The impression created by Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s meetings with western leaders is that India will buy any de-rated military goods offered. His announcement about purchasing 36 1980s-vintage French Rafale planes to meet the Indian Air Force’s requirement for ‘medium multi-role combat aircraft’ (MMRCA) wrong-footed defence minister Manohar Parrikar, who favoured the bigger, more versatile and economical Su-30 — superior to the Rafale in all roles, including nuclear delivery.
In the US, accords for more C-17 transport aircraft and helicopters — all, incidentally, stripped of sophisticated sensors and communications gear were signed. The HDW 214 diesel-electric submarine selection for the navy’s Project 75i featured in the talks with German Chancellor Angela Merkel — except that the ‘214’ is an ‘export’ variant of the advanced ‘212’ and, hence, without features like the non-magnetic hull to render detection by magnetic anomaly detectors difficult.
Such defence transactions supposedly promote Modi’s ‘Make in India’ scheme. Not clear how, considering they resemble the old policy of licence-manufacture. Absent the hard decision to end arms dependency by marshalling resources nationally, scrapping the “L1”— lowest tender — system and similar impedimenta, and permitting the private sector to utilise the defence public sector facilities, New Delhi will continue to rescue slumping western defence industries, while preventing indigenous design-to-delivery capabilities from getting off the ground.
Rafale is also part of the anti-Russian tilt — justified in terms of the spares shortages endemic to its supply chain. Except, the 30-40% down-time of Su-30s and MiG-29s, for instance, is comparable to that of the Mirage 2000s, Jaguars, and Hawks in Indian employ. In any case, the problem with the spares is more easily mitigated than prospective grounding during crises of whole fleets should European suppliers, succumbing to US pressure, cut off the spares flow, as happened in the past.
India’s aim to win friends by promising big armament buys may win goodwill. But it lasts only until the next big defence deal is lost by a vendor state, when the squeeze is put with threats of arms transfers to Pakistan, as Russia is doing with the proposed sale of attack helicopters and MiG-35 combat planes to Islamabad.
Among the deals none is more outrageous as regards cost and disutility than the Rafale deal. The reported negotiated price of $9 billion for 36 Rafales and another $6 billion for mid-life upgrade — for a total of $15 billion — is being used by the IAF as a wedge to compel buys of 44 more Rafales. This amounts to $250 million per aircraft, roughly the price-tag of the US 5th generation F-35 fighter-bomber. Using Parrikar’s metric of three Su-30s for the price of one Rafale, the $9 billion will fetch IAF 108 Su-30s or almost seven squadrons (instead of two Rafale squadrons). Further, because this plane is produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd., it will spur local production and provide a fillip to ‘Make in India’.
Then there’s an aspect relating to the life-time programme costing that has escaped attention. It involves a system of complex calculations the IAF and defence ministry ostensibly used to make the MMRCA decision. By this reckoning the cost calculus actually gets more skewed against the Rafale. The $15 billion up-front acquisition cost constitutes only 30% of the lifetime costs. Maintenance and servicing will account for the remaining 70% of programme expenditures.
It explains the fierce competition to sell fighter jets because a country once hooked keeps paying multiples of the procurement prices. In the event, the realistic bill for just two Rafale squadrons is $27 billion with upgrade (at current value) without technology transfer. Is Parrikar aware of this, and the government prepared for a humongous outlay on meagre fighting assets?
IAF’s import orientation can be fixed by giving it the charge of, and making it responsible for, the indigenous Tejas programme — deliberately belittled by its brass. This, combined with the jettisoned import option, can produce startling results. Recall that import denial led to India getting world-class Agni missiles.
Consider a Rafale-less force-structure: 108 additional Su-30s — rated the best combat aircraft in the world which could, by 2020, augment the 14 squadrons of this plane already in service, along with squadrons of the upgraded Mirage 2000, MiG-29, and Jaguar. For short-and medium-range air defence, the bulk aircraft is obviously the home-made Tejas Mk-1A and Tejas Mk-II.
Equipped with an Active Electronically Scanned Array radar they will, like Rafale, be 4.5 generation, but more agile and cheaper to buy and upkeep, and seed a sustainable Indian aerospace industry. In a single combat a Rafale can beat the Tejas, but a Tejas swarm can down a bunch of Rafales anytime; meaning quantity will prevail when the qualitative difference is marginal.
Moreover, with air warfare transitioning into an era of multi-purpose drones — something the “fighter jock”-driven IAF seems unprepared for — the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft project with Russia becomes redundant. The savings of Rs 50,000 crore can, with China in mind, be invested in leasing extra Akula nuclear-powered attack submarines and the new Tu-160M2 strategic bomber India needs but the IAF, incomprehensibly, is allergic to, or in developing and fielding advanced drones, more nuclear-powered submarines, and multiple-nuclear warheaded long-range Agni missiles.
Bharat Karnad is with the Centre for Policy Research and author of Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet). The views expressed are personal.