The Indian Air Force is on the verge of getting an advanced technology combat aircraft, the Rafale, that surpasses the capability of most of its existing fleet and that of its adversaries. Careful evaluation has confirmed its capability and potential. But recent public debate has taken the worst possible turn, discrediting the deal and blaming the government and the prime minister in public. The government has been equally strong in countering the allegations. The tit-for-tat has plunged to the nadir of decency in political debate in India.
The Opposition is dragging the government to make a public statement knowing well that secrecy clauses in inter-governmental agreements do not permit such disclosure. The government cannot get into a dispute by public disclosure of information they had agreed to protect.
Apart from the cost details, the standard-of-preparation of the Indian Rafale is sensitive and different from those supplied to others, including to the French Air Force. If the Opposition wants the details of the cost, Parliament could debate the price in a secret session as permitted by Clause 245-252 of Rules of Procedure and Conduct of Business in the Lok Sabha without publicly exposing the technical standard of the aircraft.
The air staff requirement for the Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was finalised by Air HQ in 2008. Rafale and the Eurofighter were shortlisted, both were found to meet the requirements. Rafale was selected in 2012 being the lowest bidder (L1). But the UPA government did not sign the deal. Dassault Aviation refused to take responsibility for the work-share of HAL. On all previous licence productions, the concerned Original Equipment Manufacturers (OEMs) never stood guarantee on aircraft manufactured by HAL under licence. But the Air Force insisted on such a guarantee due to the unsatisfactory performance of HAL in the past. Furthermore, HAL assessed manhours to produce the aircraft to be nearly three times that taken by the OEM, which the government felt to be too high. The deal went into the freezer.
The years slipped by without a decision, pushing the Air Force into a corner. It faced serious difficulty in meeting its operational responsibility with a dwindling fighter squadron asset. In 2014, the IAF projected their urgent need for 36 aircraft. Taking their cues from the available information on Rafale, the government decided to purchase the urgently needed 36 in a comprehensive package that could make the new aircraft operational at the earliest. It would have been the quickest possible since a substantial portion of discussions had already been completed. The inter-government contract was signed in 2016. The impasse that arose on the licence production contract was thus circumvented. The package included the Meteor missile having extraordinary range, short range air to air missiles and other weapons. Additionally, it included training systems, performance-based logistics support for two squadrons, enhanced period of maintenance support and full maintenance support at two bases. It was a comprehensive package and the quickest possible to operationalise a new induction. The earlier contract envisaged in 2012 was only for the production of bare aircraft that would have called for many separate additional contracts to procure weapons and other operational packages.
These additions would have dragged on for years and added a few thousand crores to the cost. When the Mirage-2000 was procured, the government was blamed for buying the aircraft without the weapons that came much later. The comprehensive package for Rafale would avoid a repeat of that situation.
Offsets on any purchase provide opportunities for national industries to participate and expand their capabilities and business. The OEM (M/s Dassault and their partners) could choose any offset partner in India from a list of 100 or more. M/s Reliance figures in the list. The Rafale deal of 2016 involved a 50 per cent offset clause that will involve 30 per cent investment by Dassault for military aerospace R&D, and 20 per cent for manufacturing Rafale components in India. Importantly, none of the 36 aircraft being supplied to India are likely to have parts produced in India (by offset partners). All aircraft would be delivered between 2019 and 2022.
Unrelated to this, Reliance ADAG has a 49 per cent stake in DRAL, the joint venture formed with Dassault. This JV is intended to make only aero structures for Dassault’s Falcon 2000 civil aircraft that has no bearing on the Rafale deal. However, if there has been any manoeuvring done to favour Reliance in any way, it must be investigated. Our democracy is well protected from misadventures or mistakes. Independent authorities such as the CAG have the powers to audit budget, expenditure and performance of MOD and the services. The CVC maintains vigilance against impropriety and has powers to investigate independently. Major purchases such as Rafale go through a pre-audit to bring out glaring omissions or commissions. The PAC keeps an eye at the macro level.
We faced many brick-bats in the past related to inductions in the Air Force. The PAC examining the Jaguar deal in 1987 concluded that the money (Rs 1,500 crore) had gone down the drain because the planes were outdated. Interestingly, no one is flying the Jaguar in 2018 other than the IAF. The Air Force is now planning to upgrade these and give a fresh life of another 25 years. The IAF had been compelled to continue with the old aircraft since new inductions invariably get stuck despite funds being available. While the politicians fought, and bureaucrats sat on files, time took its toll. It got so bad in the ’90s that we were compelled to procure some 20-30 grounded MIG-21s from East European countries. This second-hand purchase was necessary to keep the Air Force going. Over two decades later, nothing seems to have changed. We are back to political battles, uncaring about the status of our military.
The issue facing the country is about how the government can provide the military with quality operational systems in reasonable time within the budget. The process of acquisition is only to ensure that it is done in a systematic manner. Regrettably, the process has become so complex that the objective is neglected. The UPA/Congress governments had faced nasty debates and comments for decades on defence acquisition. The Jaguar, Mirage-2000 and SU-30 MKI acquisitions were severely criticised. The long-forgotten Westland WG-30 deal of 1985 faced harsh criticism when 21 of these bought for Pawan Hans and VVIP travel had to be junked after accidents. Decisions are often delayed beyond the expiry of the offer. We end up creating more committees and structures and expand procedures in the name of streamlining. But inspite of harsh debates and attempts to sabotage, the induction of Jaguars, the Mirage-2000 and the SU-30MKI continued.
Thanks are due to those who pushed the decisions against odds. Arguments devoid of merit have an adverse effect on our credibility and create a poor impression of our country. The morale of our military takes a beating. We as a nation must debate while staying with decency and facts. Accountability to the nation must be driven home, on which no one should be spared.