The Rafale deal is not going to solve the Indian Air Force’s problem of depleting numbers and has made it worse as political parties slug it out.
Buying just 36 Rafales has not mitigated the numbers problem that the Indian Air Force (IAF) faces. The controversy over it has resulted in a new tender which means India will not get another medium-combat jet for at least another 10 years. The delivery of these jets will stretch into the 2040s. This means that India will be flying a 4th generation fighter towards the end of this century. Meanwhile US and China are already operating 5th generation fighters and work on 6th generation fighter jet is underway in several countries.
The question is, what could India have done differently?
First, consider the total requirement. The then Air Force Chief ACM Arup Raha had said that the IAF needs 200-250 MRCA fighter jets in the next 10 years.
Second, knowing the numbers required, the government had to look deep into the pockets to see how much it could afford.
Third, we need to prioritise the technologies needed and look for a fighter jet that fits the budget.
The problem began with Dassault going back on the terms of the Request For Proposal (RFP) for the Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) tender. Unfortunately, the UPA government did not walk away from the deal in 2013-14 when negotiations hit a dead end. And with elections due, it left the decision to the next government.
The NDA government decided to pursue negotiations with Dassault and encountered the same problems as the previous government which forced the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar to state in January 2015 that India might look at the option of making more Su-30s.
However, Prime Minister Modi during his visit to Paris in April 2015, went ahead and announced that India would buy 36 Rafales in a government-to-government deal without any idea about how much it would cost. The contract negotiation committee was set up after this to conclude the deal which was primarily broken.
In May 2016, Parrikar stated that the cost of one Rafale was same as one Su-30 and Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) put together — which would put it between 700 and 750 crores. Although he didn’t specify the configuration, his statement in July 2015, that the IAF will get the 36 Rafales in the same configuration as the one tested and approved by it provided an indication. The configuration in question was tested by the IAF during the MRCA tender according to the RFP which included all the requirements and modifications if any.
This brings us to the question of the much-touted India-specific modifications which have been put at $1.8 billion or $50 million a jet: Why were these India specific modifications required? Quite simply, because the Rafales did not have them. Are there other jets that offer these as standard? Yes, of course!
One of the major modification that is highlighted is the integration of the Israeli helmet-mounted display. The Rafale doesn’t have them perhaps because the French don’t find the need for it. But this is not a new innovation and has been in service with the US Air Force and was offered as standard in the F/A-18IN and F-16IN by their manufacturers for the MRCA tender in 2007.
The other major specification cited is the RBE2 AESA radar. The French did not have an operational AESA radar during the MRCA tender. It was integrated with the French Air Force jets only from 2013. whereas the US which is the pioneer and leader in AESA technology has had them for over a decade.
Another modification is Rafale’s ability to start in cold weather. That’s hardly a modification as all fighter jets are required to pass hot and cold trials. All the other countries that contested the MRCA tender have bases in cold-weather areas.
Other modifications like laser designator pods, beyond visual range missiles, self protection suites, jammers etc. are standard packages in modern fighter jets and offered by other manufacturers.
It has been argued that the Rafales are meant for the delivery of nuclear weapons. While this is plausible — considering the reported requirement of the Strategic Forces Requirement (SFC) — it was not a priority. India has the Su-30, Mirage and Jaguar as well as a number of missiles that can do the job.
The Rafale is a potent fighter, but it has burnt a $9 billion hole in India’s pocket and still left the IAF way short of what it needs. The government erred in not looking for options that would have met the total requirement. ACM Arup Raha stated in October 2015 that the IAF needs any MRCA jet, “There are alternatives. I cannot say I only want Rafale. I want capabilities of Rafale type aircraft.o the government will have a look at it and based on urgency and the type of contract is signed with Dassault Aviation, further decisions may be taken by the government. I cannot predict,” he said.
The IAF chief clearly thought there were alternatives. Could they have come cheaper? We do not know as the government did not try to find out.
The costs that India paid is comparable to what Qatar and Egypt paid for their Rafale deals. But the main point of difference is that the two countries had limited requirements and found the Rafale suitable. India has a huge requirement for medium jets but with a tight defence budget. And more importantly it is time critical as over 350 fighters will be decommissioned over the next 10- 15 years without a replacement.
Some of the numbers will be made up by the much-maligned LCA Tejas, provided Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) ramps up production and delivers on time. However, by buying 36 Rafales for a short-term fix, the IAF has got into a long term problem.