The credibility of WikiLeaks has never been questioned. The WikiLeaks documents that reveal Rajiv Gandhi’s role as a commission agent for the Swedish defence major Saab-Scania peddling its Viggen combat aircraft to the Indian Air Force in the mid- to late-Seventies, only confirms the centrality of middlemen in defence deals.
It sets the context for the commission-mongering in the contracts for the German HDW submarine after Indira Gandhi’s return to power, for the Swedish Bofors gun during Rajiv Gandhi’s prime ministership, and in the subsequent high value deals approved by the Congress coalition government since 2005.
The IAF sought an aircraft that could fly low to attack targets deep within Pakistan, and Viggen was entered into the contest which was eventually won by the Anglo-French Jaguar, a deal pushed by defence minister Jagjivan Ram during the Janata Party interregnum for a hefty consideration, as was reported at the time by Surya magazine, edited by Maneka Gandhi. The Jaguar deal proved to be the death knell for the Mk-II version of the first indigenous combat aircraft — the HF-24 Marut, configured by the legendary German designer of Focke-Wulfe warplanes, Dr Kurt Tank, who had been brought in by Jawaharlal Nehru to seed an Indian aviation industry. Its aerodynamics proved excellent for low-level flying and, powered by a Bristol-Siddeley engine, it would have matched Jaguar’s performance. The IAF leadership used the political cover provided by politicians inclined to rake in the moolah to kill the Marut Mk-II, thereby snuffing out the best chance for the Indian aviation industry to take wing.
Forty years on, the country is faced with a similar setting and choice — a Congress coalition government is in power and yet another aircraft deal, for the French Rafale medium range multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA), is on the anvil. The Manmohan Singh regime can approve the $22 billion contract facilitated by corrupt practices that will become known soon enough, and benefit France. Or, it can choose an indigenous option that can revive a comatose Indian aircraft industry.
France and Rafale-maker Dassault Avions have offered sufficient provocation. After agreeing with India during the Arms Trade Treaty negotiations that the supplier obligation had to be balanced with buyer responsibility, Dassault has refused to abide by the provisions in the Request for Proposal (RFP) that made it responsible for the quality of the 108 Rafale MMRCA produced under licence by the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL) designated in the RFP as prime contractor for the project. If Dassault had doubts it should have clarified this aspect before bidding for the deal, not after winning it, which prima facie suggests bad faith — enough cause to junk it.
A viable alternative is available in the Mark-II version of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) — its design fits the bill of an MMRCA and it is already undergoing wind tunnel testing. Not only is its 4.5-generation avionics suite common with that of the MK-I, but at its heart lies a ready-to-use AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar developed in collaboration with Israel that is comparable to that on the Rafale, except that the Thales RBE2 AESA radar for the Rafale is to be fully developed with the monies deposited by India!
With the larger air intake and the slight upward curvature of its wingtip, Mk-II Tejas, experts believe, has a better angle of attack (in excess of 28 degrees) with heavier payload than what Rafale can manage. The larger, three-metre longer, version of the Mk-I LCA, able to carry a bigger weapon load (five tons for Mk-II to Rafale’s stated six tons, which will be lesser because the European ambient conditions it is built for don’t obtain here), and has similar range, about 600 kms, and can be inducted into service in less time than the Rafale will take to roll out of HAL lines. Further, with a cranked-arrow delta wing with canards, the Mk-II will be superior to the Rafale in manoeuvrability. The basic Tejas Mk-I is already entering Limited Series Production (LSP) as prelude to full production. It will not be difficult to speedily establish a separate development and production line for Mk-II. In fact, HAL has shown confidence to reject European offers of help to set up the Tejas production infrastructure.
Picking home-grown products will also permit the rationalisation of IAF’s force structure — ridding it of its inventory of aircraft so diverse it has created a logistics nightmare. The Mk-I Tejas, as planned, can fill the air defence role, and the Mk-II variant can more than adequately meet the medium-range interdiction and strike role of the MMRCA. Because Tejas Mk-I and Mk-II are locally built, there will be capacity for surge production to meet any spike in the demand for spares, freeing the IAF from the constraints imposed by foreign suppliers that have always affected its operations.
Local production based on hundreds of SMEs (Small Manufacturing Enterprises) is the backbone of any advanced aircraft industry. It is actually this issue and the unwillingness to fully transfer technology that is at the core of Dassault’s differences with the Indian government. According to those in the know, Dassault’s local partner, Reliance Aerospace, is supposed to have agreed to accept only limited technology transfer — even though total transfer of technology is paid for — and to source critical components and sub-assemblies for the “Indian-made Rafale” from French SMEs. Dassault, by these means, seeks to insert the French SMEs permanently into the Indian manufacturing loop, thus making it vulnerable to French policy whims.
The Congress government has the choice of accommodating Dassault, a position that will be heartily backed by the usually compromised and short-sighted IAF brass, and keep the French aviation industry in the clover or, by scrapping the deal and opting for the Tejas Mk-I for air defence and Mk-II as MMRCA, empower and grow the indigenous aviation industry and Indian SMEs.
With a record of unimaginable corruption, the least that can be expected of the Congress-led government is that, in its last year in office, it will do something good for the country for a change.
[Published in the Asian Age April 11, 2013 at http://www.asianage.com/columnists/scrap-rafale-viva-tejas-360 and in the Deccan Chronicle at http://www.deccanchronicle.com/130411/commentary-columnists/article/scrap-rafale-viva-tejas