By Ajai Shukla
A government source on Thursday rebutted the statement by recently retired Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) chairman and managing director (CMD), T Suvarna Raju, that the 126-Rafale tender was on track at the time it was cancelled and that Dassault and HAL had agreed on a work share and submitted it to the government.
In the Hindustan Times on Thursday, Raju rejected the notion that irreconcilable differences between Dassault and HAL had forced the government to abandon the tender for 126 Rafales. Raju also contradicted Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s statement that HAL was incapable of building the advanced Rafale fighter.
Facing concerted attack from the opposition for abandoning a 2007 tender for 126 Rafale fighters at the last moment and substituting it in April 2015 with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s announcement in Paris of the purchase of 36 Rafales in “flyaway condition”, Sitharaman has cited HAL’s incapability to build the Rafale, and its non-conclusion of a production arrangement with Dassault to manufacture over a hundred fighters in India.
Raju, who headed HAL until September 1 and who was a member of the ministry of defence (MoD) cost negotiation committee, told Hindustan Times: ““When HAL can build a 25-tonne Sukhoi-30, a fourth-generation fighter jet that forms the mainstay of the air force, from raw material stage, then what are we talking about? We could have definitely done it (licence produced the Rafale jets).”
Reacting to Raju’s statement on Thursday, Congress President Rahul Gandhi launched his sharpest-ever attack on Sitharaman, calling her a liar and the “Rafale Minister” – a play on her official title of Raksha Mantri (defence minister).
Now the government source, which has declined to be identified, calls Raju’s statement “factually incorrect” and says: “There were many areas of disagreement between HAL and M/s DA (Dassault Aviation). HAL, in its letter dated October 11, 2012 addressed to the MoD brought out these disagreements pertaining to the work share between them. Subsequently, in July 2014, HAL in its letter to MoD has also highlighted one major unresolved issue regarding responsibility sharing between M/s DA and HAL for licence manufacture of aircraft.
The source did not explain why, if just “one major unresolved issue” remained by July 2014, earlier negotiations over work share that had been resolved should be cited as a reason for abandoning the tender.
Nor did the source explain how Dassault chief, Eric Trappier, had stated just 17 days before Modi’s Paris announcement, in the presence of the IAF chief and the HAL chairman, that he was delighted with the HAL partnership and expected the deal to be signed in a matter of a few days.”
On Tuesday, Sitharaman, who has shifted positions rapidly as the opposition attack has gathered steam, blamed the United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for dropping HAL from the 2007 tender.
The source on Thursday also stated: “The man-hours required for manufacture of various components of the aircraft in HAL was also a point of disagreement between M/s DA and HAL. There is therefore a contradiction in the claims attributed to Ex-CMD HAL.”
In fact, HAL’s former chief had highlighted that HAL’s manpower would have to go through a learning curve. “If the French are making 100 jets in says 100 hours, I will take 200 hours as I am doing it for the first time. I can’t do it in 80 hours. It’s a scientific process,” Raju said.
Within HAL, there is a perception that Sitharaman has “thrown HAL under the bus”, in the words of a mid-ranking officer. Over the years, HAL has built numerous IAF aircraft, including the MiG-21, Jaguar, Hawk, Dornier and the Sukhoi-30MKI.
“We would have delivered on the Rafale too. I was the leader of the technical team for five years and everything had been sorted out,” said Raju.