Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ‘Make in India’ is a sound and long overdue policy, which the government is expected to pursue, but it cannot fulfil Indian Air Force’s (IAF) urgent requirement of urgently replenishing its much aged/depleted fleet. India’s initial plan was to purchase 18 jets from Dassault Aviation off-the-shelf and assemble 108 others in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bengaluru.However, the Prime Minister ordering 36 ready to fly Rafale fighters during his visit to France, albeit a surprise for the IAF, is seen as a move to speed up the purchase and immediately give it at least two squadrons of the jetsthat it needs to plug critical gaps.
Rafale was chosen in 2012 over rival offers from the United States, Europe and Russia and the original proposal was for 126 Rafale fighter jets. For three years, the deal had been dragging owing to Dassault’s reluctance to provide guarantees for the aircraft to be assembled in India by HAL, a not unreasonable position considering the track record of HAL. In February 2015, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar urged officials to expedite Rafale negotiations and submit the final Cost Negotiation Committee (CNC) report by early March, before the close of the financial year. This resulted in a negotiated price of an estimated USD 20 billion for the 126 aircraft.
A look at some characteristics of the Rafale and American F-35 is relevant. F-35 costs USD 350 million per aircraft as against USD 156 million for a Rafale. According to Defence Issues ( h t t p s : / / d e f e n s e i s s u e s . wordpress.com/2014/10/11/rafale-vs-f-35- dogfight-performance/), F-35 has a far higher baseline drag than the Rafale, which means Rafale’s baseline performance is much better. In order to initiate a turn, F- 35’s tail momentarily provides download before settling into a lift-producing position. Rafale’s canards momentarily provide upload before settling into a neutral position in which they create no lift by themselves, but improve wing lift and reduce drag. Rafale can achieve Mach 1.8 and cruise at Mach 1.2-1.4 with 6 missiles. F-35 can achieve Mach 1.6 and cruise at Mach 0.95 with 4 internal missiles. This makes it quite clear that the F-35 has inferior acceleration (and thus lift-to-drag and thrust-to-drag ratios) compared to Rafale, even when both aircraft are in airto- air configuration.
The master-stroke about this purchase is that it resulted from a government-togovernment transaction. According to some senior IAF veterans who were involved in evaluating/ selecting the Rafale jet, PM Modi’s move is laudable on two counts. First, this being a government-togovernment deal means that the price India pays for this aircraft will be the same as that paid for by the French Air Force. Second, it is a good aircraft, in fact one of the best, which will be a telling asset for IAF.
News reports of 14 April cited Mr. Parrikar stating that the decision to buy 126 fighter jets from France cleared by the previous Congress-led government, was not thought through properly. The purchase, he said, should not have been made through a global tender, but through a government to government transaction, which makes it cheaper. On his predecessor, he reportedly commented: “There was hardly any supervision or control. A Defence Minister needs to monitor but that was hardly the case.”
How this new contract driven by operational necessities, will impact the ongoing negotiations with Dassault is uncertain, with the deal potentially requiring renegotiation. With the government stressing that any future deal for Rafale fighter jets would be through direct negotiations with the French government, the earlier deal is perhaps virtually scrapped. Mr. Parrikar’s reported statement”Today we have only 40 LCAs, why can’t we have 100 of these?”, is also considered significant. he also stated that the proportion of Rafale and Tejas fighters will depend on negotiations with the French government on any further purchase from Dassault.
Some see the deal to buy 36 jets outright as a setback for Modi’s ‘Make in India’ campaign, as it will reduce the future workload for Indian aerospace manufacturers. On the positive side, it could increase the available lead time during which a local manufacturer could be brought up to production competence. Be that as it may, hopefully, the era of ridiculous delays in crucial national security related acquisitions is over.