Grand ambitions, muddled planning

The impression created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meetings with western leaders is that India will buy any de-rated military goods offered. His announcement about purchasing 36 1980s-vintage French Rafale planes to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirement for ‘medium multi-role combat aircraft’ (MMRCA) wrong-footed defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who favoured the bigger, more versatile and economical Su-30 — superior to the Rafale in all roles, including nuclear delivery.

In the US, accords for more C-17 transport aircraft and helicopters — all, incidentally, stripped of sophisticated sensors and communications gear were signed. The HDW 214 diesel-electric submarine selection for the navy’s Project 75i featured in the talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — except that the ‘214’ is an ‘export’ variant of the advanced ‘212’ and, hence, without features like the non-magnetic hull to render detection by magnetic anomaly detectors difficult.

Such defence transactions supposedly promote Modi’s ‘Make in India’ scheme. Not clear how, considering they resemble the old policy of licence-manufacture. Absent the hard decision to end arms dependency by marshalling resources nationally, scrapping the “L1”— lowest tender — system and similar impedimenta, and permitting the private sector to utilise the defence public sector facilities, New Delhi will continue to rescue slumping western defence industries, while preventing indigenous design-to-delivery capabilities from getting off the ground.

Rafale is also part of the anti-Russian tilt — justified in terms of the spares shortages endemic to its supply chain. Except, the 30-40% down-time of Su-30s and MiG-29s, for instance, is comparable to that of the Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, and Hawks in Indian employ. In any case, the problem with the spares is more easily mitigated than prospective grounding during crises of whole fleets should European suppliers, succumbing to US pressure, cut off the spares flow, as happened in the past.

India’s aim to win friends by promising big armament buys may win goodwill. But it lasts only until the next big defence deal is lost by a vendor state, when the squeeze is put with threats of arms transfers to Pakistan, as Russia is doing with the proposed sale of attack helicopters and MiG-35 combat planes to Islamabad.

Among the deals none is more outrageous as regards cost and disutility than the Rafale deal. The reported negotiated price of $9 billion for 36 Rafales and another $6 billion for mid-life upgrade — for a total of $15 billion — is being used by the IAF as a wedge to compel buys of 44 more Rafales. This amounts to $250 million per aircraft, roughly the price-tag of the US 5th generation F-35 fighter-bomber. Using Parrikar’s metric of three Su-30s for the price of one Rafale, the $9 billion will fetch IAF 108 Su-30s or almost seven squadrons (instead of two Rafale squadrons). Further, because this plane is produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., it will spur local production and provide a fillip to ‘Make in India’.

Then there’s an aspect relating to the life-time programme costing that has escaped attention. It involves a system of complex calculations the IAF and defence ministry ostensibly used to make the MMRCA decision. By this reckoning the cost calculus actually gets more skewed against the Rafale. The $15 billion up-front acquisition cost constitutes only 30% of the lifetime costs. Maintenance and servicing will account for the remaining 70% of programme expenditures.

It explains the fierce competition to sell fighter jets because a country once hooked keeps paying multiples of the procurement price. In the event, the realistic bill for just two Rafale squadrons is $27 billion with upgrade (at current value) without technology transfer. Is Parrikar aware of this, and the government prepared for a humongous outlay on meagre fighting assets?

IAF’s import orientation can be fixed by giving it the charge of, and making it responsible for, the indigenous Tejas programme — deliberately belittled by its brass. This, combined with the jettisoned import option, can produce startling results. Recall that import denial led to India getting world-class Agni missiles.

Consider a Rafale-less force-structure: 108 additional Su-30s — rated the best combat aircraft in the world which could, by 2020, augment the 14 squadrons of this plane already in service, along with squadrons of the upgraded Mirage 2000, MiG-29, and Jaguar. For short-and medium-range air defence, the bulk aircraft is obviously the home-made Tejas Mk-1A and Tejas Mk-II.

Equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar they will, like Rafale, be 4.5 generation, but more agile and cheaper to buy and upkeep, and seed a sustainable Indian aerospace industry. In single combat a Rafale can beat the Tejas, but a Tejas swarm can down a bunch of Rafales anytime; meaning quantity will prevail when the qualitative difference is marginal.

Moreover, with air warfare transitioning into an era of multi-purpose drones — something the “fighter jock”-driven IAF seems unprepared for — the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project with Russia becomes redundant. The savings of Rs 50,000 crore can, with China in mind, be invested in leasing extra Akula nuclear-powered attack submarines and the new Tu-160M2 strategic bomber India needs but the IAF, incomprehensibly, is allergic to, or in developing and fielding advanced drones, more nuclear-powered submarines, and multiple-nuclear warheaded long-range Agni missiles.
Published in the Hindustan Times, Monday, Oct 19, 2015 under two titles — the print copy had “Grand ambitions, muddled planning”; the HT on the net had “India rescuing western defence firms, not developing domestic ones” accessible 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.
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11 Responses to Grand ambitions, muddled planning

  1. ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:

    1) “The impression created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meetings with western leaders is that India will buy any de-rated military goods offered”
    – Looks like a Tribute paying exercise. Probably we owe it to the rest of the world for the mere fact that we live.

    2) “Recall that import denial led to India getting world-class Agni missiles”
    – How about MTCR now?

    3) “In single combat a Rafale can beat the Tejas, but a Tejas swarm can down a bunch of Rafales anytime; meaning quantity will prevail when the qualitative difference is marginal”
    – Remember what happened ‘When F-5 met F-15’ or ‘When Bison met Eagle’.

    4) ““fighter jock”-driven IAF”
    – note that they are going to create a separate branch for the UAV/UCAV drivers and basically kill their careers.

  2. Vihan says:

    Dear Bharat,

    As always a very well written article. I have some questions though, which I was hoping you could answer :

    1)Is there any chance/plan that the Rafal deal could make the French at least give Enrichment and Re-Processing technology to India (hopefully) no strings attached?

    2)Your statement “Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project with Russia becomes redundant.” seems a little too extreme as the FGFA will have stealth which is something I guess India would definitely need integrated (again hopefully) in future variants of Tejas and perhaps even drones. My question is, how good is stealth in modern ariel warfare? The technology was no doubt eye popping new in the 1980’s, but I would guess (and please correct me me if I’m wrong) that there are probably other ways in which stealth craft can be detected.

    Thanks and Regards,

    – vihan

    • Re: As I have repeatedly said especially to military/policy audiences there’s no such thing as a “stealth” aircraft. No matter how stealthy the plane it can be detected by 1940s technology — low frequency radar. When I said this to the chief designer of the AMCA, Dr Ghosh, who was ballyhooing the stealth characteristics of the AMCA under design, there was complete silence in response!

      For the money and in the era of very agile drones able to pull 9-10G maneuvers, FGFA is flatout as dead a duck as any older fighter aircraft.

      • Vihan says:

        Dear Bharat,

        Thanks for the reply. Another question :

        Is there any chance/plan that the Rafal deal could make the French at least give Enrichment and Re-Processing technology to India (hopefully) no strings attached?

        Thanks and Regards,

        – vihan

  3. Shail says:

    Dont agree with your simplistic analysis of the capability differential. A swarm of Tejas cannot take down even a Su-30, forget Rafale. Thats not how it works. lots of other things matter. Your knowledge of aerial combat and various combat aviation related stuff is bookish and amateur. e.g the low frequency detection thing – VHF radars have huge issues, frontal quarter stealth is aimed at different issues, if this was so easy all air forces would be hurriedly buying VHF Radars. AESAs are useful but basic weapon carriage, range and manoevrability do matter. A tejas will be hard pressed (being generous) to match even a MiG-29 (non upgraded older version) or a M2K under WVR. Thats a hard fact. make of it what you will. no amount of purple prose or impressive power point presentations can take that away. In the world of high speed ultra hard manoevring combat, T-W ratios, turn and climb rates, wing loadings ( with weapons loaded – dont quote clean aircraft figures) sensors, and many other factors matter hugely. attempts to brush away major issues like 1100 kgs overweight are insane. Even in a formula 1, weight of few kgs matter, Aviation is different.
    I understand you hate the Rafale for some vague reason, but if you deny that IAF needs that kind of capability i do not agree at all. if you claim a few hundred tejas give you that – sorry, you dont understand the game or the rules either. The downtimes you quote, whats the source?
    Drones, – are you seriously suggesting that drones being made by DRDO are air combat capable? or reading about US drones and pasting that opinion here? Even the US is 20-30 years away from that stuff.
    The Su-30 may not be actually as good? perhaps? just a thought.
    LCC – look at russian aircraft LCC , Tejas LCC , and many more, may open your eyes. Use any metric, even the indigenously manufactured ones, see the LCC of pvt aircraft, airlines etc, now put in the hundreds of assessment points used, and compare. Dont knock the model if you dont get it.
    As for the Tu 160 M3 – really???? have you last checked the cost? how many actually flyworthy with russkies, and whats the condition of the russian air force ones? how much do they fly? how many do you suppose we should buy? 2 or three? can they be made anymore now? why did the russians choose to upgrade? what upgrades were actually done? what happened to the maintenance of the mig -25 fleet ( 6-8 aircraft) in the last 10 odd years of their service? buy Tu-160s and again set up an unreliable supply chain and another logistic dependancy and maintenance nightmare? Whats the op utilisation? you seem to think that the chinks can detect our stealth AMCA, but not the Tu-160 with its HUUUGEEE RCS? going alone deep inside deep into enemy territory because no Tejas or Su or Gripen (or Rafale) can ever ever match its range and protect it? Does it really have the kind of self protection and EW required? Are you taking Syria with its undefended airspace as a template? or Iraq in 1991 or poor defenceless Afghanistan as a template for your imaginary aerial battle ? Please be temperate in your analysis of issues that you dont seem to have any expertise on.
    In short – indigenisation – yes, BUT—- This construct of yours which you have written about everywhere of Tejas as panacea is plain daft. You really need to find a new topic to flog.

    • @Shail — That low frequency radar is antidote to stealth is not in doubt. Reasons why both Russia and China are mounting huge R&D programmes to refine and reconfigure this 1940s tech to make them relevant for the contingencies of the future. No time and place here to rework the entire case of quality vs. quantity that eventuated in the low cost F-16 fighter, and argued in great depth by James Fallows in his writings in the Atlantic in the 1980s, and in his book ‘National Interest’. Look it up. If the wheel ought not to require reinventing in India, neither do classic arguments about many low cost combat aircraft operationally overwhelming necessarily fewer higher tech fighters.

      • ~!@#$%^&*()_+ says:


        Why are you fixated only on the Low Freq antidotes. These are just the products available at present. Because somebody decided to spend time and money on this route. But this by now means represents the only antidote to stealth. Put some more money and manpower on other items and they too would see promise.

        Even the Extremely High Freq is going to be major problem for so called stealth.
        You have not even scratched the surface yet, with the FPAs.
        Multi-statics with data fusion engines, will be bothersome even with the currently available sensors.
        SIGINT is another difficult area to escape from.
        Right now the condition is that even the older generation technologies like x-band PESAs are creating a major problem for stealth. Witness the PS-05A-MK-4.

        Stealth is not coming in, its virtually going out. In the stealth-scale B-2>F-22>F-35>PAKFA>J-20 and most likely the FGFA will be nearly at the same level as the J-20. AMCA may end up more stealthy but if it does that will be more because of IAF demands. From what we hear the super-cruise itself for AMCA has been relaxed on the prompting of the Indian R&D community with some 5-7 km penalty in terms of detection. I think the IAF went with the proposal. The Europeans are probably going to skip a whole generation in terms of stealth-shaping for their multi role fighters. I will not be surprised if in future, the stealth considerations, end up being restricted to the frontal axis.

        The problem for the stealth proponents is that much of the technology that was useful to pedestalize stealth as LO/VLO, also is very useful in degrading the LO/VLO.

  4. Shail says:

    And by the way its not called stealth, its Low Observable technologies, no one claims (or ever claimed) that its a “Harry Potter invisibility cloak” . the idea is to delay detection by enough – and to delay / deny a x-band lock (for obvious reasons)

    • Look up my writings over thirty years, you’ll find a consistent line — indigenous mil hardware over imported items every time whatever the cost, failing which always the more economical and beneficial transaction in terms of tech-transfer, sensitive project cooperation, etc. as collateral benefits — which fits Russia better than the Western suppliers. This last, pehaps, the reason why foreign minister Sushma Swaraj in Moscow called Russia India’s best and closest friend.

  5. @Vihan — that’s the bait the French had dangled early in the shortlisting process, but was off the table once Rafale was declared winner!

    • Vihan says:

      I see. Essentially we got screwed over twice, how we manage to shoot ourselves in the foot every time and then brag about how good a marksman we are never ceases to amaze me. I am grateful though, that people like you exist who write the facts as they are rather than engage in wishful thinking which is the norm for most of our strategic community.

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