Indian fighter pilots undergoing training training on Rafale and weapon systems by Dassault

As PM recently gave the mantra of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’, here are lessons from Rafale on defence equipment purchase & manufacturing that need urgently addressed

by Abhishek Kapoor

JUST as the Rafale package was landing at the Ambala airbase earlier in the day, memes were up in the air on opposition asking why such an expensive aircraft has only one seat! Do not ask who in the opposition can pose this question. But then I digress at the beginning itself. So, let us pull back.

Rafale fills a long-term void in India’s air offence capabilities with an enhanced Beyond Visual Range (BVR) capacity and a superior weapons suite. Of the 13 India specific enhancements, two are particularly relevant in the context of the 2019 Balakot airstrike and the ongoing Ladakh standoff: a potent electronic jammer pod and the ability to start and operate from High altitude airfields. 

Even in the limited use that the Indian Air Force (IAF) was put to in the 1999 Kargil war, some chinks were visible. Precision bombing was an area of concern as we lost two aircraft including pilots – both landing in Pakistani captivity. The Mirage bombers that were used to evict intruders from those icy heights in the Zanskar ranges had local bombs mated with Israeli avionics on a French platform in what could be called a classic Indian Jugad.

The journey from Kargil in 1999 – when the need was first felt by the IAF for a more agile fighter plane – to the Ambala airbase today is a horrendous commentary on India’s politics and defence procurement program. It would be an opportunity lost if this moment fails to trigger a complete overhaul of defence purchases for all time to come. The onus is entirely on the political leadership of the country – particularly the present opposition – to shield it from the vagaries of competitive politicking.

As Prime Minister Narendra Modi has recently given the mantra of ‘Atmanirbhar Bharat’ to capitalize on the post-COVID geopolitical churn, here are some important lessons from Rafale on the defence equipment purchase and manufacturing front that need urgently addressed.

One, the entire UPA tenure was lost haggling with Dassault Aviation – the manufacturer of Rafale – over whether the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) could slip in terms which made for a lose-lose proposition for the French company. Those conditions were not applied to any earlier license arrangements under which HAL has been manufacturing aircrafts as diverse as MIGs and Jaguars and Sukhois. It was almost like HAL wanted a Sonia Gandhi-Manmohan Singh kind of arrangement with Dassault, and you can make a guess who got which role.

Two, despite some fine-tuning of the defence procurement process under the Modi government, the stranglehold of the Defence ministry’s department of defence procurement – the mothership of all defence PSUs including HAL – remains as strong as ever. Experts believe the new RFP for 114 fighter planes is bound to fail for the same reason. “All vendors would require their government clearance to provide transfer of most of the technologies. Therefore, it would be prudent for the government to choose a specific aircraft and thereafter process it for obtaining ToT on G2G basis for the strategic partnership model as per DPP,” says Air Marshal (retired) Shyam Sinha. You can believe his words for he headed the Cost Negotiation Committee (CNC) on Rafale and saw the inbuilt obstructionism of the old purchase process from close quarters.

The point is that while the government has its heart and mind at the right place in terms of involving the private sector through strategic partnership model, it still remains a half way house unless the remit of babus at the department of defence procurement is limited, and more importantly, multi-vendor RFPs that take forever to reach even the understanding on what exactly is to be bought is completely disbanded.

In a piece I wrote in March 2019 following India’s punitive action to avenge the Pulwama terror attack, I had underscored the need for an urgent focus on IAF modernization. The AMRAM missile that Pakistan used from its F-16 to down the MiG of Abhinandan Varthman is no match to the METEOR and SCALP missiles that Rafale comes equipped with. No wonder the then IAF chief BS Dhanoa made a public statement that had Rafale been there at that time with us, the picture would have been totally different. As the recent mobilization of forces, particularly air assets in Ladakh shows, while the Army has the most important job of holding and defending land, it is the Air Force that would take the battle into the enemy territory in any future war.

Given that the last induction of a new fighter in the IAF happened way back in 1997 with the Sukhoi, the coming of first pack of Rafales is sure a landmark in the ongoing upgradation of India’s overall national security scenario. But this is also a moment to remember that against a sanctioned strength of 42, IAF now stands at a depleted 30 squadrons with some more looking at a phase-out. Even as the Jaguars and Mirages are being further upgraded, and government scrambles an emergency purchase of a total of two squadrons of Sukhois and MIG29s in the backdrop of Ladakh standoff with China, HAL has to up its game in terms of delivery of Tejas, of which 40 are already ordered for induction into field formations, and subsequently the 83 MAK-1A versions.

By the time I finish this article, the meme has turned into an actual tweet with Rahul Gandhi asking the same questions dismissed by the Supreme Court in the Rafale PIL. And there is not even an election round the corner. This could have been fully avoided. But then.