The eventually twenty-two billion dollar (not ten billion dollar, as has been reported) deal for the Medium-range Multi-Role Combat Aircraft could become a Bofors-like political liability for the ruling Congress Party, if it fails to get it right. Inordinate amounts of political capital and financial resources, will be invested in it, and the Indian taxpayer has a right to expect that the numerous contracts will be unlike any contracts signed by the Indian government in the past. Enough Indian money has been spent without any enduring benefits for India, for the people to be wary of the Defence Ministry’s Price Negotiation Committee (PNC) that will be talking soon with the vendors of the shortlisted aircraft – Rafale and Eurofighter. The PNCs constituted for earlier deals emptied the treasury but settled meagrely for only licensed manufacture of planes. This sort of deal will be unacceptable hereon. Especially because the high stakes for Dassault and EADS means India can ask for anything and get it.
The trouble is the status quo serves the interests of all concerned very well. The ruling Party at the centre – Congress Party, owing to its long years in power, has signed most of the major military acquisitions deals to-date — and its leaders, invariably gain from commissions reportedly channelled their way. The Indian Air Force, which has scrupulously shied away from developing in-house aircraft design and development skills and competences, values only imported aircraft because, the Service brass claim, these are top-of-the-line and reliable. Consequently, it has gone out of its way to stymie indigenous aircraft development programmes. It deliberately killed the Marut-HF-24 Mark II – successor to the Mark I version, widely hailed as aerodynamically the best combat aircraft of its time. Created by Kurt Tank, the great German designer of Focke-Wulfe warplanes for the Luftwaffe in the Second World War and hired by Jawaharlal Nehru, the HF-24 programme, had it been nursed to maturity, would have resulted in a flourishing aircraft industry in the country by the 1970s. Learning nothing from that episode, the IAF today is delaying the series production of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. This is so, notwithstanding the fact that, avionics-wise, the LCA is at the 4.5 generation level, more capable than any fighter aircraft currently in the IAF inventory. Supposed to gain from technology transferred to it, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. is, like the country, a classic under-achiever. Restricting itself to “production engineering”, HAL capability has calcified at the Meccano-type skill sets-level. Meccano was a toy assembly kit available up until the Sixties for seven to ten year olds who, following simple instructions, could screw this part on to that one and come up with a crane or some such thing! Meccano no more made the child an engineer than license manufacturing makes HAL an aircraft design and development Company. But, dog in manger-like, it is permitted to veto technology being transferred by foreign suppliers to private sector Companies that are in far better position speedily to absorb and utilize the advanced technologies, something HAL is manifestly incapable of doing. With all the players in the game eager to retain the present arrangement, it is little wonder that India gets shafted every time. The onus is on Defence Minister A.K. Antony to ensure that this doesn’t happen ever again and to instruct the PNC accordingly.
The criteria to judge if the MMRCA deal serves the national interest will be, firstly, whether Indian industry obtains, without hitch, source codes (millions of lines of software) for every aspect of the aircraft as also comprehensive flight control laws. Secondly, the contract ensures that, as a result of the deal, India is hoisted into the cutting edge technology ranks and seeds a globally competitive aerospace industry in the country. And, lastly, India secures access to critical technology outside the combat aircraft field. Contracts will have to be so written as to index large payments against the meeting of technology transfer benchmarks, such as the full and timely delivery of the codes and the laws, and the entrenching of advanced technologies in the country.
By way of offsets, both Dassault peddling Rafale and EADS the Eurofighter, have promised to set up R&D centres here. Their research agendas will have to be competitively fixed, systems of oversight established, and the extent of Indian contributions to the ongoing production and service support of Rafale/Eurofighter for global sales and to any future manned and unmanned aircraft projects, pre-determined. Dassault and EADS are both willing to part with single crystal blade turbine technology (which allows the aircraft engine to generate more power at higher temperatures), but collaboration in developing the follow-on ceramic turbine blade technology for even more enhanced aircraft engine performance, will have to be insisted upon. Manned fighter aircraft, as this analyst has repeatedly stressed, are becoming obsolete. In order to firm up future air warfare options, direct Indian involvement in the advanced Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicles being developed by Dassault in its Neuron project and EADS in its Barracuda programme is a price both vendors would happily pay to engage India in other high-technology ventures the French Company and the European consortium are exploring.
Rafale seems to have an edge, owing to its Active Electronically Scanned Array radar for air-to-air missions, whereas EADS has it only as prototype. This is fortuitous in a way because France can, as an inalienable part of the MMRCA deal, be persuaded to allow Indian nuclear weapons designers access to its Megajoule inertial confinement nuclear fusion facility near Bordeaux, to help rectify the thermonuclear weapon design that proved a dud on testing in 1998, and to work on other fusion weapons configurations. This will not obviate the need for physical tests in the future, but inspire some confidence in the Indian strategic nuclear arsenal in the interim. Such access is a must and it can be extracted, howsoever painfully, from Paris now when it is really desperate to keep a combat aircraft design and development capability alive in France. It is an opportunity not to be missed.
[Published in my ‘Security Wise’ column in ‘Asian Age’ and in ‘Deccan Chronicle’, Thursday, Nov 8, 2011 and available at www.asianage.com/columnists/big-deal ]