The Indian Air Force was hoping for a minimum of four squadrons of Rafale fighters, but the Narendra Modi government has kept the initial order down to 36 fighters in a flyaway condition for 7.8 billion euros or $9.13 billion (@1 euro=$1.17). Commenting on this, Air Marshal M. Matheswaran (Retd), the officer who was a part of the intensive selection process that led to the choice of Rafale for the original 126-fighter deal, observed: “The original MMRCA tender was cleared for $10.5 billion for 126 aircraft.” That is the crux of the issue. Is India paying too much for this fine fighting aircraft?
The Modi government has begun to pay French vendor Dassault 7.85 billion euros for 36 Rafale jets, or an average-per-fighter cost of 217 million euros. That is 40 per cent higher per aircraft than Dassault’s quote of 19.5 billion euros for 126 fighters — or 155 million euros per Rafale — that it submitted in response to an eventually aborted tender issued in 2007. And, most important, it’s not a government-to-government deal as incumbent defence minister Nirmala Sitharaman suggested. She may not be in the loop or even knowledgeable about such matters. It is well known that her predecessor Manohar Parrikar had concerns on how this deal was being pushed, and some believe that this is why he decided to go back to Goa to get away from the mess.
There is another good reason for this suspicion. The Rafale deal is now very closely linked with Prime Minister Modi’s actions, though the controversy has now moved on to other issues. The PM had showed extraordinary interest in the deal, like announcing the purchase a full month (April 10) before the Defence Acquisition Council chaired by then defence minister Manohar Parrikar could decide on the Acceptance of Necessity (AON), a pre-requisite for an actual confirmation of purchase. It took place on May 13. Finance minister Arun Jaitley, not very helpfully to Mr Modi, chirruped that it was a post-facto decision and that this was quite all right.
We have a tradition in India, actually a discipline, that officers in uniform don’t take part even in political discussions, let alone debates, which are mostly about scoring points. But we recently saw that tradition breached when two senior Indian Air Force officers spoke to television about the ongoing contretemps over the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters. The then IAF vice-chief, Air Marshal S.B. Deo, an accomplished officer who designs and builds smart weapons in his front yard for a hobby, told the media on the sidelines of a Centre for Air Power Studies and Confederation of India Industries seminar not long ago: “Those criticising the deal must understand the ‘procurement procedure’. It is a beautiful aircraft. It is a very capable aircraft and we are waiting to fly it.” That might well be so, but what causes concern is the well-established ‘procurement procedure’ that was so blatantly flouted by the Prime Minister.
What also adds to concern is the manner in which his deputy chief, Air Marshal Raghunath Nambiar, told the media: “Those who are claiming such numbers, I think they are misinformed and probably not aware of the facts that are known to us in the Indian Air Force… We are the ones who were very much part of the negotiations with the French government. We have the facts with us. And I don’t think what are being alleged matches up with the facts at all. I can tell you that the Rafale we have gone for is substantially lower than the price that was on the table in 2008.” He is talking rubbish. The decision to buy 36 Rafales was made without consulting the Air Force. Even the then foreign secretary, who was travelling with the PM, didn’t know. But more important than that is that Air Marshal Nambiar was thus imputing, wittingly or unwittingly, that the previous price was substantially inflated. Air Marshal Nambiar even ventured the figure now as being “40 per cent cheaper”. Above all, it was not a government-to-government deal, so whom was the IAF talking to? What made him put himself squarely in the centre of a political fracas is probably best known only to him.
Now something about the next controversy about the “India-specific capabilities” built into these 36 Rafales. In the Air Staff Qualitative Requirements’ (ASQR) provided by the Indian Air Force, there were 13 “India-specific enhancements” demanded by India during the 126-aircraft MMRCA contract. These included radar enhancements, helmet mounted display, towed decoy system, low band jammer and the ability to operate from high-altitude airfields. That these were the same for the 36 Rafales ordered by Mr Modi is made clear by the joint statement of April 10, 2015 issued by then French President Francois Hollande and PM Narendra Modi, which reads: “The aircraft and associated systems and weapons would be delivered on the same configuration as has been tested and approved by the Indian Air Force”.
In an unprecedented move, the Supreme Court directed IAF officials to inform the bench headed by the Chief Justice about the deal. My concern is that once again IAF officers are not exactly covering themselves with glory. Foolhardiness is different from courage. When Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi asked when the last induction of advanced fighter jets had taken place, Air Vice-Marshal T. Chalapati testified this was in the 1980s, in the shape of Mirage aircraft. No wonder Chief Justice Gogoi said: “That means from the 1980s till date there have been zero additions.” This testimony is blatantly false. This interaction took place in the presence of Air Marshals Anil Khosla (vice-chief) and V.R. Choudhari (deputy chief), and defence ministry additional secretary Apurva Chandra. They were quiet.
The IAF inducted SU-30MKIs from the mid-1990s onwards and has over 240 of these fighters. The more recent deliveries have electronics comparable with the current state-of-the-art warplanes. The aircraft may be classified as 3.5 Gen by the AVM, but that is because it was designed in that time period. But to impute that the same plane made in 2010 is limited to that era’s capabilities is also rubbish. Technology moves on and even airframes, while essentially the same, change to enhance aerodynamics and stealth capability. For that matter, the Rafale prototype was up and flying in the late 1980s. I saw it in Farnborough in 1988. So how is it 4+ Gen? That was the year the SU-27 — the forerunner of the SU-30 and SU-35 — made its debut in Paris. Where incidentally it crashed during the flying display.
Air Vice-Marshal Chalapati also suggested that the “existing fighters do not have stealth capability”. This is also misleading. Radar signatures have been progressively getting smaller and only the American F-117 is truly stealthy — but because of its design it can do less and its cost is exorbitant. The Su30s have stealth built into them with composite materials and even radar-absorbing paint. Even the upgraded MiG-29s too now have more stealth built into them. Finally, to insist that allowing the overall unit price to be known will reveal the true capabilities of the new Rafales is a complete concoction, and a figment of the imagination. It’s just a lie. What the price will reveal, since the India-specific capabilities haven’t changed since 2013, is how much the Narendra Modi government has padded up the cost.