Intro : Before drawing an informed conclusion about its repercussions, it is necessary to understand the background and philosophy behind the Rafale deal.
Media is abuzz with discussion on the announcement by Prime Minister Modi that India has signed a Government to Government (G2G) deal with France for direct procurement of 36 Rafale fighter aircraft manufactured by Dassault Aviation in flyaway condition in view of the critical operational requirement of the Indian Air Force (IAF). It has also been reported th
at fresh commercial negotiations will be conducted for this deal. The decision is among numerous other agreements reached between the two countries during Modi’s meeting with the French President Francois Hollande in Paris.
The announcement has legitimately evoked mixed reactions—while some have welcomed it as a critical and essential addition to the IAF’s depleting force levels and called it a brilliant move, others have criticised it on multiple grounds of moving away from the basic ‘Make in India’ philosophy, to speculation on total number of aircraft being procured as well as the pricing of the contract. Some have also termed it as a decision “which is neither here nor there.”
In the wake of mixed response to the deal, it is necessary to understand the philosophy and reasons behind the deal.
It is a reality that the strength of IAF squadrons over the period has reduced to 34 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 42 squadrons and an operational requirement of 45 squadrons. The strength would actually be much lower in future if the wastages are taken in to account. Besides, almost 30 per cent of the obsolete fleet of MiG-21s and MiG-27s and the newer Sukhoi-30MKIs suffer from serious issues of service ability status and hence are practically unavailable for tasking. In addition, the ageing MiG-21s and MiG-27s are planned to be phased out in the near future and their planned replacement by ‘Tejas’ Light Combat Aircraft has been delayed by over 25 years. Thus, there is no doubt that newer fleet are required to be inducted to bring the IAF strength to the desired operational levels.
The Ministry of Defence issued the Request for Information for the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in 2001 followed by the Request for Proposal in 2007 with an aim to bridge the gap between the LCA Tejas and the Su-30MKI. The first 18 aircraft were to be bought off the shelf and the rest 108 manufactured under licence by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Dassault ‘Rafale’ was finally shortlisted for the supply of 126 MMRCA. However, the contract soon ran into difficulty over price and a guarantee clause. The guarantee clause was linked to Rafale providing guarantee for aircraft that would be manufactured by HAL. As a result, the induction of aircraft has not yet been realised resulting in worrying force level depletion of the IAF.
Concerns over depleting operational fleet, the unfavourable operational environment in India’s neighbourhood and to top it, the three years stalemate in the negotiations on pricing for the MMRCA must have and rightly so, played a major role in the decision to go in for the G2G procurement decision.
Another Rafale Deal : Why Rafale deal is a winner?
Some of the issues at the centre of discussion are—What does the deal mean to all stake holders? Does it meet the requirements of IAF? How about ‘Make in India’? How many aircraft are we going to buy on G2G basis?
To arrive at any conclusion, the first and the basic fact that needs to be understood is that the discussions/analysis are being made on assumptions and source input as full facts on the deal are not yet available. Options and clauses that would form the part contract are still not known.
Proceeding from this assumption, the following merit attention:
- (a) IAF had shortlisted Rafale after unbiased and thorough trials. In short, it is a versatile aircraft capable of meeting the requirements of the IAF.
- (b) In view of the fleet depletion restricting the operational capability of the IAF, the government seem to have realised that it had to break the deadlock.
- (c) With the strength depleting to 34 fighter squadrons, induction of these 36 aircraft will address the process of depletion and capability building to an extent by providing two squadrons in the next 2 to 3 or so. It would bridge a certain amount of gap that the IAF is experiencing. However, 36 fighters by themself would not be adequate.
- (d) Depending on clauses of the present as well as future contract/contracts, it could address the ‘Make in India’ issue. The picture will be clearer once the details are known. The focus on building indigenous capability must remain a priority for the government. Knowing the Prime Minister’s thrust towards this crucial initiative of his, we could presume that this will be catered to some extent. How much, only time will tell.
- (e) Reports do indicate that the price would be lower than what was being negotiated, but ‘Make in India’ needs to be addressed.
- (f) In view of these developments, DRDO – HAL would have to rise to the occasion and commence delivering of the Light Combat Aircraft, on priority. A tall order, but then there is no choice.
Next few days are crucial and till the specifics of agreement become clearer, the debate will continue on the impact of the decision to procure 36 aircraft through inter-governmental agreement, status of the on-going long pending MMRCA deal specially after terminating the RFP, final number of aircraft being procured, and last but not the least the status of indigenisation.
Air Marshal PK Roy (The writer has been the Commander-in-Chief of the Andaman and Nicobar Command)