The Rafale fighter jet deal is in the news for all the wrong reasons. It is even more perplexing that while the NDA government has agreed to purchase this aircraft – at the price and parameters acceptable to the IAF – it has allowed the opposition parties to gain political mileage out of what is essentially a good deal. Briefly put, as of now, the NDA government has only agreed to buy 36 Rafale jets in an operationally ready state to give the IAF much needed punch with a squadron each for the western and eastern fronts to meet its two front commitments.
Moreover as this is a G2G deal that only involves the governments of India and France, there is no room for a middlemen (as is alleged by those who oppose the deal). That would only be a possibility if a deal is done with a manufacturer. But that too is distant possibility now with the stringent norms stipulated by the DPP. Thus the allegations that a certain business house is being favoured, in this G2G Rafale deal, are baseless. The need for one or more offset partners will be exercised only when a deal is done to assemble or manufacture more such aircrafts in India.
But among the many issues that have become part of the political slugfest over the Rafale aircraft deal, such as its choice, pricing, and allegations of middlemen, all of which are ill informed and being done to attract voters, the issue that is at the heart of the tradition of controversies over defence deals in India, remains unattended. This is the oft repeated story of all our major military purchases, done in a crisis mode — the IAF nearing the end of its fighting edge being a case in point here — that leaves us with no room to ‘make in India’.
The absence of adequate defence manufacturing capability in India, leads us to seek virtually all our weapon systems from markets abroad. Among the many reasons for this tradition, two are most obvious. One, is the delay in our decision making. It brings about a desperate need to only seek new weapon systems abroad. And the other is the absence of any international restrictions on purchases of conventional weapon systems, have made it an easy to adopt option, unlike the restrictions on the purchase of missiles (like the MTCR) that has led our scientists to come up with world class missiles. It is also no coincidence that all major arms manufacturing countries are the P5 countries and thus would be unwilling to impose restrictions on their own products!
So India has remained dependent largely on weapons systems made in Russia, US and the European countries with Israel having joined this group quietly but steadily so, in the past decade or more. We need to ask how have countries like Israel (with a population of a few million people that was created in 1948 near the time India became independent) created a world class arms manufacturing and export base while we are still nowhere? The argument that Israel was a US ally and would thus have had US support to develop its military industrial complex is contestable, as Israeli products like the Arrow missile shield have posed a challenge to US products like the Patriot missile shield.
The problem with India’s defence industrial indigenisation is deeper than simply a disconnect between the buyer (i.e India’s armed forces) and the manufacturer (i.e India’s defence PSUs). That apart, India’s defence ministry has been in the past adamant that all tie-ups for products to be eventually made in India, would have to be with our defence PSUs. This was a reason for the delay in implementing the Rafale deal between 2008 and 2015, as Dassault (the maker of Rafale) wasn’t convinced that HAL could provide the quality control for Rafale jets to be made in India. Perhaps Dassault (the makers of Rafale jets) could help us change.
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