The phrase ‘White elephant’ refers to an acquisition exorbitantly costly to buy, run, and upkeep and is derived from the story of a rare pachyderm that was acquired by the Thai court as a symbol of its Hindu power and religiosity and ended up beggaring that kingdom.
The 36 Rafales that the Narendra Modi regime is obtaining for the Indian Air Force are, collectively, the white elephant whose costs will sink India’s military power because there’ll be no monies left over after the full program costs (with steeply rising value of the euro) of US$30-$40 billion are borne by the luckless Indian taxpayer, to fund any other major military procurement for the next decade or so.
The Modi PMO is readying the cabinet note for approval of this buy by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which is a formality. With nobody of political weight among his colleagues to question the PM’s choice, CCS’ OK is a foregone conclusion. This is generally what happens anyway when a military hardware selection process gets to this stage. There’s no instance, as far as I can recall, where CCS has come up with a nyet.
This reduction of CCS to a rubber stamp is an attribute of the Westminister model of government the Constituent Assembly chose without pondering the practical consequences for the country and which the ex-colonial power, Britain, incidentally, long ago trashed as inappropriate for a time when there’s lots more and revealing information available to any concerned legislators for the asking to enable informed decisionmaking.
In the IAF’s medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) sweepstakes, the Rafale was shortlisted along with the Eurofighter — Typhoon, and won the race not for any technological or operational edge it provided, but because the French have been more diligent in nursing and nurturing a “support system” over the years that seamlessly servicing strategically placed personnel in the military procurement loop and within the Indian political class, Indian armed services, and Ministry of Defence (MOD), so when it comes to pushing their wares, the French items invariably come out on tops. After all, we Indians are only human and who can resist bank accounts full of euros, employment of close relatives in French transnational corporations in Europe, and crowned by repeated trips to, where else, Paris — ooh la la?
India’s national interest, in the event, cannot compete with the inducements France can so effortlessly summon. So India is the usual Third World state ripe for Paris’ (and, generally, West’s) pickings, whatever the political dispensation in New Delhi.
The Eurofighter was finding it difficult to find traction even within its primary market — the four main countries forming the EADS consortium that produced it, the plane being dismissed by the cognoscenti as something “Germany doesn’t want, Britain can’t afford, and Spain and Italy neither want nor can afford!”. And, mind you, this ‘Typhoon’ had virtues the Rafale doesn’t, especially in terms of its potential for future development as a weapons platform with its modular structure and engineering aspects (which, by the way, EADS has foresworn because of the financial unviability of a genuinely 5th generation fighter project).
If the Eurofighter lost out because of minimal price differential (and EADS’s lack in Delhi of the French-type “support system” owing to the more straight-laced dealings by Germany, the lead player), the more economical Russian MiG-35 was summarily rejected for no good reason at all. This even though as one of the foremost aviation specialists Dr Carlo Kopp of Australia said this in an extensive 2008 write-up in ‘Air Power Australia’ of the MiG-35 and the Su-35 Flanker E+: “Perhaps the most foolish of the popular misconceptions of Russian basic technology is that which assumes that the US and EU maintain the technological lead of 1-2 decades held at the end of the Cold War. Alas, nearly two decades later, in a globalised, digitised and networked world, the US retains a decisive lead only in top end stealth technologies, and some aspects of networking and highly integrated systems software. The Russians have closed the gap in most other areas, but importantly, have mastered the difficult embedded software technology so critical for radar and electronic warfare systems, as well as sensor fusion, networking and engine and flight controls. The Russians are working very hard at closing the remaining gap, with the planned PAK-FA fighter to be properly shaped for low observable and very low observable stealth capability.” (For Kopps’ detailed assessment of MiG-35, see his article at http://www.ausairpower.net/APA-2008-04.html.)
Some eight years later, that gap in stealth has been closed, even as the US retains the edge in terms of wide aspect data fusion.
But with IAF sidelining the MiG-35 as MMRCA and, earlier, the request for the Su-35 aircraft by the Strategic Forces Command for manned delivery of nuclear weapons being also turned down, the IAF and GOI seem bent on switching the country’s critical military capabilities with Western hardware at a cost-prohibitive price and the loss of what remains of India’s balancing leverage in international affairs.
[The N-delivery system is not the subject here, but consider below the reactions to Su-35 by the US military to get an idea of just how potent Russian aircraft now are. The US Air Force as long ago as 2014 dubbed it the most serious challenger to its own fifth-gen JSF-35 Lightning-II. Regarding what the Su-35 can do consider the words of USAF pilots and aviation specialists, whose statements are reproduced from a 2014 story published in the ‘National Interest’ (http://nationalinterest.org/feature/the-russian-bear-roars-the-sky-beware-the-deadly-su-35-11799): With, as the story says, the Su-35 launching its weapons from “high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft”, and the “F-35 primarily operating in the 30,000-ft range at speeds around Mach 0.9”, the Russian air-superiority fighter’s “major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles.” Or as an USAF officer put it, “The Su’s ability to go high and fast is a big concern, including for F-35”. The Su-35 builds on the already potent Su-27 Flanker airframe, superior to the F-15 Eagle, and “adds a lighter airframe, three-dimensional thrust vectoring, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.” As as an USAF pilot says “Large powerful engines, the ability to supercruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform…It’s considered a fourth gen plus-plus, as in it has more inherent capability on the aircraft [and] possesses a passive [electronically-scanned array and it] has a big off boresight capability and a very good jamming suite.” The addition of the electronic attack (EA) capability, according to the story, “complicates matters for Western fighters because the Su-35’s advanced digital radio frequency memory jammers can seriously degrade the performance of friendly radars. It also effectively blinds the onboard radars found onboard American-made air-to-air missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM. But even the addition of AESA radars does not really solve the problem for F-35. “We—the U.S. Department of Defense—haven’t been pursuing appropriate methods to counter EA for years,” per a senior Air Force official with experience on the F-22 Raptor. “So, while we are stealthy, we will have a hard time working our way through the EA to target the Su-35s and our missiles will have a hard time killing them.” The Su-35 also carries a potent infrared search and track capability that could pose a problem for Western fighters. “It also has non-EM [electro-magnetic] sensors to help it detect other aircraft, which could be useful in long-range detection,” a Super Hornet pilot said. Another of the Su-35’s major advantages: “One thing I really like about the Su-35 is that it is a high-end truck: It can carry a ton of air-to-air ordnance into a fight,” a US Navy pilot said.]
Even if one were to disregard the MiG-35 as that option is gone, Rafale will face similar kind of trouble against the Su-30MKI, leave alone the upgraded “super Sukhoi” version of this aircraft, and which was part of Parrikar’s thinking when he talked of inducting more Su-30s rather than buy the Rafale.
So some Qs about the Rafale for IAF & GOI:
1) Consider the mismatch if the strictly 4.5-gen Rafale has to do battle with huge, unending, numbers of the Chinese Air Force (PLAAF) Su-35s being acquired on a priority basis, and even then India will not have the full complement of 36 Rafales until the mid- to late-2020s by when the PLAAF will have transitioned fully into the 4.75-gen Su-35 and its own 5th-gen Chengdu J-20 and the Shenyang J-31. So, great strategic forethought and force planning Vayu Bhavan?
2) How does IAF reconcile its stress on the dogfighting capability of its fighters with its reliance on BVR 100 km range AAM Meteor, while falling in with the French with their Hammer ASM at the expense of the indigenous more advanced version of the lightweight Brahmos ALCM for ground attack as part of the “multi-roles” it is supposed to pull? Especially because with the procurement of the Rafale armed with Meteor AAMs & Hammer ASMs, IAF will succeed in killing off the locally-made Tejas LCA and Brahmos ALCM by starving these programmes of desperately needed funds. Even if this isn’t the plan, that will be the desired outcome. No?
3) Lacking numbers and in the “best case” context, no more than 23 Rafales will realistically be available to IAF at any given moment in time. How will these 23 be deployed, if in concentration — will they be enough to defeat the more numerous and swarming PAF or PLAAF aircraft, and if singly — again quantity pitches in against supposed quality — so what use will the aircraft be in single sorties?
4) It is a recipe, of course, for the Rafales being safely quartered, held away from harm’s way in war — considering they are simply too expensive to lose. Hence, another useless showpiece in the inventory, like the EMALs-equipped Indian super-aircraft carrier?
5) Because there’s virtually no commonality in spares and upkeep regimes and protocols between the Mirage 2000 and the Rafale, entirely new and more expensive servicing training and maintenance infrastructure will have to be built up at enormous cost. Because whether IAF buys 6 Rafales, or 36, the investment in this aspect is the same! And as I have argued it will result in IAF making the case in the future that with these sunk costs, IAF should be allowed to import 60 or 100 or whatever additional number of Rafales the IAF brass of the day feels comfortable touting. That’s the strategy for upping the Rafale numbers is it not?
6) Dassault/France will milk recurring profits (to reach the $40 billion figure) from stocking the above infrastructure with the requisite spares and service support, and from stockpiling and purchasing when required untried and untested ordnance, such as the Meteor, each costing, what, US$2 million, and Hammer at around US$ one million a piece? That’s the French profit plan and the lifeline to keeping their combat aviation design and development industrial capability in tact and in good health. And India pays for this long term economic security of Dassault and France?
To paraphrase the quip by the great American comedian, WC Fields — suckers never get an even break.