The 34th India-France strategic dialogue took place recently in Delhi with the diplomatic advisor to the French President representing his country. Amongst other issues, official sources have indicated that France has offered to transfer seventy percent of the Rafale assembly line to India, promoting local vendor development, helping DRDO in development of engine for the indigenous Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), as well as making Rafale fighter engines in India. Significantly, France has accepted the Indian request that defence technologies shared with the Indian military will not be given to New Delhi’s adversaries. These offers should be music to the ears of the IAF who have, since the fifties, had close relations with the French aerospace industry, through combat aircraft systems Ouragan, Mystere, Jaguar (an Anglo-French project), Mirage 2000 and now the Rafale. France has also been steadfast in product support to India during times of crises, unlike suppliers of some other systems.
It is with this backdrop, that we need to look at how we appear to be our worst enemies when defence procurement is concerned. IAF’s requirement for 126 medium multi-role aircrafts (MMRA), with some direct buys followed by indigenous production, was initiated back in 2001 and a request for proposal (RFP) floated in 2007. After thorough evaluation amongst the six competitors, selection of French Rafale was declared in 2012. With subsequent negotiations making little headway, ministry of defence (MOD) announced withdrawal of the proposal in 2015. In this process, the IAF lost fourteen valuable years in its quest towards enhancing its operational capability at the altar of a defence procurement system whose guiding principle to be ‘impartial and transparent’, is driven by the Bofors Syndrome, where process and procrastination over- ride outcome. Not surprisingly, every time there is a crisis, emergency purchase of platforms and weapon systems becomes inevitable, as is happening today.
The question that needs pondering is ‘impartiality and transparency’ in the defence procurement procedure (DPP) is to what end and in whose interest? Logically, the integrity of both these attributes can only be determined by and confined to the four walls of those in government and the military, under whose purview these decisions lie, and it is they alone who must be accountable to the people through lawfully-mandated provisions. ‘Impartiality and transparency’ can neither be to satisfy the arms market, which is fiercely competitive and not always a worshipper of such noble sentiments as Bofors and Augusta Westland lessons amply testify. Nor can it be to satisfy various opinions within the country with a diverse set of political, commercial, personal or indeed inimical interests that hold no positions of accountability to national security. If national security execution becomes a subject of open debate, this is sure invitation to adverse forces to infiltrate and sabotage the process.
In April 2015, during his visit to France, the PM announced that in view of the critical operational needs of the air force, he had requested the French President for quick supply of 36 Rafale jets in flyaway condition through an inter-governmental agreement. Although such a provision exists in current procedures and regular government purchases are routinely being made, this announcement took the Indian aeronautics scene completely by surprise. That it resulted in an unnecessary storm rather than national relief at augmenting the nation’s military power, merely shows how little we truly care about national security. How much of this outcry was the result of genuine concern for propriety and how much driven by vested interests can be a matter of debate.
In keeping with the objectives of the procurement procedure, the order for direct purchase should logically have been followed with a strategic partnership between the Indian aeronautics sector, public and private, and the French aeronautical industry, towards not just fulfilling the IAF’s total MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) requirement, but towards future military and civil aeronautics projects for both indigenous and export markets. Instead, this logical follow up was halted in its tracks.
The incalculable damage to both national security and the aeronautics industry is not easy to determine. But with India and China now braced for potential hostilities, one is aware that the aggressive display of IAF firepower over Ladakh skies, including the very limited Rafales, has not gone unnoticed with the PLA planners who must be happy that for the foreseeable future, the IAF will field only a limited number of Rafale weapon systems. Unlike India, China recognises the centrality of air power towards its security objectives and has ensured a dramatic growth in its aeronautical eco-system that is led by the highest political leadership and supported by large investments and use of terms like ‘aeronautical patriotism’.
The MOD has now restarted the entire process of issuing a request for information (RFI) for what is being termed the multi-role fighter aircraft (MRFA), a change in nomenclature that appears merely cosmetic since all original contestants are reportedly participants! Not only will this prolong the IAF’s operational gaps for more than a decade, but should the choice fall on another type, this will add to limiting operational flexibility and significantly to overall ownership costs. Merely to appear to be ‘impartial and transparent’, this is a heavy price in security terms.
For the sake of national security, one can only hope that like the bold decision to go ahead with the initial Rafale order at the inter-government level, the Cabinet Committee on Security now gives its stamp of approval to the latest French government offer thus enabling Indian aeronautics to find its rightful place in the international market.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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