While many issues of common interest and concern to both countries were discussed during French President Emmanuel Macron’s recent visit to India, it was clear from the outset that the primary focus would be on one over-arching background theme: India’s acquisition of the Dassault Rafale fighter jet the future medium multi-role combat aircraft for the gravely fighter-impoverished and equipment-undernourished Indian Air Force, desperately seeking a replacement for its aged MiG-21 fleet. It is with this in mind that soon after assuming office, one of the earliest decisive steps taken by Prime Minister Narendra Modi was to cut the Gordian knot and finalise the acquisition of an initial batch of 36 Rafale fighters for the Indian Air Force through direct negotiations with Dassault Aircraft Corporation. The PM himself pushed the deal through, seemingly oblivious of its tortured historical background. The case for early acquisition of such an aircraft had been dragging on since 2008, and the almost peremptory decision to acquire the Rafale was a bold, perhaps even reckless step, given the fraught, bitterly adversarial political environment in India.
The Russian MiG-21 was a sturdy, faithful warhorse which had seen the Indian Air Force through the Bangladesh war of 1971 and the Kargil conflict of 1999. But it had aged much beyond its service life, and was now regarded as a totally unforgiving “widow maker” for its tragic record of fatal accidents. The Indian Air Force had long decided that the MiG-21 had to be replaced at the earliest. The process to select such an aircraft was begun by a team of test pilots of the Indian Air Force (and there are none better in the world) who flight-tested and technically evaluated six competing aircraft which had been lined up behind the starter’s tapes for the Indian Air Force sweepstakes. The participants were the Eurofighter Typhoon, Russia’s MiG-35, the Dasault Rafale from France, the Saab Viggen from Sweden and the F-16 Block-D Viper and F-18 from the United States, and the trophy was the glittering $10 billion MMRCA (Medium-Multi Role Combat Aircraft) deal. Extensive flight testing and technical evaluations were conducted under the severe summer and winter operational conditions prevalent in the Indian environment. Two aircraft emerged as the winner and runner-up respectively — the Rafale, which was in service only in the “Armee de l’aire”, the official designation of the French Air Force; and the Eurofighter Typhoon, designed as a common fighter aircraft for Nato.
The actual flying and technical evaluations by the IAF test pilots were all mere preliminaries — the hard core of the process were the commercial and contractural negotiations, especially the complex financial offsets, which are often the stumbling blocks in almost all such cases. This protracted process was applied to the Rafale as well, notwithstanding the operational urgency. In the event, the Rafale, hitherto an unfamiliar entity in India, was the surprise winner of the competition. France has traditionally driven a hard bargain. The French have been expensive but dependable suppliers of world-class technology, which have been used by the Indian armed forces to great effect in all of India’s wars since Independence. These include the AMX-13 light tanks, which during the Sino-Indian border war of 1962 were airlifted to Chushul in Ladakh at a height of 14,232 feet; Mystere fighter-bombers in the India-Pakistan war of 1965 and the Mirage 2000 fighter-bombers, which sanitised the airspace over Kargil in 1999. Defence has never been a particularly important focus of successive governments in India, and defence procurement, no matter how urgent, has always been regarded as fodder for cynical political bargaining. Politicians of all parties have never hesitated to shoot off their mouths on military issues, which neither they nor their pretentiously-designated “high commands” have the slightest clue about. In this case, the political worthies have even said that the Rafale is “old technology”, which has not been effective in Libya or Sub-Saharan Africa, where these aircraft are operating in a ground support role with the French intervention forces in Mali and elsewhere. Others have sought the financial details of such contracts purely as political ammunition, ignoring the insistence of many multinational armament manufacturers on secrecy clauses in any contracts entered into.
Negotiations have been in progress for an extended period, but now appear to be in a deadlock. Meanwhile, fighter pilots of the Indian Air Force, as also of Indian naval aviation, some of the finest in the world, look anxiously skywards, hoping for manna from heaven to come their way in the form of a good fighting aircraft, while their opponents next door get copious transfusions of Chinese technology, some of which is said to be world-class, at vastly subsidised “friendship” prices. But the past is irrelevant, and its memories are insufficient now. Only the future is important, and India needs to get its act together, and quickly. Let there be no doubt — India continues to function in a two-and-a-half front threat situation, and there are no visible signs that the situation will wind down in the foreseeable future or that India’s involvement in its near abroad region is likely to end anytime soon. Weapons systems like the Rafale are urgently needed for our armed forces to confront all these situations. They will therefore have to be procured. Meanwhile, the contentious and contrarian “attack politics” at home are dragging the armed forces into venomous and increasingly personalised political mud-slinging. All these should not be relevant to the defence procurement process, but nevertheless are a ground reality which impose added caution in any defence negotiations with foreign commercial entities. The overall result, of course, is a long delay in the modernisation of our armed forces. It seems the Indian Air Force will have to wait for an extended period before succour arrives. What then is the answer? Make in India?