Opinion: Rafale deal no clincher, inducting new fighter aircraft need of hour

Since Mig-21s will be phased out in near future and the 126 Rafale deal seems to have fizzled out after decade-long negotiations, the government is seriously considering to start the process of inviting global tenders once again.

By Air Marshal RS Bedi (retd)

Keeping in mind the deteriorating security scenario in the neighbourhood and dwindling assets of the Indian Air Force (IAF), the search for fighter aircraft has become paramount.

Since Mig-21s will be phased out in near future and the 126 Rafale deal seems to have fizzled out after decade-long negotiations, the government is seriously considering to start the process of inviting global tenders once again.

Despite protracted negotiations lasting years, the Rafale deal could not be clinched. Impromptu decision to procure just 36 Rafale fighters (two fighter squadrons) in April 2015 at the government-to-government level hardly helped matters.

It doesn’t even cater to peacetime reserves or wartime wastage. The IAF is already down to 31 squadrons against the authorised strength of 42. This will go down further to 27 by 2032. Since search for the new fighter aircraft would inevitably take time, the force’s decreasing strength in the interim would be a cause of serious concern. The IAF’s capability to deal with any serious conflict — if imposed in a short-term perspective and that too in a two front-war scenario — has definitely taken a hit.

Equipping the forces is an ongoing process and a matter of competitive re-armament. The forces have to be continuously upgraded to match the capabilities of their adversaries. The acquisition process has to be anticipated well before the equipment even becomes obsolescent. But the decision-making and the procurement process in the ministry of defence is rather slow and keeps lingering on for years.

In a recent study carried out by the ministry, it was found that during the past three years, just less than 10 per cent of proposed arms deals had met the deadline.

There is no denying the fact that the process is complex and time-consuming.

The Request for Information (RFI) — an invitation to global military aviation companies to offer their products — is followed by a series of steps involving multiple aircraft trials shortlisting and price negotiations among others. After extensive aircraft trials lasting years, it was in 2011 when the air force recommended that of all the aircraft on offer — French Rafale and the European consortium’s Eurofighter — met the requirements. Rafale being cheaper was the final option but despite negotiations lasting over a decade, the deal could not be concluded.

The indigenous Tejas on which the government of India seems to rely heavily, has its own uncertainties. Conceived in 1985, it had its maiden test flight in January 2001. Planned to be inducted into service in the early 1990s as a replacement for the ageing Mig-21s, it still stands far from being fully operationally viable.

The ministry has been prodding the state-owned Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to speed up the production. It has even been advised to look for outsourcing the work to expedite the production. However, it remains in the realm of uncertainty whether the HAL would be able to produce as large a number as 123 Tejas aircraft in a time-bound manner. Even a small target of delivering first 20 aircraft by 2018-19 is not likely to be met. Presently, the HAL has a limited capacity of producing just eight aircraft per year. The ministry wants HAL to enhance this substantially in order to meet the deadline.

The IAF had placed orders for 40 Mark-1 Tejas some time back. Another 83 upgraded Mark -1A version is likely to be ordered depending upon the progress. Tejas would thus undergo a number of major upgrades for it is to become a technologically viable state-of-the-art fighter. It is understood that the Mark-2 version of Tejas is also being worked upon simultaneously. The problem here is not the aircraft but it is the work culture resulting in shifting goalposts conveniently.

After 70 long years, India is still looking around for foreign vendors to equip its armed forces. Unfortunately, it did not care indigenising its military aviation sector all these years. We followed the easy path of licence production. Equally amazing is the fact that India remains the only major country in the world without a formal national security doctrine.

India is likely to begin its search for a new fighter very soon, though nothing has been stated officially by the government so far. It’s also not certain whether the government will follow the global tender route or resort to expeditious government-to-government alternative. However, the bidders, including the previous ones, are likely to compete in order to clinch this major deal. The Americans are particularly interested in striking the F-16 deal. They are amenable to manufacturing the fighter within the ‘Make in India framework’. They are also willing to ensure technology updates regularly.

The IAF is in a dire need of fighter aircraft. Lack of requisite concern for operational necessities and the propensity for indecision has led to progressive fall in IAF’s potential and erosion of its competitive edge. Currently, the need of the hour is to strike a balance between being war- ready at all times and allowing the gradually developing indigenous technologies to fructify simultaneously.

(The writer is a former director general, defence planning staff. Views are personal)

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