|There is something about the procurement of fighter aircraft from Western commercial sources that generates interest far greater than perhaps the sum of its economic or strategic content. The entire spectacle of open tendering, nail-biting selection followed by endless negotiations, all played out in the public arena, resembles a soap opera more than the very serious business of dealing with a strategic weapon system for war fighting. In the heated debate that has followed the latest announcement by the prime minister regarding Rafale, the sanest voice has been that of the raksha mantri when he said that such strategic systems should not be “open tendering and lowest bid” affairs, but of agreements between national governments.
We have, since 1962, procured and licence-produced Soviet and Russian fighter aircraft in hundreds so that the Indian Air Force’s inventory today is predominantly Russian. More recently, the IAF and the Indian navy have procured aircraft worth over $10 billion from the United States of America alone. As the defence minister said, these have all been government-to-government deals. None has elicited the feverish media debate and partisan comment that some others following the tender route have done. One example of the latter is when, after the 1971 Indo-Pak conflict, the Indian air force began to look westwards to both diversify its sources of supply and meet its long-range strike requirements. At the time being, an integral part of the planning and procurement process within Air HQ, this writer had a ring-side view of the media scrutiny and games played by vested interests of all hues.
There were then three contestants, the Mirage F1, the Jaguar and the Viggen. With two contenders left, a news magazine published what was portrayed to be adverse views on one of the test pilots involved in the flight evaluation. With the decision pending with the cabinet committee on political affairs, the then prime minister, Morarji Desai, was concerned enough to request the air chief to arrange for the test pilots to meet him one-to-one. It was only after the prime minister had met the two very distinguished test pilots, P.K. Dey and Pirthi Singh (both now deceased), and satisfied himself of the report being fabricated, did the CCPA proceed to consider the matter.
One is reminded of the above history, because the IAF’s current proposal for medium multi-role combat aircraft has been facing its own share of problems. Having won a stiff competition, Dassault Aviation, the makers of Rafale aircraft, have made little headway in negotiations lasting three long years. One of the main obstacles being Dassault’s reluctance to take responsibility for the quality of aircraft produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited, a pre-condition spelt out in the initial tender and one they must have been privy to. Why, one wonders, was such a self-defeating condition put into the tender in the first place? What does this say about HAL’s confidence in itself specially when its website claims its vision to “become a significant global player in the aerospace industry”? Did this amount to a tacit admission that it was not confident of manufacturing an aircraft like the Rafale fighter without being shepherded by Dassault?
Since the principle articulated in the foreword to the defence procurement procedure is for the process to be impartial and transparent, we were now caught in a trap of our own making. This is where process becomes more important than the outcome and no one dare deviate, even for valid functional or operational reasons, for fear of being accused of mala fide intent at some future date. Fortunately, the framers of the DPP had the dexterity to put a clause allowing for deviations arising out of strategic considerations, which, in turn, allowed flexibility for imperatives of strategic partnerships or major diplomatic, political, economic, technological or military benefits. That the government has taken the bold step to invoke this clause to wriggle out of the corner it found itself in merits applause, because for the first time there is a message to the armed forces that their essential operational needs will not be held hostage to abstract notions of transparency and impartiality.
In Paris, the PM announced that in view of the critical operational needs of the air force he had requested the French president for a quick supply of 36 Rafale jets in flyaway condition through an inter-governmental agreement on terms better than those demanded by Dassault as part of a separate process. Not surprisingly, this announcement has taken both the strategic community and observers of the Indian aeronautics scene completely by surprise, used as they are to being slaves to the DPP and which, as the defence minister admitted, got us into a “loop or vortex with no solution in sight”.
By opting for the government-to-government route, both countries have no doubt been guided by self-interest. On our part, since aeronautics is the greatest driver of technology, Indian aeronautics needs to strive to find a place amongst the international players. Only when this happens can we hope to reap the benefits of “Make in India” in the field of aeronautics. There are no short cuts, and finding strategic partners is the only cost effective route. Those critical of the prime minister’s move as being against the “Make in India” concept clearly fail to understand what modern aeronautics industry and its broader eco-system truly entail. On the other hand, military aircraft R&D and costs are spiralling with orders dwindling worldwide and manufacturers like Dassault finding it difficult to use economies of scale to make affordable products after amortizing R&D investments. For them, the way ahead is to find reliable strategic partners, share costs and benefit from economies of scale.
It is even possible that recognizing India’s operational imperatives and looking at its own longer term interests, the French government may be willing to let IAF Rafales take priority over French air force orders on the production line. This perhaps explains the two-year ambitious delivery that the defence minister has stated. It is worth recalling that in the case of the Jaguar purchase in the Seventies, the United Kingdom’s ministry of defence had diverted aircraft on loan from the RAF reserves to help IAF bridge the gap in anticipation of its own deliveries.
In the absence of the contours of this decision being available in the public domain, this writer would like to believe that the surprise announcement by the prime minister in Paris was a consequence of a well thought out and strategized move for putting Indian aeronautics on the international stage in keeping with its human and technological potential, a journey that must encompass the genius of the Indian private sector, the large public investments in aeronautics and international strategic partnership.
Planners of the prime minister’s “Make in India” mission are only too aware that in the longer term it is the aeronautical industry that will add technological depth to this mission. They are mindful that in the United States of America, a Congressional commission on the future of the aeronautical industry in 2001 had reported the sector as a whole contributing 9 per cent of GDP and 11.2 million jobs. In China, there has been a dramatic growth in the aeronautical ecosystem during last 10-15 years. The Chinese are using terms like “aeronautical patriotism” and have invested large sums in this ecosystem. Viewing these developments with equanimity is inimical to our national security.
To begin this ambitious journey of Indian aeronautics, the first priority clearly was to make good the IAF’s operational requirement with a weapon system that had been found the most suitable after due evaluation and to leverage this for the longer term “Make in India” vision. The next was to reach understanding at the highest levels in France for a strategic partnership in the aeronautics sector. For India, the take-away is partnering with one of the most sophisticated aeronautical countries in the world, one with which we have a history of aeronautical ties from the days of Ouragans, Mystères and now Mirages. It is also one that has never flinched in product support during crises, and has a major presence in the international civil aeronautics field with the Airbus series of aircraft. It is commercial aviation that will be the primary driver of any aeronautics sector of the future, so the prime minister’s visit to Airbus Industries assumes significance. For France, the problem is that purely military aircraft business is becoming unsustainable without finding suitable partners and with the focus shifting to the Asia Pacific region. A regional footprint adds commercial flexibility to their military aeronautics.
Third, the concept of joint Indo-Russian design and development of a fifth-generation fighter has been rendered sterile with Russian prototypes already flying with no Indian design involvement so far. This can usefully be replaced by a joint Indo- French successor to the Rafale that would be an attractive option for the future international market. And finally concurrent with this strategic partnership will be the development of an aeronautics ecosystem of small and medium, high technology enterprises in India that are the backbone of any mature aeronautics country. This fledgling ecosystem, presently struggling because of the absence of our aeronautical footprint internationally, will get a well-deserved boost.
If, indeed, this has been the strategic vision behind the prime minister’s bold announcement in Paris, then all that is left for his planners to do is dust out the already existing proposal for a comprehensive national aeronautics policy, prepared by the Aeronautical Society of India and let the proposed aeronautics commission take the captain’s seat in guiding Indian aeronautics to its rightful place in the international market.
The author is a retired air marshal of the Indian Air Force