Terminate the Rafale Deal

Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha has repeatedly and publicly declared “there’s no Plan B”, that in effect it is Rafale or nothing with respect to the Indian Air Force’s dubious Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) requirement. It merits his dismissal from service, because these words denote gross incompetence, failure to anticipate the unexpected and prepare for it—axiomatic in all military planning and, hence, of leadership. For every plan there is always an alternative plan of action in case things don’t work out as envisaged.

The absence of a fallback scheme is, of course, a ruse by Raha to pressurise the government into acceding to IAF’s wishes for the Rafale, despite defence minister Manohar Parrikar spelling out an alternative—the cost-effective, Nasik-produced Su-30MKI, which won’t require multi-billion dollar investment in another production facility and beats the French combat aircraft by any performance standard.

The prohibitive cost and questionable fighting qualities of the Rafale apart, the unwillingness of the French consortium headed by Dassault to guarantee the aircraft licence manufactured by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd. (HAL), and to fully meet transfer of technology (TOT) obligations involving Indian public and private sector entities directly or by way of offsets, too, are factors of serious concern. Source codes, flight control laws, and “black box” technologies, including all aspects of the engine, advanced sensors and avionics are likely to be left out of any TOT agreement or worse, paid for but not delivered, if previous defence deals are any guide. Dassault plans on supplying critical components and technologies for the entire production run of the “Indian-made” Rafale to ensure massive recurring profits, whence its insistence that its novice Indian partner, Reliance Aerospace, be part of the local production cycle. One other aspect is equally worrying. HAL assembling Rafale may face the kind of troubles Mazgaon Dockyard Ltd. is experiencing with the French Scorpene submarine where French vendors are delaying the supply of material and hence delaying induction and raising the direct and indirect costs.

The Price Negotiation Committees (PNCs) instituted by the defence ministry to hammer out contracts with foreign firms are to blame for such flawed transactions. Voluminous contracts are drawn up—the Rafale document reportedly exceeds 1,500 pages—but the use of indistinct language deliberately leaves large enough loopholes for even middling technologies, what to speak of the more sensitive “know why” knowledge, to be legitimately denied even as the suppliers pocket the monies the defence ministry is quick to disburse in full at the start. The PNCs need investigating, particularly for the vast leakage of the national wealth through this route.

A recent visit to HAL facilities by Dassault officials is a pointer to things to come. They complained to the US-based Defense News about the low productivity of HAL workforce and lack of economies of scale to argue that Indian-built Rafales will be costlier. Besides indicating that defence PSUs are not proficient in even the low-end screwdriver technology, the French hinted at further escalation of realistic cost beyond the presently estimated $30-$35 billion!

Flawed contracts drafted by PNCs that do not insist on penalties for time and cost overruns, and on staggered payments to fit delivery schedules, moreover, substantiate the fear repeatedly voiced by this analyst, of manipulation of assembly kits and spares supply, for foreign/economic policy reasons by France to ground the IAF squadrons at any time, is real. Such apprehensions are sought to be doused by Paris claiming that owing to TOT India will achieve “industrial autonomy”. But considering the guaranteed high level of French content in the supposedly “indigenous” Rafales, this is a laughable claim.

There are operational reasons as well why Rafale will be a liability. The IAF has always been wary of buying foreign aircraft accessible to its Pakistani counterpart. This was a reason for the rejection of F-16s as MMRCA given that they outfit the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) strike squadrons. Now consider this: Dassault is cock-a-hoop about the likely purchase by Qatar of some 66 Rafales. The Qatari Air Force (QAF) has traditionally been run by PAF pilots, with the understanding that these squadrons will switch to PAF use in any conflict with India. So, IAF Rafales will go up against Pakistani-flown Qatari Rafales that potentially will be better equipped and periodically upgraded with more sophisticated sensors, avionics, and weapons that Saudi Arabia will happily finance, as it did the $500 million deal for PAF’s F-16s and Pakistan’s acquisition of nuclear weapons and missile technologies from China. The Gulf regimes, after all, consider the Pakistan military their palace guard.

And, Rafales cannot be effectively used against China either. Why? Because, firstly, it will not survive sophisticated Chinese air defence; secondly, Dassault won’t allow the indigenous Brahmos supersonic cruise missile to take out targets inside China from standoff range to be integrated with it; and thirdly, because the Rafale is a compromised system for another reason. Pakistan is the prime conduit for Western military, especially aerospace, technologies to China. A Qatari Rafale will be disassembled in Pakistan for Chinese engineers to scrutinise, or wing its way to a Chengdu Aircraft Industry Groupsite for its best features and technologies to be reverse-engineered and incorporated in Chinese combat aircraft, and otherwise permit the Chinese military to familiarise itself with its technical weaknesses and configure appropriate counter-measures and counter-tactics.

Every demerit attends on the Rafale aircraft deal, including its outrageous cost and negligible effects in growing a self-sufficient Indian defence industry. It should be terminated also because of the country’s meagre resources—the capital defence budget of Rs`94,588 crore for 2015-16 remains unchanged from last year, and careful inter se choices will have to be made from among myriad military procurement programmes. In the competition for the defence rupee, the Rafale is eminently expendable. It is time Parrikar told IAF, using the words of former US defence secretary Robert Gates, that “there’s no endless money”. If a Rafale deal is still signed to crown Narendra Modi’s April 10 visit to France, the government will have much to answer for.

[Published in New Indian Express on 6th March, 2015 at http://www.newindianexpress.com/columns/Terminate-the-Rafale-Deal/2015/03/06/article2699390.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, China, China military, civil-military relations, Defence Industry, domestic politics, DRDO, Europe, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Indian ecobomic situation. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Terminate the Rafale Deal

  1. This post is brilliant and lays bare the weaknesses of the Indian Air Force’s choice of the Rafale.

    Enough is enough. If Modi and Parrikar are serious about building an Indian defense industry, then they need to tell the flyboys to make do with what they are given, and that should be a mix of the SU-30 MKI and the Tejas. The Government of India is not a Kamadhenu of wealth that our McArthurs and Doolittles can continually be burdening with exorbitant demands.

    The Indian Air Force cannot be allowed to destroy the Tejas the way the Marut was destroyed. If working with the Tejas’s designers to rectify its faults is beneath the dignity of the flyboys, then they need to go, perhaps to the more lucrative commercial aviation sector where they can quickly adopt fake accents and buy the latest SUVs.

    Moreover, this business of “transfer of technology” is a scandal of monstrous proportions. For so many years, India has been bled white in various deals that involve transfer of technology, and, yet, the results of such transfers are not evident.

    One last thought. The criticism about Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, and, perhaps, most public sector units, is not unwarranted. Therefore, an option to explore is to allow the fledgling private defense sector of the country to make parts for the Tejas or even assemble it.

  2. mnas dhar says:

    I think what is being played out is the classical good cop bad cop routine so we can spare the Air force chief. Modi will likely go ahead with the deal provided France sweetens it a bit more. Also India would do well to improve its relations with GCC given that they are in a lot of trouble these days. we can start with working along with Oman on the duqm port which is strategically located. Could use some good for nothing congress hands for this business cause exchanging gifts with arabi sheikhs is one thing i am sure rahul gandhi will excel in.

  3. Shail says:

    I Think this article is nothing but pure slander, without much knowledge and seems un- necessarily vitriolic. I wonder who benefits if the Rafale deal is cancelled? Does that imply that you are canvassing for the replacement of the Rafale? What makes you imply that the MMRCA evaluation process and subsequent PNC etc was flawed? Is there some vast conspiracy by hundreds (or thousands) of people involved in the entire procurement and CNC process in MoD and IAF ? or are you perhaps mistaken or ignorant of the process? Or you are the ONLY wise man and everyone else is wrong?

    Perhaps ignorance may not be the right answer, maybe you are motivated by something other than what you portray. Are you seriously suggesting that Qatar will overtly take sides? Really?

    Were you in the PNC? Are you an expert on PNCs? How many deals have you made / overseen/ planned? How on earth can you comment on matters which you have no experience of?

    Are you suggesting that HAL is actually efficient and competent ?

    Rafales cant be used against china…..???????? with what authority can you say this? are you an EW or AD expert?

    Your knowledge base seems to be purely off the Net. This is not research sir.

    Also you dont seem to have a suggestion of what should the Rafale deal be replaced with? What will fill the void? or according to you there is no void?

    The french are no altruists, but the Mirage 2000 is a great ac which delivered the goods in Kargil vis-a-vis the MiGs.

    • @deeplycynical — Please read the whole bunch of articles I have written over the years available on this blog before you make up your mind on the issue on who and what is right. I can’t keep arguing the same thing in every new piece on the subject and expect that readers would be familiar with my earlier writings. I have argued at length why the MMRCA is an entirely synthetic concept extraneous to the needs of the IAF and country, and promoted to get out of the thrall of Russian aircraft, even though they are, tech-wise, the most advanced available and relatively speaking, far more economical than their Western counterpart. Indeed, I repeatedly pushed for acquisition of more Su-30 MKIs combined with accelerated induction of Tejas Mk-Is and Mk-IIs. Defence Minister Parrikar apparently sees the merit in this suggestion and has publicly supported buying of more Su-30s.

      I have no experience of negotiating a complex military or any other contract. Then again, neither has anybody in the MOD if the past record of quite extraordinary excesses invariably benefiting the supplier companies were to be examined. In fact, this is, as I have stated, a fit case for CBI to investigate. Negotiating military sales and military production contracts is such onerous business, Pentagon officials tasked with the job are required to have a diploma from a university run by the Pentagon for providing training in just this sort of work. No, I have been castigating HAL as yet another DPSU stuck at assembling or screw driver technology level — look at my writings. What I have pleaded is for something major — reorganize the defence industry by dividing all DRDO units, DPSUs and ordnance factories into two nearly equal defence industrial combines to be managed by Tata and L&T (look up this piece)– as the fastest way to build up defence industrial capability.

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