deals defence officers were directly involved. While these are being probed and legally acted upon, all cases should not be considered on similar lines.

India is a democracy and hence all actions of the government should be scrutinised by the opposition. However, the scrutiny should not lead to false accusations as these impact the entire process and national security. Further, in the chain of processing, there would be differing viewpoints, and these would need to be debated. One differing viewpoint should not be considered as an authority to cancel a deal.

These differing views also do not indicate erroneous decisions but are a part of a democratic process. Political scrutiny should not result in blocking or delaying a procurement as the impact is on national security level.It should lead to further refinement in the system to prevent misappropriation and closing loopholes for the future.

The ex-air chief, Air Marshall Dhanoa, had on multiple occasions stated that the Rafale would be a game changer for India. He was aware of the significance of the deal for enhancing air power, as the number of squadrons held were rapidly depleting. His comments were criticised by the opposition as interference in political affairs.

Opposition politicians missed out that he always spoke on the capability of the of the aircraft and its impact on enhancing airpower and not on the procurement process. The supreme court had even directed senior air force officers to testify on the capability of the aircraft and its impact on national security.

There are multiple processes in procurement and at every stage there are decisions to be made on moving forward to the next step. The trial process is itself prolonged and covers every aspect of the equipment as the service concerned is aware that once the equipment is inducted it would remain in service for decades. It is also assessed on cost and maintenance all through its life cycle.

Fake accusations, as made on the Rafale, creates panic within those involved in processing such cases, compelling them to delay decision making or continue raising queries such that the decision is not taken on their watch. The process, despite being streamlined, takes immense time prior to being completed. It has taken over a decade before the Rafale deal was signed and another few years before all aircraft are inducted.

Security challenges are increasing by the day. The forces need to be prepared to thwart misadventures by adversaries. With a poor domestic defence industry there is no option but to import. Standalone equipment like air and naval systems are slow in procuring and have a prolonged lifespan. Hence service chiefs ensure that the equipment selected is ideal in quality and price and meets service requirements.

Raising doubts mainly for political gains would only add to delays and offset the current procurement system. India needs mature politicians who understand the difference between political wrangling and seeking to delay procurement of equipment essential to bolster national security. The question which remains unanswered is that will politicians learn or remain ignorant of the demands of the soldier and solely seek to hamper procurement processes to gain a few brownie points.