Prime Minister Narendra Modi was left with Hobson’s choice when it came to the purchase of Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force.
The original agreement with Dassault for Rafale aircraft had a complicated contract and the shadow of corruption scandals on it.
Mr Modi also had inherited a government with empty coffers and an air force that had been hobbled by aircraft attrition, procurements that never materialised and a slothful defence ministry.
India’s air power requirement is defined by China and Pakistan. But with only 34 out of a required 50 squadrons available and half of its aircraft grounded, India’s ability to defend its airspace had become dependent on the kindness of other countries.
The new government had two choices: Pursue the existing MMRCA negotiations with Dassault — talks are now past their third year — or find a shortcut to meet the national security needs.
The PM correctly opted for the latter.
It is true that the agreement which was signed in Paris last week for Rafale fighters does not lend itself to the ‘Make in India’ narrative, but it does to a ‘defend India’ necessity, which must take precedence.
However, the present deal is a patch job, a temporary fix that only gives New Delhi a few years of breathing space.
The government needs to think seriously about how to meet its top-end military needs, one that juggles India’s long-term desire for indigenisation, the need to maintain air superiority against its two largest neighbours and sustain key strategic relations.
Unfortunately, all these three requirements have to be fulfilled with limited resources. The MMRCA deal should be seen as a learning experience. Among its lessons are that India needs a faster defence procurement system, more strategic inputs while making such purchases, and it must temper its indigenisation goals.
The PM will receive flak over the deal because it seems to run counter to his own ‘Make in India’ declarations. The real question should be why anyone believes that India must be expected to master the manufacture of such high-performance structures that even China and Japan are still struggling to do.
A defence offset policy that is too ambitious and too aligned to the mediocre skills of the State-owned firms will lead to the sort of crisis that has been seen with the MMRCA deal — a security emergency that forces arms buys in which India’s security becomes so endangered that it has to compromise all other drivers of its arms policy.