When the Prime Minister of a country personally announces a deal for a fighter aircraft in a foreign land, there can be no doubt that the deal will eventually be signed. That there were still doubts about the fate of the Rafale deal – suddenly announced by PM Narendra Modi in Paris in April last year – is a testimony to the level of confidence we have on our defence procurement system.
But 17 months down the line, and for Rs 59,000 crore, the deal is finally done. India gets 36 Rafale fighters, the first one within 36 months and the entire complement within 67 months. There is no clause for a follow-up deal – usual practise is for 50 per cent of the contracted quantity to be bought on terms of the original contract — which means that if India wants to buy more Rafales, it will have to enter into a fresh negotiation with France.
A fresh negotiation is always a scary proposition as seen from the Rafale deal itself. The IAF first mooted the idea in 2000 for new fighter aircraft to replace the MiGs, which were to go out of service, till HAL made the indigenous Tejas. The tender issued in 2007 was for 126 aircraft, and that number is important: 126 fighters mean eight squadrons.
IAF wants 45 fighter squadrons to ward off a two-front collusive threat, and it is authrorised 42 squadrons. It currently has only 32, and the airworthiness and vintage of fighters in these squadrons is not satisfactory. IAF told the parliamentary standing committee that at this rate, it will be down to 25 squadrons by 2022. That is a scary scenario.
Two squadrons of Rafale will do little to avert that crisis, and now that the much-hyped deal is out of the way, the defence minister ought to focus on making up these shortages. He has put all his weight behind the Tejas but it is an unproven fighter, with production facilities still not in place. Beyond the first squadron, there is no guarantee about induction of Tejas fighters.
Meanwhile, SAAB, Boeing and Lockheed Martin have submitted their proposals for respectively making the Gripen, F-18 and F-16 in India. Reports suggest that their proposals are being evaluated by the IAF and the ministry. There is no idea as to when any of these proposals will be approved and when their first aircraft will be made available to India. But the IAF squadron strength will continue to deplete with every passing year.
Rafale is not a bad deal for India. IAF needed an aircraft for the nuclear strike role to replace the French Mirages and Rafale is the best option. By all yardsticks, we negotiated hard to get the best possible price. It is understandable then that the Indian side would have popped the bubbly for the Rafale deal. But let us put an end to the celebrations, and focus on the real task ahead: building up the IAF to an adequate strength.
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