(Rafale being put together at the Dassault plant in Merignac)
Senior Air staff officers have, of late, been talking confidently of the combo of the 6,000 air defence missiles ordered as part of the S-400 system that India is buying from Russia and the Su-30MKI (hopefully upgraded to “super Sukhoi” configuration that will convert IAF’s Su-30 squadrons into a fleet of near FGFAs) as being more than sufficient to handle PLA Air Force (PLAAF) on the Tibet-Arunachal front. The front line role of the Sukhois against the stronger, more comprehensively capable adversary, China, raises the question of what good exactly the Rafale combat aircraft in the force will do.
It is the warplane the service hankered for and, with the BJP Govt acceding mindlessly to its demand, the country is finding that the deal comes with a bagful of troubles for the country, and for Modi. Have always maintained that the 36 Rafales in the fleet will be mainly for showboating purposes — too valuable to send into battle against the swarming PAF’s JF-17s and too few to overwhelm anybody but easy to be overwhelmed. If the IAF brass believed that 36 Rafales were merely the proverbial foot in the door to compel the govt to let more of these aircraft enter the fleet later on, then they misread the political situation. The additional Rafale option is a non-starter for two reasons: Paucity of funds and the fact that the Rafale has drawn corruption charges from Rahul Gandhi.
An empty treasury is a fact. The only major defence deal that Modi plonked for unbidden, now looks like a millstone round his neck. Not just in terms of the Rs 70,000 crores-odd crores thus committed that could have been better spent elsewhere, but in terms of the controversy attending on it. The opposition parties will go to town about Modi govt’s corruption and about Reliance Defence chosen by Dassault Avions as its Indian partner. Recall, that Dassault said it could not work with HAL or guarantee the performance of the Rafale outputted by it because of the DPSU’s lax work floor habits and bad quality control mechanisms, but ended up choosing Reliance Defence, with zero aircraft production experience or facility, as its partner. One can be certain that to buttress its case the opposition will allude to PM’s “crony capitalists “, especially as Dassault will use the 50% offset clause to build up Reliance Defence to a basic, aircraft assembly, level, rather than raise India’s competence in the field, by investing in the augmentation of HAL’s capability.
There are the first intimations of chill coursing down Modi regime’s spine — the fear of being a one-termer. The bureaucracy being the bellwether for such transitions, things are beginning to slow down. It is the situation going awry at home and the America-tilted policy not panning out — with Trump actively targeting India and Indian industry on H1B, WTO, Indian exports of steel, aluminum and light manufactures, that forced the PM and his PMO to do a rethink, which has been happening for a while now. PM dialed up Moscow for succour, the recent summit in Sochi followed, and ties with Russia were elevated to “special privileged partnership”. Modi and Putin agreed to set up a special rupee-rouble payment scheme to avoid getting caught in America’s CAATSA trap. While this will not pull India and Russia back to the easy credit-friendship prices Soviet era, it does reaffirm Russia as the default option for military procurement.
So, what’s all this got to do with Rafale? With Russia’s position strengthening relative to other foreign arms suppliers, IAF saw the writing on the wall and sought to make the best of a bad situation that the brass had begun to apprehend. It hoped to marry the prohibitively expensive Meteor air-to-air missile that came as part of the Rafale weapons suite along with the Scalp A2G missile, with the best aircraft in its inventory the Su-30, except the missile maker –the French-led European missile consortium — MBDA refused to integrate the Meteor with the Su-30 and, to salt the wound, refused to do it for the indigenous Tejas LCA as well. A preliminary agreement has been signed for the Rafale but not a detailed contract.
India can decide that because of MBDA’s pigheadedness, it will nullify the Rafale contract. Indeed, any self-respecting country would do that — the French are not handing over the Rafale as act of charity but taking home billions of euros for it. The buyer is king in the arms business. But the Indian government acts as if Dassault is sovereign and France cannot be denied. IAF and GOI are so used to thus being jerked around by foreign countries, they think this is the normal.