Real-life hare and tortoise story. The hare is the French Rafale combat aircraft, the tortoise the slow but steady Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA). The tortoise is about breasting the tape — with the deal likely to be signed by this February end, i.e,, within the next few weeks.
While the Rafale flashily and ostensibly made an end-run around the various onerous procedural and substantive requirements attending on the IAF’s MMRCA acquisition process, when Prime Minister Modi, ill-advisedly, tried to give France and its vendor Company, Dassault Avions, an unfair advantage by publicly committing to buying 36 Rafales off the shelf, the sheer unaffordability of this fast-dating aircraft which, this blog and my writings have been pounding on about, has put the brakes on achieving the deal anytime soon. It is stuck at the last mile, so to say.
This is no bad thing to happen considering there’s no money to pay Paris, which wants the money up-front. Because, consider the vast quantum involved. At the time Rafale was shortlisted, I had alerted the readers to the fact that the final bill will be nearer $40-$50 billion for 126 aircraft and, all told (inclusive of the costs to construct the infrastructure, such as air-conditioned hangars, etc. as have been built for the Mirage 2000 squadrons in Gwalior), a unit price of $246 million billion. The Rs 63,000 crores the Modi govt has set aside for 36 Rafales works out to $227 million per aircraft. Except, France will not permit any Indian-designed weapons, such as the BVR Astra air-to-air missile, or the Brahmos cruise missile, to be integrated into the Rafale. But it will integrate American-sourced armaments, which is what IAF favours! Meanwhile, Russia has vetoed arming the French Rafale in Indian inventory with the Brahmos. So the Rafale is checkmated, rendered a pretty useless weapons platform unless the Modi govt approves the untested Brit-French-Italian consortium MBDA-made Meteor, which is yet to be operationalized, or buys US-weapons which will have MTCR-induced constraints on range, etc., at the expense of Indian missiles that will loosen the reliance on imported armaments.
But trust the apparently strategically stupid IAF and a compromised MOD to push the Rafale even if this supposed MMRCA will end up being completely non-lethal and harmless. The only bit of hope is that the original notion entertained by Defmin Parrikar of buying double the number of Su-30MKIs for the same number of Rafales and minus the cost of any new infrastructure, etc., will under the circumstances, begin to gain traction, especially in light of Russia’s earnest and positive attitude to transferring FGFA codes, flight control laws to India.
The final FGFA deal that is expected to be signed and worth $3.7 billion will involve the fly-in into India of three FGFA PAK FA aircraft for IAF to begin flying them and for TAC-D in Gwalior to begin writing the manual for tactics, etc., and the transfer of flight control laws and open[air]-frame design to enable ADA to modify the aircraft architecture to suit Indian requirements and source codes, including for the fire control system.
But where India’s procurement contracts are concerned, there’s always and inevitably a foul-up, the downside. There’s one in the FGFA agreement as well. The wondrously incomprehensible and myopic aspect of this deal is the rejection by IAF-MOD of Moscow’s extraordinarily generous offer to have its Saturn jet engine design bureau (that resulted from the merging of the Lyulka and Tumansky design bureaus) jointly with Indian counterpart (GTRE) develop a powerful new era jet power plant — something no other country will deliver on and, despite promises, certainly not the technology hyper-protective US. But, as reported elsewhere, India will instead buy the Saturn AL-41 engines whole to power the Indian-modified FGFAs! It fits in with IAF-MOD thinking of keeping India forever tied to the apron strings of foreign vendors.
An astute Defmin would have seen through this and imposed a corrected decision on IAF-MOD. Apparently, that hasn’t happened, even though, one suspects, that given Parrikar’s partiality to economical options and his measured assessment of cost and benefit — as regards, say, the Su-30MKI as MMRCA instead of Rafale, he is the one speeding the FGFA project along.