Any major defence contract by the Indian government takes a tortuous, often controversial and always expensive path. It is almost a matter of relief that the medium multi-role combat aircraft contract is now in the homestretch, with the French Rafale fighter the only surviving candidate. The sheer length of the five-year selection process has meant the contract’s price tag has doubled from its original $10 billion. Given that the Indian Air Force has been steadily shrinking during that time, many would argue it barely matters which aircraft is chosen or how it fits into the country’s defence strategy.
Unfortunately, the country cannot afford to be so flippant about its primary air fighting platform, a weapon the country will now have to depend on for at least the next two decades. More than almost any other weapon system, the choice of a primary fighter determines the trajectory of a country’s future strategic relationships. Such multi-billion dollar deals are also the best opportunity for it to fill in the gaps of its own military industrial sector. Finally, the aircraft must also be chosen with an eye to future threats a nation may face. The choice of the Rafale as the preferred bidder comes up half-full when measured against these indices. France has given India the odd helping hand in the past. But it has no influence or power in the parts of the world that India must operate. It can never be a strategic partner in the fullest sense of the word, though it can partially compensate with the provision of technology. France has committed to a generous technology transfer. Such transfers are gifts that rapidly fade thanks to obsolescence. The real issue is whether India’s fledgling military industrial sector will learn to develop its own innovation cycles and grasp systems integration through this purchase. This is only partly a French issue. The defence ministry’s continued dependence on the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and Defence Research and Development Organisation does not bode well for India extracting as much as it should from the aircraft.
Finally, the Rafale is by all accounts a world-class fourth generation fighter — though its failure to find even one foreign buyer over the past quarter of a century raises questions. However, the Rafale will be the backbone of the Indian Air Force even a decade from now. If China has, as it claims, a fifth generation prototype, then the Rafale will be a multi-billion dollar intermediate step rather than a giant leap to security. Defence deals are so shrouded in secrecy that understanding the logic of what was done and why is nearly impossible. That sort of transparency is the most important requirement of arms procurement — and one that this contract has only taken baby steps towards.