Scrap Rafale, Viva Tejas!

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 and in the Deccan Chronicle at

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, indian policy -- Israel, Iran and West Asia, Military Acquisitions, Pakistan, Pakistan military, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West. Bookmark the permalink.

10 Responses to Scrap Rafale, Viva Tejas!

  1. satyaki says:

    Bharat Sir,

    Good article. However, I have one question. In the event of a Pokhran III, won’t Tejas Mk II be vulnerable to sanctions given that it has a U.S. engine ? OTOH, the French were quite understanding in 1998 and it is likely that they would be understanding even in the event of a Pokhran III (given their huge business interests in India). The same would be true of the Russians as well.

    Dose’nt this lack of an indigenous engine (unfortunately) weigh in favour of the Rafale (or alternatively, an equivalent number of extra Sukhois) over the Tejas Mk II ? Of course, if we have been able to reverse engineer the GE-F414 of the Tejas Mk II, then “Tejas Mk II ka palda bhaari hai”.

  2. satyaki says:

    Personally, I believe that we should try our level best to avoid imports. This is so even if our indigenous conventional weapons are technologically behind the state of the art. Continued reliance on indigenous weapons will eventually lead to their becoming state of the art so long as we are able to sustain good economic growth (which will increase the resources that are put into military modernization).

    Until that happens (and until our resources are limited), it is best to rely on credible (thermo)nuclear deterrence to avoid large scale conflict.

  3. Indigenous weapons are certainly the way to go. We can never be truly independent of foreign interference and internal corruption in defense if we Import a majority of our weapons. But unfortunately it seems the MMRCA deal will go though in spite of whatever troubles France gives us. If we had such a vision to develop Tejas MK2 over MMRCA we would not have invited bids in the first place. Government leadership does seem compromised but I am not sure if any other government will be better either. If scrapping the deal in favor of Tejas is what is in our interest then this should be advocated to the present government and Airforce leadership (which is also in dock after the Helicopter gate) itself rather than hoping that next government will be better.

  4. RV says:

    Sensible article! The SME part seems to have missed by quite a few powers-that-be (knowingly, or otherwise). Scrapping the Rafale for the LCA series is a very good idea. However, one should be mindful that this is not used as an excuse to bring in junk like the JSF or the over-hyped EF Typhoon through the back door. The LCA is not merely an aircraft, it is the manifestation of the establishment of an Indian aerospace industry. Careful planning needs to be done, and the a/c should be inducted to the IAF in tranches. IMHO, an IGMDP-like framework needs to be drawn up, and implemented on a war footing. The current squadron strength of the IAF is rapidly dwindling, and the first step to ameliorate this dire situation is to set up the production line for the LCA-1 ASAP. It would also help if there were laws enacted to ensure the technical qualifications of so-called defense journalists, most of whom would flunk a simple aircraft identification test.

  5. RV says:

    Mr. Karnad, WRT the SAAB Viggen doing low altitude strikes into Pakistan, did you know that the a/c developed serious wing stress cracks on account of doing maneuvers at low altitudes and at high ambient temperatures? In any case, there is every indication to believe that:

    1.) Rafale deal will go through because USD 7+ billion has been payed as bribes, the largest share going to SG and her family, If the French do not get what they want, you can be absolutely certain that they will release the names of all the beneficiaries of their largesse. I believe this fact has already been conveyed to the concerned persons at an informal level. This does not take into account the upgrade of the Mirage 2000 H’s to 2000-5 levels, where USD 3 + billion will be incurred by the Indians to effect the said upgrade over a period of a decade. There is some talk that a person nicknamed “Charlie” has been implicated in this deal.
    2.) There will be ZERO % meaningful ToT in the Rafale deal,
    3.) Every attempt will be made to suppress and kill off the LCA.

    It is up to people like you to keep the public informed of the unprecedented and unimaginable fraud and corruption that is occurring in key defense deals. Good work and keep it up! .

  6. RV says:

    Mr. Karnad, while blame has been justly thrown at the incompetent and corrupt politicians, apparatchicks, and IAF brass, the two other prime culprits in this tragic saga appear to have been spared. These are the Defense PSU’s and the Indian people. With regards to the Defense PSU’s, apart from the well known problems of lack of accountability, corruption, nepotism, laziness, etc., there appears to be a singularly perverse policy of deliberately not keeping records, documentation, and trying to jury rig solutions after a problem arises. Unless incentives are provided coupled with a hire and fire policy, nothing will ever change.

    Now, with regards to the Indian people, there is a peculiar trait in not wanting to get one’s hands dirty. Ask the average young person what he/she wants to become, the first answer will be MBA. If everybody wants to become a “Chief”, then who will comprise the “Indians”? One cannot manage unless there is technology that is developed and fostered, which produces world-class products. The proliferation of the service sector in India and the elevation of BPO’s and third-rate software companies outfits which are perennially in the Indian news to be classified as “tech companies” is a product of this malaise. However, note that here are a few exceptions to this trend, in some isolated disciplines like pharma, etc., but which are unfortunately few and far between.

    Leaving aside countries like China who could go toe-to-toe with any white nation in many critical areas of technology, even in countries like Iran the title of “engineer” is highly respected. Indians intrinsically lack the ability to improvise and make money and achieve progress out of scientific/technical knowledge and innovation. In India, the social culture and social interactions have a very large role to play in fostering this malaise. *Indians in general have jobs, but not careers*. One cannot take a job anywhere one goes. OTOH, a career goes where you go!

  7. JR says:

    Why is govenment not using efficient engineering giants like Tata, Godrej, Mahindra and L&T to manufacture parts, build assembly lines etc. ISRO is using these organisations very effctively to achieve faster turn around time. HAL is extremely in-efficient w.r.t cost of manufacturing. In fact their service / manufactring agreement with IAF dis-incentivises cost efficient manufacuring (more hour they take more money HAL makes). That is the reason MMRCA is suffering and Tejas will also suffer. We are all for self-reliance but at what price. HAL insiders are talking of USD 42 -million per Tejas aircraft. With that kind of price tag Tejas can not be marketed to anybody else except IAF.

  8. Reproducing JR’s (at comment on ‘Scrap Rafale, Viva Tejas!” (reproducing from a response sent to my email acct.)

    Why is government not using efficient engineering giants like Tata, Godrej, Mahindra and L&T to manufacture parts, build assembly lines etc. ISRO is using these organisations very effctively to achieve faster turn around time. HAL is extremely in-efficient w.r.t cost of manufacturing. In fact their service / manufactring agreement with IAF dis-incentivises cost efficient manufacturing (more hours in production, the more money HAL makes). That is the reason MMRCA is suffering and Tejas will also suffer. We are all for self-reliance but at what price. HAL insiders are talking of USD 42 -million per Tejas aircraft. With that kind of price tag Tejas can not be marketed to anybody else except IAF.

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