Saturday, 25 November 2017

Part 3: From light fighter to nuclear delivery platform: Long road to the Rafale

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 25th Nov 17

Since the turn of the century, when the Indian Air Force (IAF) began its quest for cheap, light fighters to replace the Soviet-era fleet of light MiG variants, the IAF’s specifications for the replacement fighter have changed so much as to be almost unrecognizable.

From supporting development of an indigenous fighter, to adding more fighters to the Mirage-2000 fleet already in service, the IAF switched tack to buying medium, multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) through competitive global tendering; to eventually buying 36 Rafale fighters in a government-to-government deal with France.

In the newest twist, after Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi announced on April 10, 2015 in Paris that India would procure 36 Rafale fighters from French vendor, Dassault, the justification for acquiring such a high-end fighter transformed into veiled hints that it is a platform for delivering nuclear weapons in wartime.

Three days after Modi’s Rafale announcement, then defence minister Manohar Parrikar said on Doordarshan: “It is a strategic purchase and should never have gone through an RFP (Request for Proposals, or a competitive tender)”

Most nuclear strategists have taken “strategic purchase” to mean that India would rig Rafale fighters to deliver nuclear weapons – in place of the Mirage 2000s and Jaguars that currently do the job – as the airborne leg of its nuclear triad.

In the calculations of many analysts, there could be no other valid reason for an air force that already operates seven types of fighters to buy just 36 aircraft of an entirely new type, further complicating a logistical nightmare.

Furthermore, nuclear strategists say in the era of highly reliable land-based and submarine-launched ballistic missiles, delivering nuclear weapons by aircraft is a dispensable option.

Says Vipin Narang, nuclear strategist at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology: “Given India’s diverse and capable land and sea-based missiles, it is worth considering whether one even needs a replacement delivery platform for nuclear gravity bombs. If India is committed to a triad, a more cost effective solution may be to make Brahmos a nuclear missile and use the Sukhoi-30MKI to deliver it, obviating the need to replace Mirage and Jaguars. It is hard to justify $225 million a plane for an increasingly obsolete mission.”

If indeed the Rafale’s nuclear capability led to its purchase, it remains unclear why the government does not publicly state it? The commitment to a nuclear triad – of delivery of nukes by land, sea and air -- is already publicly enunciated in India’s nuclear doctrine. It would be reasonable to state that the IAF is paying souch a heavy cost to have the most seamless transition from the Mirage 2000 to another French platform, says Narang.

However, there would be questions over whether the Rafale needs to do that job. The Mirage 2000 and the Jaguar are both being upgraded, and can act as airborne nuclear vectors till 2030-35.

Shifting goalposts

The nuclear talk is only the latest example of the IAF shifting goalposts on its fighter purchase. It is worth tracing the procurement over the last two decades.

Since the early 1980s, when the IAF had 42 fighter squadrons but 30 of them were light MiG variants that faced obsolescence, it was decided to develop the indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) to replace them. In 1981 the IAF, in a document called “Air Staff Target 203”, defined a requirement for a light, single-engine to replace the MiGs from the mid-1990s.

But the LCA was delayed and, in 1999 had still to make its first flight (it eventually flew only in 2001). The IAF, happy with the performance of the Mirage 2000 in the 1999 Kargil war, began lobbying for buying the Mirage production line that Dassault was closing down, and re-establishing it in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to build the excellent Mirage 2000-5 fighter.

“As an air force we were very familiar and comfortable with the operational and tactical handling of the Mirage 2000,” said Air Marshal (Retired) Pranab Kumar Barbora, who was Vice Chief of Air Staff till 2010.

That would have given the IAF large numbers of inexpensive yet sophisticated, single-engine fighters, ideal for replacing the MiGs. But the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) defence minister, George Fernandes, under fire after the Tehelka exposes on defence procurement corruption, shied away from a single-vendor buy from Dassault – ironically, considering that eventually happened with the Rafale purchase 15 years later.

In 2002, Fernandes ordered the IAF to float a global tender. Specifications were framed for a light fighter, and the IAF floated a “Request for Information” to four global vendors in 2004. However, in 2005, Dassault – apparently miffed at having to compete instead of being awarded a single-vendor contract – foreclosed the option of transferring the Mirage 2000 line to India.

It took the IAF three more years to draw up specifications of a new fighter. On August 28, 2007, when the IAF issued an international tender for what was dubbed the MMRCA, the inexpensive, light, single-engine MiG-replacement fighter had morphed into a high-tech, medium-to-heavy fighter that could have one engine or two, and would inevitably cost far more than what was hitherto envisaged.

When responses to the tender came in, there were now six aircraft in the fray: Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen - C; Lockheed Martin’s F-16 Super Viper; Russian Aircraft Corporation’s MIG-35; Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet; Eurofighter’s Typhoon and Dassault’s Rafale.

Defence Minister AK Antony, while chairing a meeting of his Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) on June 29, 2007, outlined three guiding principles for the MMRCA procurement: “First, the operational requirements of IAF should be fully met. Second, the selection process should be competitive, fair and transparent, so that best value for money is realized. Lastly, Indian defence industries should get an opportunity to grow to global scales.”

A decade later, none of these objectives have been met. With the IAF’s operational requirements still unmet with the procurement of just 36 Rafales, fresh tendering is underway for 114 “single-engine fighters”. Instead of a “competitive, fair and transparent” selection, the decision to buy the Rafale remains opaque. And, with the “Make in India” component of the deal scrapped, indigenous defence industry remains ignored.

The Dassault advantage

Through the five years it took the IAF to conduct and conclude the MMRCA selection process, the buzz within the defence aerospace community was that the contest structure favoured Dassault.

To win, a fighter had first to meet the IAF’s requirements in technical evaluation and performance flight-testing. Then, in the second stage of evaluation, commercial bids would be opened of those vendors whose fighters had met the IAF’s norms. Based on a “life-cycle costing” matrix, the lowest bidder (termed L-1) would be declared the winner.

After lengthy flight trials the IAF eliminated four fighters in April 2011 – the Gripen-C, F-16, F/A-18E/F and the MiG-35. Coincidentally, these were the four that were significantly cheaper than the Rafale. Only the excellent, but expensive, Eurofighter Typhoon went into a commercial bidding contest against the Rafale. On January 30, 2012, Dassault was informed it was the L-1 bidder.

Amongst the fighters the IAF eliminiated were the F-16 Super Viper and F/A-18E/F Super Hornet, the world’s most combat tested and proven fighters that form the backbone of the world’s most formidable air force.

Ironically, the IAF is now pursuing two fresh acquisitions – for single-engine fighter and multi-role carrier-borne fighters respectively – in which the F-16 and F/A-18 are hot contenders. Evidently, the purchase of 36 Rafales has changed little for the IAF.

Friday, 24 November 2017

Part 2: How much did the Rafale actually cost?

By Ajai Shukla
Business Standard, 24th Nov 17

Has the Indian Air Force (IAF) paid more per Rafale fighter than what Prime Minister (PM) Narendra Modi had undertaken in Paris whilst announcing his agreement with French President Francois Hollande to buy 36 aircraft from French vendor, Dassault?

On April 10, 2015, standing beside Hollande, Modi declared: “Keeping in mind the critical operational necessity of fighter aircraft in India, I have discussed with the [French] President the purchase of 36 Rafale fighters in ‘fly-away condition’ at the earliest through an Inter Governmental Agreement. We have both agreed that these would be supplied on better terms and conditions than were offered to India in a separate procurement process (emphasis added).”

The “separate procurement process” Modi referred to was an on-going tender the IAF issued in 2007 for 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA). In response to that tender, Rafale had submitted a commercial bid in 2008-09, quoting a price for 18 Rafale fighters “in fly-away condition”, and 108 fighters to be built in India.

Now the Congress Party alleges that the Modi government, in buying 36 Rafales for Euro 7.8 billion ($9.2 billion, Rs 58,000 crore), paid more what Dassault had quoted in the MMRCA tender. If that is the case, the PM’s public commitment was violated.

In the absence of government figures, analysts must extrapolate from other available, if less authoritative, sources. Defence Minister Nirmala Sitharaman committed at a press conference on Friday that the Rafale bid figures would be publicly released. Despite subsequent requests from Business Standard, no figures have been forthcoming.

A full breakdown of figures is essential because the total cost of a fighter contract includes -- besides the cost of the aircraft – also costs related to technology transfer, spare parts, weapons and missiles, added on equipment and maintenance costs. A valid comparison, on an apples-to-apples basis, requires “non-aircraft” costs to be isolated from the price being paid for the aircraft.

Cost of the current deal

Fortunately, authentic figures are available for the Euro 7.8 billion contract, signed in 2015, for 36 Rafales. Soon after the contract was signed, a senior political leader in the National Democratic Alliance (NDA) held an off-the-record briefing in New Delhi for several journalists, including this correspondent (see chart below).

Cost breakdown of Modi’s 36-Rafale contract

Expenditure item
Details of expenditure

Cost of aircraft

Single-seat Rafale fighters
28 @ Euro 91.07 million each
Euro 2.55 billion
Twin-seat Rafale fighters
8 @ Euro 94 million each
Euro 0.75 billion
India-specific enhancements
Helmet sights, radar receiver, radio altimeters, Doppler radar, cold start
Euro 1.7 billion

Total cost of 36 fighters

Euro 5.0 billion

Cost per fighter
Averaging for single/twin seaters
Euro 138.9 million

Cost of weaponry

Including Meteor, SCALP missiles
Total cost of weapons, mainly from French firm, MBDA
Euro 700 million

Maintenance expenses

Spare parts and items
Needed to keep aircraft flying
Euro 1.8 billion
Performance based logistics
Guarantee of 75% availability
Euro 350 million

Aircraft cost plus add-ons
Euro 7.85 bn

It was divulged that the contracted price averaged out to Euro 91.7 million (Rs 686 crore) per Rafale aircraft. This included the purchase of 28 single-seat fighters for Euro 91.07 million (Rs 681 crore) each; and eight twin-seat fighters, each priced at Euro 94 million (Rs 703 crore). That puts the cost of each of the 36 “bare bones” fighters at Euro 91.7 million (Rs 686 crore) – totalling up to Euro 3.3 billion.

Besides this, the IAF paid Euro 1.7 billion for “India-specific enhancements”, Euro 700 million for weaponry like Meteor and SCALP missiles, Euro 1.8 billion for spare parts and engines, and Euro 350 million for “performance based logistics”, to ensure that at least 75 per cent of the Rafale fleet remains operationally available. All this added up to another Euro 4.5 billion, taking the cost of the contract up to 7.85 billion.

A key question is: how much of the “additional costs” are actually part of the aircraft? Most aerospace industry executives agree the “India-specific enhancements” are a part of the Rafale operational platform and should be included in its price. These enhancements include a “radar warning receiver” to detect enemy radar and “low band jammers” to foil it; a radio altimeter, Doppler radar, extreme cold weather starting-up devices for airfields like Leh, and “helmet mounted display sights” that let pilots aim their weapons merely by looking at a target.

Adding the Euro 1.7 billion for “India specific enhancements”, the payment made for the aircraft goes up to Euro 5 billion, averaging out to Euro 138.9 million (Rs 1,063 crore) per Rafale fighter.

Cost of 126-aircraft MMRCA deal

While it is inadvisable to directly compare two differently structured contracts – one involving manufacture in France and the other, manufacture in India with transfer of technology – an apples-to-apples comparison can be made with Dassault’s pricing in the MMRCA tender that quotes for 18 fighters in “fly-away condition”.

Other than that, the only authoritative indicator of Rafale’s bid in the 126-fighter MMRCA contest has come from Manohar Parrikar, while he was defence minister. Talking to Doordarshan on April 13, 2015, he quoted a figure: “The Rafale is quite expensive. As you go into the upper end, the cost goes up. When you talk of 126 aircraft, it becomes a purchase of about Rs 90,000 crore.”

While this figure would include elements of technology transfer and manufacturing infrastructure creation, Rs 90,000 crore for 126 Rafales translates into an indicative cost of Rs 714 crore per fighter – significantly lower than what India is paying now.

“The most valid comparison is with 18 fly-away Rafales in the MMRCA tender. The government should make those figures public”, says an aerospace company executive.

French pricing for Rafale

Unit acquisition cost
Loading development cost (Euro 87.5 mn)
French Senate 2014

Cost of Rafale B (twin-seat)
Euro 74.0 million
161.5 million
Cost of Rafale C (single-seat)
Euro 68.8 million
156.3 million
Cost of Rafale M (marine)
Euro 79.0 million
166.5 million

Egypt buy (24 fighters)

24 fighters for Euro 5.2 billion
Cost of “bare bones” fighters hard to assess

Loaded cost is Euro 217 million per Rafale
Qatar buy (24 fighters)

24 fighters for Euro 6.3 billion
Cost of “bare bones” fighters hard to asses

Loaded cost is Euro 262 million per Rafale

The French Senate periodically issues authoritative figures for Rafale pricing. The most recent figures, from 2013-14, put the acquisition cost per Rafale at Euro 74 million (Rs 566 crore) for the Rafale B (twin-seat version); Euro 68.8 million (Rs 527 crore) for the Rafale C (single-seat version); and Euro 79 million (Rs 605 crore) for the Rafale M (aircraft carrier version). These prices are significantly lower than what the IAF is paying for the Rafale.

The reason could be that France expects India to pay a significant share of the Rafale’s development costs. A Business Standard analysis of official French Senate figures indicates that the Euro 45.9 billion cost of the Rafale programme consisted of two components: Euro 25 billion for design, development and testing costs, and Euro 20.85 billion for building 286 Rafales for the French air force and navy.

Without factoring in export orders and assuming the French military will eventually buy 286 fighters (so far, it has only ordered 180), it amounts to a developmental cost of 87.5 million (Rs 670 crore) per Rafale – more than its manufacturing cost.

Loading design and development costs onto the manufacturing cost of the aircraft, the French cost per Rafale rises to an average of about Euro 160 million (Rs 1,225 crore). In paying close to Euro 138.9 million (Rs 1,063 crore) per fighter, the IAF is obtaining only a Euro 21 million (Rs 161 crore) discount on the Rafale’s fully discounted price. The IAF, therefore, is effectively subsidising French aerospace R&D and industry.

Egypt, Qatar deals

Can the price the IAF has paid for the Rafale be compared with the price the other two buyers – Egypt and Qatar – have paid? While such a comparison would face the same pitfall of not knowing what each of those contracts includes, on the face of it, both those buyers are paying prices similar to, or higher than, the IAF.

The Egyptian Air Force has paid Euro 5.2 billion for 24 fighters and is reportedly considering buying 12 more, a “fully loaded cost” of Euro 217 million per Rafale. Similarly, the Qatar Air Force has paid out Euro 6.3 billion for a similar number of aircraft, with a “fully loaded cost” of Euro 262 million per fighter.

(Tomorrow: “How a cheap, single-engine MiG-21 replacement fighter became the exorbitant, nuclear-capable Rafale)