India and France signed a government-to-government agreement for purchase of two squadrons of the Rafale multi-role fighter aircraft, a massive cut down from the original plan to acquire 126 fighter planes. As a part of the original plan 18 of these fighters were to be handed over by 2015, with the rest being assembled or made locally. Instead, the rapidly rising cost of the aircraft forced the government last year to cancel the deal as unaffordable, and to decide on buying just two squadrons, without any condition for local assembly or manufacture. Nearly after a decade of discussions and setbacks India and France have finally signed the deal.
In this context, Newsclick interviewed defense analyst D. Raghunandan. According to him, this deal doesn't promote any indigenous development. The force has to depend on other fighters, leading to it managing and maintaining a fleet with planes from multiple manufacturers with low number of flights in each.
Newsclick interviewed defense analyst D. Raghunandan. According to him, this deal doesn't promote any indigenous development. The force has to depend on other fighters, leading to it managing and maintaining a fleet with planes from multiple manufacturers with low number of flights in each.
Prabir Purkayastha (Prabir): Hello and welcome to Newsclick this program with Real news. We have with us D.Raghunandan to discuss the Rafaele deal which has been struck just a couple of days back between India and France.
D. Raghunandan (Raghu): This has been in the making for quite some time. We have been discussing this for almost two years. So what is the final figure in terms of the price of the aircraft and how many aircraft are we getting?
Raghu: The deal struck now is for thirty six Rafaele fighters close to eight billion dollars 7.67,7.7 billion dollars thereabouts which includes the weaponry and the ,maintenance and so on. So it’s an all in figure and the thirty six aircraft are being bought in a flyaway condition. How this differs from where we started was, this multi role combat aircraft deal which India had wanted going back a decade. The initial demand was for 126 aircraft, that’s what India wanted of which the bulk of them was supposed to have been manufactured in India through technology transfer agreements and the initial estimated cost was about 10 billion dollars, which may or may not have included the weapon’s systems, but in any case the cost now comes to three times or close to four times of what the initial estimates were.
Prabir: Per aircraft.
Prabir: So that in some sense is a huge increase over our estimated cost. That is one. Secondly, we wanted initially 126 aircraft . Now we seem to want only 36 . So how does this square up? Why did we want 126 earlier, and why is it that now we are satisfied with 36?
Raghu: Yes. That’s I think is the 7 billion dollar question. I think the initial idea of the Air force was to have a substantial number of aircraft. Deep penetration strike aircraft. Because till then, India had just a couple of squadrons each of the Mirage aircraft, and of the earlier vintage Jaguar aircraft which were on their way out . So India wanted to have a substantial number of deep penetration strike aircraft in the hope that the indigenous light combat aircraft would come into play reasonably soon. But given the apprehension that the LCA is going to take more time, that was I think one of the rationales for having larger numbers of Rafaele equivalent aircraft. The second rationale was that India could use this procurement as a way of obtaining advanced technologies, and gradually indigenize the manufacture of the Rafaele or equivalent aircraft and thereby acquire technologies for subsequent indigenization efforts. With the current deal, the way it stands now, first you have again gone back to the two to three squadron formation in the Indian Air Force, which I think is not a desirable thing.
Prabir: That would provide you economy of scale involved……
So if India had done a hundred and twenty six aircraft and phased out the Jaguars which are anyway out, and the Mirage 2000s are on their way out, then we would have had the Rafaeles for deep penetration, the Sukhois for air superiority, and the light combat aircraft for numbers.
Prabir: Coming back to the deep strike aircraft of which Rafaele is one, what is the purpose in India’s geo-strategic vision of such an aircraft? Are we really thinking of fighting a long term war to strike deep into enemy territory who are we identifying? So what’s the role of these aircrafts?
Raghu: By definition the deep penetration strike aircraft are meant to carry large ammunitions, heavier weaponry, and be able to penetrate into opposing territory to be able to hit at infrastructure whether it is military or civilian infrastructure, which would support forward troops and airbases etc. of the opponents .. that’s what deep penetration strike aircrafts are meant to do. If you look at the potential scenarios either on the Pakistan front or on the China front, this would be the expected role of the deep penetration aircraft which we saw to some extent the Mirage aircraft trying to play during the Kargil conflict when they didn’t strike deep inside Pakistan, but were able to strike at Pakistani territory from the Indian side at a standoff distance . The role that the Rafaeles or equivalent aircrafts could play on the Chinese front is slightly more doubtful given the Himalayan high altitude terrain that you face there; but presumably they would play a role. The other factor of course which needs to be taken into consideration is that the Rafaeles are nuclear capable. And the only other deep penetration strike aircraft the Indian Airforce has which are nuclear capable are the Mirage 2000s which are gradually going to be phased out.
Prabir: The last question that I have is that , as you know India has been trying to build an indigenous aircraft industry, do you think that all this kind of buying that we do, and what you said just now, that 126 was with the idea of indigenization , this 36 aircraft doesn’t seem to be in that mode at all so how does it affect the India’s indigenization programme of aircraft development and delivery? which as we know you were one of the people involved once upon a time in Hindustan Aeronautics you spent some time inthere as an engineer.
Raghu: The story of India’s indigenization programs of military equipment particularly aircraft, since we are talking about this, has been a story of missed opportunities. We have done these indigenization projects earlier too, when we used to make aircraft bought and then manufactured in India under license. And the logic of that was that this would help you to absorb technologies which you would then used to develop platforms and build on that for the next generation of aircraft. We have had serial licensed production without having gone through the necessary discipline to absorb the technologies and build on that for the indigenous programs. May be the 126 Rafaele aircraft would also have suffered the same fate . One only hopes that with a reasonably successful although highly delayed indigenous production of the Light Combat Aircraft if the 126 Rafaele aircraft had been bought with licensed production or the technology transfer and manufacture, that would have given India a good technology base on which to build future indigenization programs. I am afraid, with this two squadron purchase of this aircraft, we are reverting to a model of outright purchase without an opportunity or even the prospects of indigenization.
Prabir: You know, the advanced aircraft today are seen to be very expensive even by advanced countries’ economic standards , say for F 35 ..is too expensive and it seems to have too many problems increasingly … in fact the reports are that it seems to have the same problem as Samsung Note7 that the battery tends to catch fire…so in this do you see much of a role for deep strike aircraft in a geo strategic sense.?
Raghu: Two aspects I would like to comment on briefly. One is I think the F 22 Raptor and the F 35 aircraft which the Americans were working on were designed as a throwback to the era where the United States was caught in the arms race with the Soviets in making the latest and best aircraft. I think they got overtaken by events where the Soviet competition was no longer as tough as it used to be and therefore the F22 and F35 were despite all the teething problems they had were far too advanced than what was actually required even by the Americans because the Soviets didn’t have an even more advanced version with whom to compete against. I don’t think that is yet the position for India because I don’t think neither Pakistan nor China has very advanced aircraft but India having decided to go in for purchase of Rafaele which I think is a purchase keeping the next twenty years or so in mind ,this is about as advanced as we need to get given the environment in which we are operating. So I don’t think we are in a race to make the more advanced versions. I think the Indian Air Force would do better in concentrating on indigenous production of numbers of what are called four plus generation of aircraft. India also has an agreement with the Russians to core develop a fifth generation aircraft which is running into problems now. If we do that and keep ambitions moderate rather than very advanced we would do well enough for the next thirty or fifty years. I don’t think we need to get more ambitious than that.
Prabir: Thank you very much Raghu and I hope we can discuss these issues with you as we go along.
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