Nowhere in my article – “Why Rafale is a big mistake” did I raise any question about the rigorous testing regime the IAF employed to shortlist the aircraft in the running for the MMRCA slot, and yet the former Vice Chief of the Air Staff, in what’s presumably the institutional response to my piece, makes it, nonsequiterishly, the centre-piece of his response – a tactic to divert from my main theme.
Nor is the American F-35 and its price the issue. This aircraft is a horrendously costly aircraft, which I have time and again trashed as a possible IAF option in my writings and even in a luncheon meeting (where other Indian commentators were present) with the US Assistant Secretary of Defence. F-35 is, as many in the US describe it, a boondoggle and “white elephant” – expensive to acquire, inordinately difficult to maintain in service and at, trillion dollars, unaffordable even for the United States in terms of its lifetime costing – and the last thing that IAF should have on its mind. It is another matter that in the run-up to the Rafale announcement many senior officers in the IAF and many more commentators in the media were actually gung-ho about this aircraft and championed its acquisition (in lieu of the F-16/F-18)!
But Barbora has been more honest than his service colleagues who have published their responses. Air Vice Marshal Arjun Subramaniam, was deployed by the IAF on a previous occasion when I called for terminating the Rafale deal as wasteful in extremis (See “”Stop wasteful military deals”, New Indian Express, November 1, 2013 featured elsewhere in this blog and at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Stop-wasteful-military-deals/2013/11/01/article1866740.ece. Subramaniam reacted (See his “Undermining national security”, New Indian Express, November 7, 2013 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Undermining-national-security/2013/11/07/article1876105.ece, by warning that such writings undermine national security – as if national security, other than being a special preserve of the uniformed brass, was some delicate exotic hot-house orchid that can weather no critical storm. Further, his doubts about the Tejas – the weaknesses in which project is due not little to IAF’s refusal to own up and be accountable for this project – were substantively answered by a flood of on-line reaction commentaries by technically proficient and knowledgeable writers who backed my contention that Tejas can be the answer to IAF’s prayers (and which commentaries have since mysteriously disappeared from the New Indian Express website (!) but are retained for posterity on this blog – refer the air force section in this blog).
But senior airmen are in a habit of not grappling with the central issues that are raised, jagging off, for example, into this analyst’s honest mistake of spelling CAS’ name as Saha, rather than the correct Raha, etc. Consider in this respect Air Vice Marshal (retd) Manmohan Bahadur’s critique of my case for a strategic bomber “Strategic bomber for IAF”, New Indian Express, February 7, 2014 on this blog and at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Strategic-Bomber-for-IAF/2014/02/07/article2042008.ece. He veered off on a tangent saying how difficult it is to produce a strategic bomber indigenously when the country cannot even manufacture a trainer plane, etc, when actually what I had suggested was leasing (as we do nuclear attack submarines) Tu-160 Blackjack strategic bomber from Russia as the manned strategic delivery option. In this diversion, he, of course failed to address the larger point about the IAF leadership in the early 1970s fouling up by not accepting the Tu-22 Backfire bomber Russia was keen India offtake, and what it revealed about the lack of the “strategic” sense of the IAF, etc.. To the extent this was taken up, Bahadur sought to pooh-pooh it by sloghing the responsibility off to the Government, referring to the straitened financial circumstances the country was in at the time, the trend of policy, and other such extraneous factors when actually the Tu-22 could have been secured on the same terms as was the MiG-23BN, which was IAF’s choice! (“Fallacies of strategic bomber”, New Indian Express, February 11, 2014 http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Fallacies-of-Strategic-Bomber/2014/02/11/article2049378.ece
Unlike, Subramaniam and Bahadur, the more senior and apparently more responsible, ex-VCAS Barbora, is candid in acknowledging that costs are a factor, and that the unit cost of any fully loaded 4th generation fighter is presently in the $300 million-$400 million range, which is precisely the price range I said Rafale falls in. However, notwithstanding the quite extraordinary expenditure involved, which Barbora does not dispute, he is for acquiring it because, well, the long selection process was swell, IAF’s need has to be filled and, though he does not say it in so many words (see his last para), how Rafale in IAF’s inventory will raisie India’s stock in “the comity of nations”!
The Indian defence industry was crippled at the start by IAF’s hankering for Western combat planes. The fully locally developed HF-24 and its follow-on Mk-2, were ruthlessly killed off by IAF, doing away what little chance India had of emerging as an independent aerospace power in the manner that Brazil and Israel have done in recent years. The IAF’s role in ending the Marut project in the early Seventies to favor purchase of the Jaguar Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (which as I pointed out at the time can, ironically, penetrate deep or strike hard but cannot do both at the samke time!) and its subsequent reluctance to nurse an in-country combat aircraft R&D and production project, especially the Tejas, lest its umbilical linkage to imported aircraft be severed, is there for all to mull over. Tejas, it must be remembered is a DRDO-driven programme. These are touchy issues for the IAF that I often bring up in my writings, and which are at the core of why India, fatally for a country with pretensions to great power, remains an arms dependency, but which issues no commentators from IAF want, for obvious reasons, to tackle.
What thus ends up being reiterated is the official service line, repeated ad infinitum, for example, (again) by AVM (retd) Manmohan Bahadur (“MMRCA misgivings unfounded”, New Indian Express, August, August 2, 2014 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/MMRCA-Misgivings-Unfounded/2014/08/02/article2359756.ece), who is apparently, IAF’s designated batter. He writes re: Rafale as MMRCA that “Costs, albeit important, don’t decide acquisitions; it is the capability one desires that is the driving factor and it’s our misfortune that HAL has not delivered this to the nation. The IAF just looks at getting the right product to safeguard the national skies, as it is its duty to do so.” His and IAF’s contention thus is that costs to the exchequer should be of less concern than IAF having the Rafale in its stable! And, moreover, as is the service’s wont, he covers up for IAF’s acquisition visioning and strategizing failures by telescoping IAF’s urgent needs with DRDO-HAL’s shortcomings.
The question the Indian government confronts is whether to take the easy way out and meet the MMRCA requirements but only half-way (80 or so Rafales) as is the first indication from the Modi regime, or will it bite the bullet, as it were, and decide to end for once and for all the policy of pell-mell importation of unbearably expensive aircraft, and order IAF to take charge of the Tejas programme and rationalize its force structure with just two main lines of combat aircraft, the mainstay Tejas Mk 1 for air defence, Mk 2 in the MMRCA role, and the Su-30 and FGFA Su-50. There’s no other way.
The pleas by the likes of Bahadur to “let the professionals do their job of recommending what is good for the defence of the nation” would be reassuring if the IAF brass actually knew what they were doing, or that they are even clear about the nonsense designation of the Rafale as “medium” combat aircraft. That IAF is in the dark on most such issues and the entire MMRCA schemata mainly reflects IAF’s mindless procurement thinking and confusion, may be evidenced in a 4-part video uploaded on youtube of a Vayu-Strategic Post hosted seminar on Indian airpower, July 4, 2014, the relevant 2nd part of this seminar is available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=9jCpOqAlvN8. All the IAF luminaries – ACM (retd) SP Tyagi on down, it is obvious, have no clue about what “life costing” metrics are all about, and routinely talk down Russian aircraft, but are mute when informed about the intricacies of lifetime costing of aircraft and about the fact of the 44% availability of Rafale in the French AF, which matches the availability of the Su-30 in IAF. This last is in the 4th part of the above seminar at http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=fhtb19cjvVw#t=0.
There’s even more damning stuff about, such as the scale of “commissions””, etc. on offer or already deposited which, as one of my well-informed correspondents writes, tongue barely in cheek, would put the Rafale in the “heavy” class. And there’s lots more — all there for the BJP government to examine, enough reason, in any case, for it to revisit the matter of MMRCA, and just how and why the Rafale deal will not only beggar the country – not that the IAF cares — but take down the Tejas programme and the nascent Indian defence industry with it.