Ditching Rafale

Like an able pilot with his wits about him in an out-of-control warplane, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar may be preparing to ditch Rafale touted as the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) answer, which the Indian Air Force has set its heart on procuring at any cost, and going for the more economical and sensible Su-30 option instead.

It has been repeatedly emphasised by this analyst that the IAF misconceived the MMRCA requirement, disregarded the uncommonly high costs involved in procuring the chosen Rafale and France’s past record of unmet transfer of technology promises, and the Su-30s/MiG-29M2s as sustainable alternative. I also warned that the massive expenditure on the Rafale would starve the indigenous programmes (Tejas and the advanced medium combat aircraft — AMCA) of funds, and stifle the Indian aviation industry trying to get back on its feet.

The reasons for the nose-diving deal are many, and they are serious. The unwillingness of Dassault Avions, the Rafale manufacturer, to guarantee the performance of this aircraft produced under licence at Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd despite the original RFP (Request for Proposal) requiring bidders to transfer technology, including production wherewithal, procedures and protocols, to this public sector unit for the aircraft’s local assembly, has been reported. There’s, however, an untold back-story revealing France’s intended duplicity.

Perceiving India as the perennial sucker, Dassault chose Reliance Aerospace Technologies Pvt Ltd (RATPL) as partner in the hope that the fabled Ambani reach and influence in Delhi would help it get around the HAL production obligation. Problems were not anticipated as evidenced by RATPL approaching the Andhra Pradesh government in 2013 for land around Hyderabad to set up a factory. But because RATPL has zero experience in producing anything remotely related to aviation, Dassault saw it as an opportunity to “double dip”, meaning arrange it so India would pay it twice for the same aircraft! This was to be managed thus: Dassault would set up a production line under RATPL aegis importing every last screw and production jig and collect the money for the 108 Rafales it puts together here at the cost-plus-profit price HAL would charge IAF. In other words, Dassault would export the Rafale assembly kits and wherewithal virtually to itself and pocket the proceeds while paying a premium to RATPL.

But this double dipping ruse in the works merely whetted France’s appetite for more. Capitalising on the IAF brass’ penchant for newer French aircraft and the Indian government’s tendency eventually to cave into the military’s demands, Dassault proposed an enlarged Rafale deal with the cost revised upwards from the $30 billion level to a $45-$50 billion contract. For such enhanced sums, Dassault sought to replace the Rafale originally offered with the slightly better “F-3R” version, promised a mid-life upgrade involving retrofitment of the Thales RBE2 AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar, and suggested India’s future fifth and sixth generation combat aircraft needs be met by the “F-4R” and “F-5R” configurations (or whatever designations they are given) now on the drawing board featuring crystal blade for jet turbines, “fly-by-light” technology, etc. Such contract extension suits the IAF fine because it plays on Vayu Bhavan’s antipathy for Russian hardware (expressed in terms of “diversity of suppliers”) as well as indigenous aircraft, and undermines both the multi-billion dollar project jointly to develop the fifth generation fighter aircraft, Su-50 PAK/FA with Russia and the Indian AMCA with its design finalised.

But for Parrikar’s welcome show of common sense this French plan would have rolled out nicely. Inconveniently for Dassault, he publicly disclosed that the far deadlier and more versatile Su-30 MKI costs Rs 358 crores (roughly $60 million) each compared to the Rs 700 crore price tag for the Rafale, meaning two Su-30s could be secured for the price of a single Rafale. Implicit is the reasonable conclusion that it made more sense to buy a much larger fleet of 4.5-plus generation Su-30s than to get stuck with a 4.5-minus generation Rafale sporting 5.5 generation aircraft prices. The cost comparison remains skewed even when the “super Sukhoi-30”, costing Rs 70 crores, is considered, when the added advantage of the plunging Russian ruble kicks in, allowing India to extract far more bang for the buck from Moscow.

Looked at another way, the original allocation of $12 billion for the MMRCA could fetch IAF at current prices a whole new, augmented, and more capable fighter/bomber armada and raise the force strength to 50 frontline combat squadrons. This because the $12 billion can buy 20 Tejas Mk-Is (in addition to the 40 already ordered), 150 Tejas Mk-IIs, some 35 super Sukhoi-30s, and around 50 MiG-29Ks/M2s (with the M-2s nearly equal of the MiG-35 the Strategic Forces Command wanted for delivering nuclear bombs, but were denied). In short, a composite additional fleet of 255 aircraft can be acquired for the initial price of 126 Rafales, with “incalculable” savings in streamlined logistics, training, and maintenance but absent the cost-hikes, delays, and aggravation of setting up a new production line (as HAL already produces Su-30 MKIs).

Besides, France’s extortionist attitude is offputting. In response to the IAF’s request not too long ago for an immediate transfer of two Rafale squadrons from the French Air Force as a quick-fix, Paris agreed but demanded these would have to be paid for at the same rate as new aircraft and that these planes could carry only French sourced weapons. Worse still, France’s reputation for fulfilling technology transfer provisions too is suspect as past experience reveals.

The IAF trusts Paris not to cutoff the supply of spares if India follows a foreign policy not to France’s or even America’s liking. Except, heeding Washington’s directive, France recently stopped the delivery of two Mistral-class amphibious assault ships Russia has paid for. What’s the guarantee Paris won’t sever supply links and leave HAL stranded mid-production and IAF frontline squadrons grounded in case India resumes nuclear testing, say?

The larger question is: How come France’s record of defaulting on technology-related parts of contracts combined with the unaffordability of French aircraft generally using any metric, were not factored by IAF and Ministry of Defence when shortlisting Rafale?

[Published in New Indian Express January 8, 2015 http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Ditching-Rafale/2015/01/09/article2609959.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.
This entry was posted in arms exports, Asian geopolitics, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, DRDO, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian ecobomic situation, Military Acquisitions, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, russian military, South Asia, Strategic Forces Command, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to Ditching Rafale

  1. Sairaj U says:

    Sir, excellent viewpoint and I was expecting this article from you as soon as our MOD Parikar highlighted Sukhoi-30 MKI’s cheaper price tag and versatile capability. This will also serve as opportunity to support Russia at a crucial time and build on our strategic friendship. But we should ask our Russian friend’s for complete transfer of technology of Sukhoi- 30 MKI which we missed to do so in 1990’s.

  2. Sir
    The alternatives to Rafale are the Lca Mk-1/Lca-mk2 & Su-30MKI.
    The timelines of LCA is very stretched. 2020 and later is the time when LCA MK-1 will attain first full squadron strength with FOC standard. LCA MK2 first flight is planned in 2017-18. It will be 2025 or later when we can expect them in service.

    As regards Su-30MKi, putting all our eggs in the Russian basket will be not be wise. And moreover an Air-superiority and Air-dominance fighter like Su-30Mki may not be the best bet to take on ground targets or DPSA role. Mig-29 SMT will make it more russo centric IAF.

    In the analysis of Rafale Vs Others the alternatives proposed are not very well thought out with regard to timelines and capabilities.

    Lets trim down the size of the contract to 3-4 squadrons all built in France just like we had 2 squadrons of Mirage-2k and build up the gaps with used Mirage 2k or wait for LCA Mk1/2. We had a proposal to limit the number of rafales to 80.

    Every body is money minded not just France. Russians treated us so shabbily in Gorshkov deal.

    • Look, if “putting all your eggs in one basket” is at the core of the yearning for the Rafale, then Russia will have to be shown to be more manipulative as a military supplier with a more punitive attitude animating its polices than Western suppliers. The evidence from the past is actually the reverse. Was France not part of the US-led technology denial regime starting in the wake of the 1974 N-test and has it not toed the American line to the detriment always of India’s interest?

    • Tama Shah says:

      France is definitely not a basket in which we can put even one egg! If you have studied the Falkland Wars, you’ve seen how it turned around when France gave Britain the code and homing radar for the Dassault-built Argentine anti-ship Exocet missiles. If, in future, India’s interests clash with those of the occidental world (and they will, once India develops an interest in … well … anything), the last thing we want is our kryptonite being handed over to the enemy.

  3. mnas dhar says:

    the IAF and the author have a divergent opinion on the mmrca deal to say the least. Very difficult to judge who is right on this one. I think the IAF is paranoid about its squadron size and feels that it needs more planes right away in the likelihood of a two font war, other than that i see no justification for this deal. However its hard to blame them for this kind of attitude cause wars don’t generally start with advance pronouncements unless of course they are India-pak wars, or riots to indulge the author for a bit.

  4. Truth Be Told says:

    The situation and the consequences between future Indian nuclear tests and the ongoing Russian aggression in Europe are totally different.

    Also, you are superficially and badly informed about current Rafales and the Rafale F3-R standard. Calling the Rafale “a 4.5-minus generation ” is just a mediocre jab, but “mediocre” is exactly the value of your text and your anti Rafale activism, in fact.

    In the end, IAF pilots (you know, the persons who will fly these combat aircrafts daily and who will go to war and risk their lives into enemy airspace) know what is good for the Air Force better than an armchair expert.

    • For the Western powers — US, France, et al — resumption of N-testing by India is as upsetting as the annexation of the Crimea by Russia, because both these developments challenge the status quo they uphold because it principally benefits them. Be under no illusion that Americans and the French love India and will not react in the same way as in the past if India tests again.

      The fact is Rafale IS only a 4.5 minus gen aircraft.

      You are right, of course, the IAF brass — all of them GDPs — making decisions understand combat aircraft best. But that’s very far from claiming a strategic mindset for them. The MMRCA decision is not just about outfitting frontline squadrons with this or that aircraft. It is about ensuring the country gets out of its thralldom to foreign armaments suppliers. One wishes the IAF mindset had been more attuned to this strategic end rather than being preoccupied with securing the latest shiny plane.

  5. Tama Shah says:

    Always enjoy reading your articles on national security issues. The way you have been writing about the Rafale deal has been an eye opening experience in understanding the machinations of the Indian military’s decision makers.

    The Rafale deal should have been ditched a long time ago. France has a history of being not dependable. I hope it finally is dealt a death blow now! At this point of time, it makes complete sense to forge stronger defense alliances with Russia, while simply projecting India as an anti-China weapon to the US-Euro bloc. India definitely needs to ensure that it retains as much influence it possibly can in Russia.

    Also, there has been a lot of talk about being prepared for a two-front war. Even if we were buying 4- generation planes, it makes sense to buy 255 aircrafts instead of 126. And given that choosing Su-30s now will make it much, much easier to collaborate in the production of Su-50 PAK/FA, it makes even more sense. (I think that is what you meant in your article, please correct me if I have misunderstood this point.)

    I would love to see an immediate future where India has a fleet of excellent aircrafts, with enough fleets to fight a two-front war, and additionally, India can export Tejas-Mk1 (maybe even Mk2) to Vietnam and other countries. A string of pearls can, after all, always be strung around other necks 🙂

  6. halloweeene says:

    OK. As you censored my first reply, i’ll entirely stick to facts.
    – Aboutthe RFP clause. Can you show a clause in RFP where the OEM would be responsible for HAL built fighters? I am sure you cannot because that widely spread imaginary clause do not exist.
    – Co-entreprise with reliance : can you show any source saying Dassault wanted a dual build chain? Asked, they answered they only wanted a double supply chain. Did you take the time to ask them? I did.
    – 45-50 Billions. Any source?
    – Retrofitment of RBE2 AESA. In fact and AESA radar was in the RFP AND included in submission. Actually, RBE2 PESA isn’t anymore built.
    – Single crystal blades are already in M88-2 http://www.safran-group.com/site-safran-en/aerospace/aerospace-propulsion/military-aircraft-engines/m88-2-rafale-265/ , aswell as fly by light (due to nuke mission compatibility)
    – Su 30 MKI being far deadlier and more versatile is questionable. At best. Aswell as calling Rafale a 4.5 Gen minus plane. Did you have the opportunity to ask an IAF pilot involved in tests/Garuda V exercise about that? How do you define 4.5 Gen? Lets have a talk about that!
    – AFAIK, It is not IAF that requested transfer of two Sqd immediately (which would be impossible anyway because they are needed in France), but Dassault aviation that proposed to start quickly production of IAF Rafales on french standards that would be retrofitted to indian standards later.
    (you may just have e-mailed to DA communication service to get an answer).
    – AFAIK, technical specifications of “super sukhoi” are not set entirely. I would be very curious on how to quote a price on them. Source please?
    – Tejas MkII is at the moment still on drawing board (and i hope it will be a success).Ho can you set a price on it?
    – Thank you for discreetly changing your text correcting F4R and F5R by adding “or whatever they are called”. On the other hand, saying “whatever they are called” shows a lack of knowledge of the program. I’ll give a hint. It will be F4 , and the MLU which do not have any name at the moment (nor any technical specifications) as it deeply also depends on FCAS. On the other hand, it is quite easy to have an idea of the future F4 Rafale roadmap. One may take a look at “Plan d’Etudes Amont” (PEA) presently funded By the DGA (procurement agency). A little help : some are named MELBAA, DEDIRA, TRAGEDAC, CTH-Num, INCAS, etc.

    • Censored nothing that did not need to be. The point of contention is Dassault’s reluctance to give up on its intended RATPL route, which’d have been the cherry atop its already huge cake. A lot of what’s happening on the Rafale, absent authoritative information, is hearsay, and so it comes down to what you have come to know from your French sources Vs what I have come to know from Indian sources. There’s no closure there.On Su-30 and Su-50, look up Carlo Kopp’s writeups on these aircraft — the Aussie Kopp is, perhaps, the best combat aviation specialist writing in the public realm. Re: “Super Su” cost of Rs 70 crore, it is a matter of using a fractional multiplier based on the MKI costing, per Parrikar, @ $60 milion. I did not “discreetly” change anything — the words in brackets are exactly as in the original version featured in New Indian Express. Look it up. And finally, the fact is you are a Frenchman promoting/pushing a French product. I am an Indian nationalist who believes that such aircraft imports only postpones the achievement of the endstate of self-reliance in armaments.

      • halloweeene says:

        I know Carlo. Reading him (and often he has very interesting facts to say) one should keep in mind that he is a little F-22 obsessed. Btw, did you know that Snecma created a structure involving Bharat Forge so as to transfer knowledge in metal powders and single crystal blades? That they stated that indian M88 would be 100% indian made?
        Sorry if i missed the brackets in original article, my bad.
        Yes i am a Frenchman, “promoting a french product” is a bit well… As i’m nowhere related to Dassault. I’m promoting the product also because i’m a former Air Force man, and i could talk to some pilots. Including P. Collins and V. Riller. which are independent test pilots. They were delighted with Rafale.
        India made a huge remarkable step in designing Tejas from scratch. What i do hope is that ToT from Rafale will help in achieving a high end product for Mark2.So postponing? Maybe, maybe not. In terms of avionics architecture (integrated vs federated), engines (reliability, duration), RCS, maintenance etc. Rafale is a league ahead of SU30. Anyway those are completely different beasts (heavy vs medium sized) and comparing them is apple vs oranges.
        In that job (analysis, journalism), it is important to see the two sides of a coin. If i failed at convincing you, i hope i brought some elements about the other side. Did you try to contact DA communication department? It is very easy and if you want i’ll give you the mail of their head, but in a private mail.

    • Thomas says:


      So you disagree with the earlier comment on what happened in the Falklands war?

  7. tiwari says:

    Kudos Mr Karnad for getting us this view and not being distracted by the ad hominems used for you by IAF personnel, rtd or otherwise in the media. Its important to have a balanced perspective.

    Halloweene, commend you on your polite reply as well.

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