Why Rafale is a big mistake

Why would India buy the Rafale combat aircraft rejected by every other interested country—Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, South Korea, Singapore, and even the cash-rich but not particularly discriminating Saudi Arabia and Morocco?

The French foreign minister Laurent Fabius’s one-point agenda when he visited New Delhi was to seal the deal for Rafale, a warplane apparently fitting IAF’s idea of a Medium Multi-role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in the service’s unique typology, which includes “light” and “heavy” fighter planes as well, used by no other air force in the world. Alas, the first whiff of corruption led the previous defence minister, A K Antony, to seize up and shut shop, stranding the deal at the price negotiation committee stage. It is this stoppage Fabius sought to unclog.

France’s desperation is understandable. Absent the India deal, the Rafale production line will close down, the future of its aerospace sector will dim, and the entire edifice of French industrial R&D sector based on small and medium-sized firms—a version of the enormously successful German “Mittelstand” model—engaged in producing cutting-edge technologies could unravel, and grease France’s slide to second-rate technology power-status.

More immediately, it will lead to a marked increase in the unit cost of the aircraft—reportedly of as much as $5-$10 million dollars to the French Air Force, compelling it to limit the number it inducts. With no international customers and France itself unable to afford the pricey Rafale, the French military aviation industry will be at a crossroads. So, for Paris a lot is at stake and in India the French have found an easy mark, a country willing to pay excessively for an aircraft the IAF can well do without.

Consider the monies at stake. Let’s take the example of Brazil, our BRICS partner. For 36 Rafales the acquisition cost, according to Brazilian media, was $8.2 billion plus an additional $4 billion for short-period maintenance contracts, amounting to nearly $340 million per aircraft in this package and roughly $209 million as the price tag for a single Rafale without maintenance support. Brazil insisted on transfer of technology (ToT) and was told it had to pay a whole lot extra for it, as also for the weapons for its Rafales. But the Brazilian air force had doubts about the quality of the AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar enabling the aircraft to switch quickly from air-to-air to air-to-ground mode in flight, and about the helmet-mounted heads-up-display. Too high a price and too many problems convinced the government of president Dilma Rousseff that the Rafale was not worth the trouble or the money and junked the deal, opting for the Swedish Gripen NG instead.

During the Congress party’s rule the Indian government did not blink at the prospective bill for the Rafale, which more than doubled from $10 billion in 2009 to some $22 billion today, and which figure realistically will exceed $30 billion, or $238 million per aircraft, at a minimum. But India, unbeknownst to most of us, is apparently a terribly rich country, with money to burn! Meanwhile, the United Kingdom, an apparently poorer state or at least one more careful with its money, is blanching at the $190 million price tag for each of the 60 Lockheed F-35Bs (vertical take-off, technologically more complex, variant of the air force model)—a full generation ahead of the Rafale—ordered for the first of the Royal Navy’s Queen Elizabeth-class 65,000-tonne aircraft carriers.

The prohibitive cost of the French aircraft supposedly made finance-cum-defence minister Arun Jaitley apprehensive. He did the right thing, as is rumoured, of revising the order downwards from 126 aircraft to 80 or so Rafales. The IAF headquarters pre-emptively acquiesced in the decision to save the deal. However, if this change was affected in the hope of proportionately reducing the cost, it will be belied. Because in contracts involving high-value combat aircraft, the size of the order does not much affect the unit price, the cost of spares and service support, and of ToT! This is evident from the rough estimates of the per aircraft cost to Brazil of $209 million for 36 Rafales compared with the $238 million for 126 of the same aircraft to India!

Because New Delhi has been inclined to make India a military “great power” on the basis of imported armaments—a policy that’s a boon to supplier states as it generates employment and new technologies in these countries, and sustains their defence industries, a confident French official told me with respect to another deal that “India will pay the price”. Considering the various negatives of the proposed deal and the long-term national interest Jaitley would do well to nix the Rafale transaction altogether.

The bureaucratic interest of the IAF prompts it to exaggerate wrong threats and talk of declining fighter assets. But it will not tell the defence minister about the logistics hell routinely faced by frontline squadrons in operations owing to the mindboggling diversity of combat aircraft in its inventory, a problem the Rafale acquisition will only exacerbate and, hence, about the urgent need to rationalise the force structure, ideally to Su-30s, the indigenous Tejas Mk-1 for short-range air defence, Tejas Mk-II as MMRCA, and the Su-50 PAK FA as fifth-generation fighter. Nor will the department of defence production officials disclose to Jaitley that the ToT provisions in arms contracts are a fraudulent farce because, while the foreign suppliers pocket billions of dollars, no core technologies, such as source codes (millions of lines of software) and flight control laws, are ever transferred. And that the local defence industry monopolised by defence public sector units (DPSUs) is incapable of absorbing and innovating even such technology as is, in fact, relayed to it because it only assembles aircraft from imported kits.

Terminating the Rafale deal will be disruptive but sending the message to the military, the DPSUs, the defence ministry bureaucracy, and foreign companies salivating for rich, one-sided, contracts that the Narendra Modi government is determined to make a new start and conduct defence business differently, is more important.

[Published in the New Indian Express on Friday, July 25, 2014 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Why-Rafale-is-a-Big-Mistake/2014/07/25/article2346825.ece

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.
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22 Responses to Why Rafale is a big mistake

  1. A Von says:

    Found the following things wrong with this article.

    Why did the following countries not buy Rafale?
    Brazil – didn’t have money. bought Swiss Gripen instead of US F/A-18 as President was angry at US NSA for spying on her.
    Canada, Netherlands, Norway – confirmed buyiners of F-35, not on offer to India. South Korea, Singapore, both don’t have too much money, and may buy much lesser numbers of F-35 in future as well.
    Saudi Arabia and Morocco are corrupt kingdoms, so who knows why they didn’t buy the Rafale? Maybe they were bribed by rivals. Surely that is not how the IAF should aspire to be!

    “Too high a price and too many problems convinced the government of president Dilma Rousseff” – for technical problems with an aircraft, it is the Brazilian air force that would need to be in doubt, not their civilian leader, who has no expert knowledge about the issue. The BAF were told by their govt that they don’t have much money, and so neither Rafale or Eurofighter were realistically in the race.

    “a country willing to pay excessively for an aircraft the IAF can well do without.” – again, a civilian claims to know more about air combat than a professional air force. Successive IAF chiefs have said that the aircraft is essential, both to maintain squadron numbers (which Tejas may start to do after 5 years) and for better war-fighting technology acquisition (which Tejas cannot do).

    “which figure realistically will exceed $30 billion, or $238 million per aircraft, at a minimum.” says the financial expert, or at least a PhD in economics? Why not 40 billion? Or 50, since adding 10 billion US$ iteratively is so fashionable now. Also, there is a concept called life-cycle costs, which all advanced militaries use.

    “60 Lockheed F-35Bs (vertical take-off, technologically more complex, variant of the air force model)—a full generation ahead of the Rafale” – the RAF is buying Typhoons as well. But the Typhoon cannot take off from a carrier. Brits cannot buy Rafale, as that would be admitting a strategic mistake – of separating the Eurofighter and Rafale programs in the 80s, and so they have to buy F-35s. Calling the F-35 a “full generation” ahead of Rafale is only propaganda or marketing strategy of Lockheed Martin, not a fact.

    “This is evident from the rough estimates of the per aircraft cost to Brazil of $209 million for 36 Rafales compared with the $238 million for 126 of the same aircraft to India!” – The figures are not comparable – the Indian deal involves some TOT and manufacture of 108 aircraft in India, unlike the Brazil deal.

    “New Delhi has been inclined to make India a military “great power” on the basis of imported armaments” – fancy statement, not a fact.

    “a confident French official told me” – after writing multiple flawed assessments of their aircraft (which incidentally did really well for them in Mali and Libya), the French surely love interacting with the author.

    “But it will not tell the defence minister about the logistics hell routinely faced by frontline squadrons in operations owing to the mindboggling diversity of combat aircraft in its inventory, a problem only the Rafale acquisition will exacerbate” – the only valid point in this article. But the logistics will automatically be streamlined when all the MiGs retire, leaving only Tejas Mk 1/2, Mirage/Rafale (similar) and Su-30MKI/PAK-FA (similar) in combat squadrons.

    “Terminating the Rafale deal will be disruptive but sending the message to the military” – the author recommends being disruptive solely to send a message, and to throw national security to the wind. I wonder if he might take full responsibility and resign, and stop writing analysis with so many flaws if another Kargil-like national security disaster happens on our eastern border, or above the Indian Ocean.

    “Narendra Modi government is determined to make a new start and conduct defence business differently” All business-friendly credibility of the new govt. will vanish from all sectors nationally and internationally, if the deal is scrapped on such flimsy grounds, as suggested by the author.

    • So, your case is that India should buy Rafale because it has lots of money?? It helps that New Delhi hasn’t shown much strategic sense. “Business-friendly credibility”? Pleezzzze..!

      • A Von says:

        Sir,

        If the IAF found the Gripen non-compliant, surely the relatively less-advanced Tejas cannot then be found as the selected aircraft. Incidentally, Tejas Mk II isn’t even a “medium” weight aircraft, and so has all the range and payload limitations of a light fighter.

        It is certainly not my claim that we are a rich nation. Our per-capita GDP in nominal US$ is only 60% higher than Pakistan. But buying a totally non-compliant fighter (the IAF’s words, not mine), which will guard India for the next 30 years should also not be done.

        Tejas Mk II, AMCA and PAK-FA, all manufactured in India with complete technological know-how and know-why, should be the long-term composition of our fleet, but each of those aircraft are a long time away.

        In the meantime, Rafale is the only aircraft in the pipeline that can give any nefarious Chinese intentions a pause. Not Tejas, neither the Su-30MKI. (I am speaking in only air force terms, excluding CBMs at the political level and Indian naval diplomacy in the Indo-Pacific.)

        Thanks,

    • RV says:

      Pearls of wisdom from @A Von:
      1. “Found the following things wrong with this article.
      Why did the following countries not buy Rafale?
      Brazil – didn’t have money. bought Swiss Gripen… ”

      Switzerland too has started making the Gripen. This must really be a popular plane! Both Sweden/UK and Switzerland as manufacturers.

      2. ““a confident French official told me” – after writing multiple flawed assessments of their aircraft (which incidentally did really well for them in Mali and Libya),…”

      Mali and Libya are the benchmarks for an impenetrable air defense system. A distant second and third would be Russia and the PRC.. Pray, what did this plane do in Mali and Libya? What was the opposition? What were RAF Tornado’s doing over Libya? What was it that made an emergency landing in Malta?

      • A Von says:

        What the Mali/Libya operation showed was the reliability of the M-88 engine, its servicing rate, and its ease of inspection. Give the recent report that the IAF’s Su-30MKI fleet needs engine inspection after every 900 hours of flying, it indicates that the Rafale’s engine performance, as is the performance of any West-made engine is much ahead of the Russian AL-31/41s.

        Moreover, the three Euro-canards’s (mistakenly calling Gripen Swiss instead of Swedish doesn’t dismantle the underlying logic) can get their engine overhauled right there at the operational air base, without sending the aircraft to an MRO centre.

        Pray, when was the Su-30 ever tested in a war scenario? The sortie-generation, engine maintenance, sensor fusion, the targeting pods, the EW pods, the network-centric capability of the European fighters is still a generation ahead of the standard Su-30s, which was also evaluated/proven during the Libya and Mali ops. The MKI thankfully has French, Israeli and Indian avionics, pods and computers, but the not-as-advanced Russian AL-31 engine will forever remain a thorn in the IAF’s operations.

      • RV says:

        @A Von:

        1. Going by the French Governments own information, see Part-4 of the Youtube series posted above by Karnad, the availability rate of the Armée de l’Air Rafeles is around 44 %, which is around the availability rate of the needlessly maligned SU 30. Even this figure can be questioned (and lowered) on the basis of operational conditions.

        2. When one extols the Rafale performance by stating that the Mali/Libyan turkey shoot “did really well for them (the French)….” , it tacitly implies that the a/c was tested against a qualitatively and quantitatively worthy opponent.

        3. In case it escaped you,”vintage” RAF Tornado’s had to be called in from RAF Marham (Norfolk, UK) to perform most of the precision strikes in Libya. Note that this was after the hammering what little assets Libya could field took from Tomahawk CM’s launched by the USN and the RN. This speaks volumes of the capabilities of the Rafale (and the Typhoon)!

        The above arguments, for which there is sufficient evidence, demolish any attempt to portray the Mali/Libyan exercises as glowing successes of the EW and netcentric capabilities of the European fighters in actual combat conditions. Specifically, there were never any counter-measures worth mentioning employed against these touted “capabilities”! One may certainly expect the Russian and PRC defenses to put up substantially greater resistance.

  2. RV says:

    A most well written and thought provoking article!

  3. RV says:

    Mr. Karnad, as you are well aware, the LCA MK-1&2 have a US engine. There are many critical and non negotiable issues concerning India’s sovereign rights and very existence, on which Indian and US will forever diverge. It is only a matter of when and not if India will need to test again, and that will certainly invite US sanctions, which could very well affect the LCA’s GE engine.

    Certain proponents of the Rafale cite sovereign guarantees by France not to allow US sanctions to affect the production or operational performance/availability of the Rafale as a critical tipping point in its favor. The exact nature of these guarantees is unknown to me. This is a very serious issue, and something on which your comments and inputs would be greatly beneficial.

  4. Shaurya says:

    One way to circumvent US sanctions is to keep extra engines and parts at hand. The one thing about US sanctions is they come and also blow over in some time. It is unlikely this Modi govt will test. They may take advantage of some tactical situations and go for it but not like ABV who came in with a determination to do it, no matter what the “current” situation was.

    • RV says:

      One can never know how many extra parts and engines to inventorize, because it is impossible to currently predict the when such a test will occur, the duration of the sanctions, nature of hypothetical future conflicts during the period of sanctions, their location, duration, etc. In addition, one has to also factor in regular training exercises, war preparation exercises during the period of sanctions, etc.

      Jet engines aren’t exactly run-of-the-mill items, where one can send an email to GE saying “….send us X extra engines, now”. These things take time to manufacture, test, etc…. India needs to place the Kaveri engine development on a war footing. It will also help if significant reverse-engineering skills and manpower were developed and paid properly. If a fresh to relatively fresh MBA can be paid over a crore of INR per year for doing Mickey Mouse work, a trained engineer in critical defense industries is certainly worth INR 2-5 lacs/month.

    • RV says:

      @Shaurya: WRT “It is unlikely this Modi govt will test.”. What is the basis of your statement? Clairvoyance, a time machine, or good old “Indian talk”?

    • RV says:

      @Shaurya, actually you may well be right. India may not test. But if that does happen, India needs to be prepared. Cheers!

  5. chetan bali says:

    sir,
    The Mirage 2000 fleet and its excellent performance over the last three decades offers the biggest and the best argument in favour of the Rafale.
    It has the finest service and flight safety record ever in the history of the IAF.
    We are yet to experience any pressure or bottleneck on the supply of spares .
    The development of the ‘indigenous’ Tejas, owes a lot to the technologies which are successfully incorporated in the Mirage 2000.
    The Mirage 2000 continues to remain a a potent frontline weapon delivery system of choice, and has been upgraded to keep up with the demands of emerging technologies.
    In a nutshell, the acquisition of the Mirage 2000 has been, perhaps the only case of the IAF, being allowed avoid the policy of being penny wise and pound foolish, something that we have religiously followed with the acquisition of the MiG series, and now the Su-30s, all of which are a maintenance nightmare and have prohibitively high cost/hour of operations.
    Need I say more…
    – ex Flt Cdr , No1 Sqn (M-2000)

    • If your contention is that based on the Mirage experience, the Rafale will be an equally care-free combat aircraft to have in IAF inventory, misses the point of whether it is affordable in the first place. There are lots of shiny toys out there we’d wish to buy for our military if we the country had the moolah to spare — which we don’t. And remember, we are fast transiting into an era when the manned combat plane is obsolescing. But, IAF keeps buying :newer generation”aircraft and, like always, it will find itself a laggard in catching up to this tech-trend into the future when such aircraft will become museum pieces.

      • RV says:

        In some sense, this is an incorrect statement: “And remember, we are fast transiting into an era when the manned combat plane is obsolescing.”

        Barring the European nations which are attempting to transit directly from 4+… G to UCAV’s etc. (eg. the Neuron), the US and Russia still have quite a few iterations of 5 G and manned a/c before making unmanned vehicles a significant arm of their air power. In any case, the European nations can always count on the US for tactical air support which has allowed them to make (or better stated, attempt) this leap.

        OTOH, this may well be the case 20 years down the road, and keeping in mind that 10-20 years from today comes faster than expected, Karnad’s statement (above) may well be accurate in the generic sense.

      • RV says:

        The last sentence in my above post should read as:

        OTOH, this may well be the case 20+ years down the road, and keeping in mind that 10-20 years from today comes faster than expected, Karnad’s statement (above) may well be accurate in the vaguely generic sense. However, this should be forewarning to the Indians to get their act together (if at all they know where to start and how to do it) and push the AURA program.

    • RV says:

      Wg. Cdr. Bali, with due respects the M2K upgrade is taking place at the leisurely pace of 5 a/c per year and at the cost of USD 45 million per a/c (this figure may increase should the INR further depreciate). Your post makes it look like this upgrade has already been done (or will be done in the immediate future), while in fact, the timeline for upgrading the entire M2K stable is optimistically 2021. As you are well aware, the M2K upgrade does not involve replacing of the engine. Finally, a substantial portion of the availability of the SU 30’s may be put down to inadequate maintenance and untimely, inadequate, and unplanned procurement of spares.

  6. RV says:

    Modi can start off by ensuring that flying test beds and test rigs are procured ASAP for the Kaveri project. Currently Indian engineers have to go to Russia and use a IL-76 flying test bed at the Gromov Flight Research Institute to test the Kaveri engine over many pre-specified flight regimes.. These tests has to fit in with the Russian schedule and hence the wait period can often be very long thereby seriously upsetting the Kaveri development schedule.

    Such callousness on the part of the Indian government is a National DISGRACE! Such flying test beds need to be in Bangalore and available anytime the Gas Turbine Research Establishment (GTRE) team require them, instead of the team taking the engine all the way to Gromov (Moscow Region) like traveling Gypsies.

    While many of the well heeled ignorant Indian elite, with illegal money stashed overseas and possessing foreign permanent residencies and residences in London etc., may look down at countries like Egypt, they need to be reminded that Egypt had its own flying test bed (a converted Antonov AN-12) as far back as 1964, when attempting the build the E300 Brandner engine.

    The ability to build an indigenous modern jet engine is one of the many benchmarks of “great power” status. There are numerous other test rigs that are sorely required by the GTRE to successfully build a modern jet fighter engine, but have not been made properly available.

    Most commonly, these are to test the combustion chamber, the compressor spools, the thermal and mechanical loads for the turbine blades (here, I am not even bringing up the issue of the necessity of having single crystal blades, ceramic blades, etc…)… The lack of these basic test rigs has had a significantly baneful effect on the Kaveri program. Most of the current problems facing the Kaveri program may be directly traced to the lack of these basic utilities and the abysmal payscales of the technical staff, which in turn DIRECTLY points to PATHETIC political and managerial leadership.

  7. E.R.Sakthivel says:

    Two french rafales with two external fuel tanks each and no weapons ,

    needed 5 refuelling for their 10.5 hour long 10000 Km trip from france to reunion islands

    Sure they must have had their tanks full at take off.

    So it amounts to a total of 6 fuel loads for a 10000 Km flight with no weapon loads and only two external fuel tanks for each plane provided that each plane had five refuellings enroute.Rreport does not states whether the 5 refuellings were for each rafale. But since it is an odd number it is safe to assume that it is five refuellings for each plane . Becuase both planes need exactly the same amount of refuelling . SO an odd number can not denote total refuelling for both the planes.

    Then range in tropical climate with two external fuel tanks in optimum altitude conditions(high altitude )comes only to 1500 Km around.

    Why?

    But AVM has claimed that tejas has just one third of rafale range. Even in IOC-2 press information bureau release the farthest tejas can fly without refuelling for tejas was stated to be 1700 Km. ANd its combat radius 500 km, means with weapons it can have close to 1000 Km range with needs for AB thrusts and fuel penalizing lo altitude flight and a few minutes of close combat needs.

    Looking at the fact they flew 10K Kms and needed 5 refuels + 1 to begin with i.e a range of 1600 km with no weapons and two fuel tanks quite clearly shows Rafale doesn’t have the famed deep legs as claimed since the start. Also such long range distances are covered flying at very high altitude i.e over 30K feet at optimal fuel burning cruise speed to minimize fuel consumption, these claimed long ranges would be much lower when slung with weapons flying in low in deep strike missions.

    whatever the optimum flying conditions if you add weapons worth their price, and do a lo lo penetration with reservation for AB thrusts and close combat and take off needs, the result will be the same

    Even if we believe such rafale brochure range of 3600 Km , the hi-lo-hi missions that can use this ,exist in libiya and mali where open skies with no enemy air defence spreads for a vast expanse of 1000s of Km.

    But on india -pak borders and india-china borders enemy air defence is just a couple of hundreds of KM away.

    SO practically those much vaunted 3600 Km ranges has no relevance to two front wars or in Tibet deep strikes.

    Reality is sobering. As I said before in lo-lo penetration flight the differnece between tejas and rafale combat range will hug a figure closer to their difference fuel fraction ratio.

    Dangling more and more external tanks and stuff will add to immense drag in lo-lo strikes . So the Rafale has thrice the range of tejas like statements made by people is just irrelevant in indian air space where enemy air defences are just next door.

    SO this issue needs to be looked into,

  8. Shail says:

    I think twisting facts like doppelganger RV , et al is silly. The Tejas Mk1 is an experiment not worth emulating. The Range, Sakthi sir is most definitely not 1700 Km SIR ( hint..check your facts , really, really really) The Mk Will come..eventually when Shri karnad and his ilk reach geriatric heaven.
    If you cant develop it, buy it and pay the price. Dont condone inferior products, which are not truly and significantly indigenous, or capable of being inducted in the requisite numbers and quality and timelines and cost. FYI the Tejas Mk2 will cost as much as the Su-30 (disbelief i sense..Padawan)
    Dont buy Rafale..Ok what to do if actually the suggested alternatives are not viable?

    You need to direct your research skills at GTRE, etc may discover some mind-blowing facts

    • @Shail — the bulk of your reactions constitute blaming the inferior products out of HAL, DRDO, etc., but we have learned nothing. Shouldn’t IAF take ownership of all aviation projects, especially indigenous combat aircraft programmes? In fact, I have been suggesting GOI should make the IAF accountable for such programmes and for growing the defence industry, rather than allowing it to be on the sidelines with thumbs down on any attempt at local designa nd production. And, incidentgally, the country cannot afford inordinately expensive buys from abroad that merely perpetuate arms dependency. The only way out, whether IAF likes it or not, is to go indigenous at whatever cost — much as the PLAAF did.

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