By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 11th Oct 16
After the sorry compromise that was the Rafale fighter acquisition, the Indian Air Force (IAF) last week went back to the start line, initiating the purchase of a light fighter to replace the MiG-21s, MiG-23s and MiG-27s that once formed the bulk of its fleet, and still constitute one-third of it. Since Indian defence planners (assuming the breed actually exists) seldom learn from others’ mistakes, they must at least learn from their failed project to acquire 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). Ironically, that too had started out 15 years ago as a programme to buy lots of light-to-medium fighters to replace the MiGs. The effort --- which would-be vendors obsequiously lauded as “the world’s most professionally run fighter acquisition programme” --- crashed in flames last year, with the decision to buy 36 Rafales. Inexplicably, the IAF has ended up with a small number of exorbitantly expensive fighters that would be criminally wasted on the combat roles the MiG fleet has played.
Even so, fleet shortages in the IAF are so dire --- 33-34 operational fighter squadrons, against the 45 needed to handle a collusive threat from China and Pakistan --- that we must welcome the Rafale buy, even though it has cost Euro 7.87 billion. True, Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) Nashik delivers 12-13 Sukhoi-30MKIs each year; and its Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) production line in Bengaluru is slowly ramping up production. Yet, with the remaining 11 MiG-21 and MiG-27 squadrons retiring soon, the shortfall will remain. And since the Rafales will only start being delivered after three years, there is no room for delay or misjudgement.
It would be remembered that the air force began the MMRCA process on the right note, before the defence ministry put it into a downward dive from which it never recovered. In 2000-01, the IAF --- pleased with the Mirage 2000 after its accurate bombing of Pakistani mountain-top positions during the 1999 Kargil conflict --- proposed buying the Mirage 2000 production line from Dassault, which was closing it down to build the new Rafale. The plan was to transfer the line to HAL, which would build the well-regarded Mirage 2000-9, an export version of the French Air Force’s Mirage 2000-5 Mark 2. That was clearly the sensible thing to do. The IAF was familiar with the Mirage 2000; and had the training, maintenance and repair infrastructure, and had already developed Indian vendors for several sub-systems. Had the Mirage 2000 been chosen, the IAF would have had a highly capable, light, cheap fighter without complicating fleet logistics.
But that was not to be. Defence Minister George Fernandes, rattled by the Tehelka sting, decided (backed by the National Democratic Alliance cabinet) that single-vendor procurement from Dassault might invite further charges of corruption. So Fernandes played it safe by sending out a global tender to multiple vendors. The IAF, its pragmatism replaced by the starry-eyed prospect of flying the world’s best (and most expensive!) fighters, framed expansive requirements that brought six fighters into contention. The rest is depressing history.
The lessons from the MMRCA are clear. First, forswear bureaucratic and political caution in the national interest and quietly identify the best choice for India based on a matrix of performance, life-cycle cost, technology transfer and the strategic relationship with the vendor country --- rather than trying to identify, like in the past, the cheapest fighter that meets the IAF’s performance requirements. Politically motivated charges of corruption are inevitable, regardless of the integrity of the process; but larger political rewards lie in pushing through, in full public view, a badly needed acquisition that fills a gaping capability void. Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar, who has the confidence of a personally honest man, has already signalled that he can think boldly. Speaking on Doordarshan on April 13, 2015, soon after Prime Minister Narendra Modi announced in Paris that India would buy 36 Rafales, Mr Parrikar stated: “It is wrong to do an MMRCA type deal using an RfP (competitive tender) model. You cannot compare different types of aircraft like the F/A-18, Eurofighter and Rafale. All three have different strengths and capabilities. All three are probably good enough planes… These important decisions need to be taken at government-to-government levels.”
Sadly, Mr Parrikar has disregarded his own advice while launching the light fighter acquisition. Like with the MMRCA, the letter of inquiry has been sent to numerous aerospace manufacturers, even those who do not have a single-engine, medium fighter to offer. When asked why, officials explained off-the-record that it was so that no vendor could later complain it was left out. This play-it-safe attitude is hardly suggestive of a purposive, focused, unapologetic procurement process to come.
In fact, only two firms need be approached: American behemoth, Lockheed Martin, and Swedish defence firm, Saab; both of whom have quality single-engine fighters to “Make in India”. The former has already pitched with the defence ministry to build a new Block 70 variant of its F-16 Super Viper. Saab, too, has offered to build the new Gripen E, which is scheduled to make its first flight this year.
While not much separates the two offers, Lockheed Martin clearly scores on one count, while Saab wins on other counts. Building the F-16 in India would strengthen the burgeoning US-India defence partnership, which is already creating skilled jobs in India. Choosing the Gripen, on the other hand, would bring in Swedish technologies in areas like the “airborne electronically scanned array” radar, which US export control regulations safeguard jealously. The Swedish dependency on any Indian partnership would allow New Delhi far greater leverage in bargaining for high technology than India could ever wield in Washington. Further, the Gripen E can be modified into an aircraft carrier borne fighter --- an option the F-16 does not have.
The final determinant must be: which relationship would impart greater impetus to indigenous fighter programmes like the Tejas and the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft; and co-development programmes like the Indo-Russian Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft. In making his choice, Mr Parrikar should bear in mind that a quick, decisive verdict would save three years of ministry file-pushing and fill in operational gaps that are unacceptable, given the tensions in South Asia.