In January 2012, when France won the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) competition to supply 126 Rafale jets to the Indian Air Force (IAF), it was supposed to bolster the country’s air power. Instead, the Rafale is threatening to blow a gaping hole in India’s overstretched defence budget.
Originally pegged at $10 billion, the size of the deal has ballooned to a stratospheric $30 billion. India may be the third largest economy on the planet but in the backdrop of numerous projects — such as roads, railways, sanitation and housing — requiring bucket loads of cash, New Delhi can’t afford to splurge on weapons, especially when alternatives are available for far less.
The IAF’s requirement of 126 aircraft can be quickly met — at a fraction of the cost of the Rafale — by inducting more numbers of the technologically superior Su-30, the IAF’s air dominance fighter, which is already being produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL).
“These aircraft will be the high end of India’s air power, and can be expected to remain in the force past 2030, and are competitive with or superior to top-end European fighters and American F-15 variants,” says Defense Industry Daily.
Another option is to buy more MiG-29s, which is the mainstay of India’s interceptor force, and which had scared the living daylights of the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) pilots during the 1999 Kargil War.
Why the IAF wants a foreign fighter
To be sure, when the MMRCA tender was floated over a decade ago, it seemed like a good idea. One, it was aimed at lowering India’s overwhelming dependence on Russia for advanced weapons. Secondly, India wanted to acquire the full technology suite of an ultra-modern aircraft for local production. French technology was being pitched as the magic potion that would turbo-charge the homemade Tejas jet fighter, while also providing a boost to aerospace and defence electronics industries in India.
The third reason was to shore up the IAF’s depleting fighter fleet. The IAF’s sanctioned strength is 39.5 squadrons (a squadron consists of 18 aircraft in service with another 3-4 in maintenance) but its current fleet is down to 34.
The IAF says it needs 44 squadrons to meet a full-scale war with Pakistan, while also maintaining “a dissuasive posture” against China. Earlier this year, it told a parliamentary standing committee that a “collusive threat” from China and Pakistan would be difficult for it to handle without an adequate number of jets. However, armed forces around the world routinely play up non-existent threats to wangle shiny new aircraft and equipment. It’s a simple formula and like all things simple, it works: warn the political leadership you can’t promise the country’s safety without the desired weapons and watch the cash spigot open up. The IAF is probably doing the same.
Think about it. Why would the Chinese team up with a rapidly Balkanising Pakistan and attack a fellow BRICS member? It is not only counterintuitive but also ridiculous. The Chinese have realised — after decades of trying to destabilise India — that Pakistan is the source of the Islamic insurgency in its Xinjiang province. Also, the Chinese are cruising to superpower status and are unlikely to launch a foolhardy attack on nuclear-armed India.
As for the threat from Pakistan, it is really a joke. The arrival of the MiG-29 and the Su-30 in the 1990s has given the IAF a fearsome advantage over the PAF. For the first time since the 1960s — when the PAF acquired the F-104 Starfighters and F-86 Sabres from the US — the IAF has aircraft that are a generation and a half ahead of the PAF.
This qualitative edge was demonstrated before the entire world during the Kargil War. While a number of IAF aircraft took part in that campaign, it was the cover provided by the MiG-29 that exposed the PAF’s plight. “Analyses by Pakistani experts revealed that when the rubber met the road, the PAF simply refused to play any part in support of its army, angering the latter,” says Strategy Page in a report dated 20 May 2005.
“While PAF fighters did fly Combat Air Patrols during the conflict, they stayed well within Pakistani airspace. On occasions, IAF MiG-29s — armed with the deadly R-77 air-to-air missile — were able to lock on to PAF F-16s, forcing the latter to disengage. In the absence of a PAF threat, the IAF was able to deliver numerous devastating strikes on intruder positions and supply dumps.”
In the report ‘Airpower at 18,000 feet: IAF in the Kargil War’ published by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in 2012, Benjamin Lambeth explains in detail how the IAF ground down both the Pakistan Army and the PAF: “Throughout the campaign, whenever IAF reconnaissance or ground attack operations were under way in the immediate combat zone, the Western Air Command ensured that MiG-29s or other air-to-air fighters were also airborne on combat air patrol stations over the ground fighting on India’s side of the LOC to provide top cover against any attempt by the PAF to enter the fray in a ground attack role. PAF F-16s to the west typically maintained a safe distance of 10 to 20 miles on the Pakistani side of the LOC, although they occasionally approached as close as 8 miles away from the ongoing ground engagements.”
The effectiveness of the IAF’s operations can be measured by the fact that Pakistan’s hawkish foreign minister Sartaj Aziz rushed to New Delhi on 12 June 1999, and literally begged the IAF to “stop its air strikes”. You don’t get more desperate than that.
Qualitatively, the IAF is on an upward curve. According to former air force chief NAK Browne, the IAF is replacing older MiG-21s and MiG-27s with much better aircraft. “What’s going to happen is that at least in the 12th Plan, which finishes in 2017, we will continue to maintain 34 squadrons… Right now, we have 34 combat squadrons and in spite of these drawdowns of the MIG-21s, we are supplementing them with Su-30 squadrons,” he told the media in October 2012. And he added the IAF will have “far greater capability than even what we have today”.
If India and France are able to sort out the numerous issues dogging the deal and a contract is signed this year, then the first 18 Rafales will arrive from France in 2016. If all goes smoothly, the rest of the 102 aircraft could start rolling off HAL’s assembly lines by 2018. But here’s the rub: by the early 2020s, Sukhoi’s stealth fighter, the PAK-FA, in which India is a junior partner, will be ready to join the IAF. Does India need to spend a pile of cash on a stopgap aircraft?
Alexander Kadakin, Russia’s ambassador in New Delhi, says Russian-built Sukhois of the Chinese air force will shoot down the Rafales “like mosquitoes on an August night”. Going by the Russian aircraft’s stupendous performance at the 2014 Paris Air Show, Kadakin is on the money.
Time for technology transfer
Money talks. For a fraction of the cost of the Rafale contract, India can import leading edge aviation technology — from France, Russia, Germany or even the US. With manufacturing declining in the West and thousands of defence sector jobs facing the axe, large weapons importers such as India now have the upper hand. Western engineers would be more than happy to work at HAL, Mahindra or Tata. Russian scientists and engineers have transformed the defence sector in both China and South Korea. India too needs to tread the same path.
The Rafale deal proves one thing: bigticket defence deals are rarely based on technical merit alone. The French fighter isn’t the first — nor will it be the last — aircraft to be picked for non-military reasons.
History of kickbacks
With the IAF already fielding class-leading aircraft such as the Su-30 — which has beaten the US Air Force’s leading fighters in air combat exercises — the IAF’s insistence on getting the Rafale seems curious. Considering the long history of corruption and kickbacks in defence deals, no deal is clean in India. For instance, former air chief marshal SP Tyagi has been booked by the police for his role in a helicopter tender. RSN Singh, a former military intelligence officer who later served in the Research & Analysis Wing, writes in Canary Trap about the ‘Chandigarh Gang’ that surfaced as the “mainstay of the international arms lobby” during the decade-long UPA rule. “This gang is not necessarily in Chandigarh alone, but nevertheless is centred around it,” Singh writes. “It comprises some retired officers, politicians, journalists and prominent newspapers.”