Despite the Modi government championing the 'Make-in-India' mantra for the last 4 years across so many events and platforms, the ability of India's defence PSUs to produce high-end weapons is still below par

by Maroof Raza

Despite the fact that the Rafale is regarded as a first-rate fighter aircraft that meets almost all the requirement of the IAF, it has been in the news for all the wrong reasons. And it is even more perplexing that while the NDA government has agreed to purchase these aircraft - at the price and parameters better than what was negotiated by the UPA - it has allowed the opposition parties to gain political mileage out of what is essentially a good deal. But why is the NDA's response so unconvincing, only time will tell.

In the case of the current deal for 36 Rafale fighters, too many of those who've apparently lost out on a slice of the pie, are up in arms against it. And the recent admission by Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, that it was not just Dassault - the makers Rafale - but it was even the earlier UPA government and also the IAF (Indian Air Force), has had doubts about the capability of HAL to meet the demands of quality and timelines the French have demanded to put together subsequent versions of the Rafale jets, is an important aspect of the debate over what after the first 36 jets arrive. This has raised the prospect of private companies entering the fray, in the long run.

It was known for sometime now that Dassault, the makers of Rafale jets, had made it known that it could neither assure the IAF of quality of the future lines of jets assembled/manufactured in India by HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) or its ability keep to timelines for the delivery of all subsequent fighters (beyond the first 36 jets) in case India's large but ill-equipped defence PSU, the HAL, was made its partner. This has been an open secret. 

The important question thus to be raised is not about the pricing - as there is enough evidence in public domain that the current 36 Rafale jets deal has been signed on very favourable terms by India - but why has India lacked so pathetically behind all major defence manufacturing countries in making or consistently assembling hi-end weapon systems in India? Despite the Modi government championing the 'Make-in-India' mantra for 4 years across so many events and platforms, the ability of India's defence PSU's to produce hi-end weapons are still below par. If you compare HAL with a foreign company — like Israeli Aerospace Industries (IAI) — both being state-owned and having been founded at around the same time, their performances are poles apart, when it comes to delivering world-class technology to the forces and also in reaping profits from sales abroad. This is the issue that should be questioned over the Rafale deal. But as the UPA must also share the blame for achieving so little in this area, it has chosen to look for more sensational matters.

In the absence, therefore, of India's defence PSUs being able to give our armed forces what we need, successive governments have time and again bought military products from the world's large arms bazaar, when faced with a possible crisis. In the Rafale case with the IAF nearing the bottom of its fighting edge, India bought 36 ready to operate jets, loaded with hi-tech weapons, to give the IAF a much needed punch. No doubt the Rafale jets would be a force-multiplier for India.

But even as we tide over this crisis, would India's local defence industrial output ever change? Not unless we do away with delays in our decision making to buy what our forces seek. This leads to deals being signed when the prices of products have gone up exponentially (like Russian aircraft-carrier Admiral Groshkov). The other reason is the absence of any international restrictions on purchases of conventional weapon systems, that have made this an easy-to-adopt option, unlike the restrictions on the purchase of missiles (like the MTCR) that has led our scientists to come up with world-class missiles. It is also no coincidence that all major arms manufacturing countries are the P5 countries and thus would be unwilling to impose restrictions on the sale of their own products! 

And the charges that one Indian defence manufacturer will benefit from the current deal for the 36 Rafale jets, are speculative as this is a G2G - government to government- deal that only involves the governments of India and France, and there is no room for a middleman (as is alleged by those who oppose the deal). This was the preferred path of former UPA defence minister AK Anthony who was obsessed with being seen as 'Mr. Clean'. Any tie-ups would only be possible if a deal is signed by India to manufacture or assemble many more jets after these 36 jets are inducted into the IAF. But which Indian company(s) would be taken as a partner by the French government and Dassault, that manufactures the Rafale jets, to fulfil their offset requirement would have to be seen. Thus the allegation that a certain business house is being favoured in this current G2G Rafale deal, is baseless.