Irrespective of the systemic procurement flaws, the naval Rafale procurement is a significant bonus for India’s security imperatives in the Indo-Pacific. The Defence Acquisition Council approved the proposal to buy 26 Rafale-M fighter aircraft for the Indian Navy

by Abhijit Iyer-Mitra

A deal for 26 naval Rafales is reportedly going to be signed between India and France during Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s upcoming visit to Paris. This has both good and bad aspects to it. The good is that it enhances commonality; the bad is that it shows the gaping holes that still continue to plague our procurement system.

The Good

First up, the Navy needs to be thanked, for reinforcing interoperability with the Air Force. This has happened in the past where the Navy chose the MiG-29K precisely because of the spare parts and training commonality with Air Force MiG-29s. In terms of the impending deal, having a common weapon and electronics pool and the India-specific enhancements of the Rafale are all significant advantages for the Navy and represent significant cost savings.

Moreover, the initial training and maintenance infrastructure acquired for the Air Force Rafales will also benefit the Navy and the taxpayer in driving down costs quite significantly. Essential to remember here is that maintenance over the life cycle of the aircraft costs twice as much as the procurement cost.

The most important operational elements of the commonality would be the India-specific enhancements that include a potent optical suite for the detection of stealth aircraft and nuclear delivery capability. These are particularly crucial when you measure what we are up against with the Chinese Navy.

The unfortunate reality is that India right now can’t match China’s spending and the sheer number of aircraft carriers and seaborne aircraft the Chinese are able to wield. Chinese naval fighters are all Sukhoi 30 derivatives — heavier, better equipped, and more potent than the MiG-29 (though operating these heavier aircraft from the very short runway of an aircraft carrier might impose significant restrictions on heavier aircraft negating some of the advantages; while steam or electric catapults do away with the disadvantages of short runways, the Chinese don’t have these contraptions).

Given this, it was necessary to settle for a quality solution. Obviously, a MiG on Sukhoi — a Russian-on-Russian engagement — has a 50-50 chance of success, but a vastly superior Western platform armed with longer-range missiles like the Meteor as well as the ability to detect any purported stealth aircraft through infrared emissions changes that equation in India’s favour considerably. It is worth mentioning that while Russian-origin fighters pioneered optical detection to compensate for sub-optimal radar technology, western optical systems now outrange their Russian and Chinese counterparts in this by a huge margin.

The nuclear delivery enabled on all Indian Rafales is quite a significant enhancement. The worst-kept secret of the Air Force Rafales is their ability to deliver nuclear weapons — the French having given all the necessary clearances and modifications to integrate stand-off nuclear weapons on them. This brings a significant new capability to the Navy: the ability to launch long-range air-launched, nuclear-tipped cruise missiles combined with the power projection capabilities inherent in an aircraft carrier that can take a floating airfield right into the Pacific Ocean.

We do, however, know that the Rafales will require significant re-designing of our follow-on carriers. Specifically, this has to do with the size of their aircraft elevators that transport fighters from the runway on deck to the hangars below deck. The current elevators are exactly 10 metres wide — not wide enough to accommodate the Rafale, whose wings cannot be folded, unlike say the MiG-29 or F/A-18 Super Hornet. This means the Rafales can only equip carriers that will be built and are not backwards compatible with older carriers unless significant re-engineering and retrofits are undertaken.

More importantly, given the approximately 40,000-tonne cap on the displacement of our carriers as well as the deck space the Rafales take up (absent folding wings), the number of aircraft will be relatively low. The hope is the Rafales will compensate in quality and the ability to down enemy aircraft at greater distances what they lack in onboard numbers.

Obviously, aircraft carriers are not stand-alone ships. They operate in complex battle groups with other frigates, destroyers and submarines in a synergised whole. This is where India’s BrahMos anti-ship missile (with a greater range and speed than any Chinese ship-borne missile) combined with the standoff ranges of the Rafale’s Meteor air-to-air missile, superior electronics of the Rafale, and the sheer endurance and stealth of the Scorpene class submarines, become a potent weapon to choke off the Malacca straits and cause havoc in the South China Sea, despite significantly smaller numbers than the Chinese Navy.

This begs the question: why not the F/A-18 Super Hornet? After all, it is more versatile, has folding wings, has a dedicated and powerful electronic warfare variant, and has a much broader array of weapons to choose from. Well, several reasons. First is that its air-to-air missile, the AMRAAM, does not provide the kind of standoff kills that the Meteor-Rafale combo does. Second, there is no way that the Americans would allow the integration of any nuclear weapons delivery system with the Super Hornet. Finally, having another fighter would have meant setting up a whole new training, maintenance and logistics supply chain, not to mention a long-drawn-out negotiation process further complicated by development costs of India specific modifications. Remember: there is no such thing as an exact fit — every fighter has its plusses and minuses. In this case, the minuses of the Super Hornet were greater.

The Bad

While it is admirable that the Navy finally chose the Rafale over the Super Hornet in the interests of cost and commonality, we still need to ask ourselves why we had a parallel process in play which could have very easily resulted in the procurement of yet another fighter type, complicating our logistics. Indeed, the calibre of work share, technology and offsets negotiated during the Air Force Rafale deal could’ve been significantly improved by a bulk purchase and economies of scale.

Indeed, is it wise to acquire fighters in batches of 36 and 26 when a solid investment in 180-200 (more than the French Air Force and Navy combined) could provide leverage for a near-complete technology transfer (except the 17 per cent US-sourced components in the Rafale)? This is a systemic issue that has to be addressed. To this day, we are not able to synchronise requirements, testing and competition and benefit from bulk purchasing. This has a lot more to do with a lack of inter-service coordination, but at the same time, the political leadership cannot escape blame. After all, the whole point of an elected executive is to synchronise and synthesise competing interests for the benefit of the taxpayer and the nation.

Irrespective of the systemic procurement flaws, the naval Rafale procurement is a significant bonus for India’s security imperatives in the Indo-Pacific. The positives far outweigh the negatives. But, while the systemic flaws are being overcome, the system still needs fixing.

Abhijit Iyer-Mitra is a defence economist and senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies