Rafale and Self Reliance ?
Much needed boost required for indigenous defence programs
The Indian armed services, as I have long maintained, are really not serious about making the country self-reliant in arms, all their swearing by 'atma nirbhar Bharat' notwithstanding.
The indenting by army under the "emergency financial powers" provision for 15,000 foreign-sourced Level-4 light body armour capable of stopping steel-core bullets at 10 meters for use by counter-insurgency troops in Kashmir, and the imminent decision by navy to go in for Rafale-Marine aircraft under its TEDBF (Twin Engine Deck Based Fighter) programme, are only the latest manifestations of the military's reluctance to give home-made products even a fighting chance.
Bhabha Atomic Research Centre, Trombay, as far back as 2018 had readied for production tested technology for bullet-proof jackets weighing 6.6 kg using boron carbide ceramics that met milspecs. Indian companies — Tata Advanced Materials Ltd and MKU of Kanpur, have been exporting body armour for years. And yet, here's the army misusing its emergency powers to secure "phoren maal".
Death likewise awaits the indigenous navalised Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (NLCA) at the navy's hands. The original air force variant of the Tejas LCA somehow survived IAF's sustained efforts at killing it off, something the service had succeeded in doing with the home-grown Marut HF-24 fighter aircraft and its Mark-II version in the 1970s.
The NLCA first performed a ski-jump takeoff demonstration at INS Hansa, Goa in 2017 and has since passed every performance metric from 'sink rate', angle-of-attack, to folding wing-tip, including perfectly executed take-offs and landings on Vikramaditya's deck. (For technical details on the progress made in the NLCA programme and how it is being thwarted at every turn, see my 2018 book — 'Staggering Forward: Narendra Modi and India's Global Ambition', pages 289-305.)
But it was nevertheless declared overweight and unfit for aircraft carrier duty — the protestations by the navy officered project that weight reduction was eminently doable and once outfitted with the more powerful GE 414 jet turbine engine, would meet reasonable requirements of range and payload capacity for single engined aircraft, making no headway with the Service brass.
Why? Because, well, the navy is well and truly embarked on the TEDBF — a cover, yeah, you guessed it, for importing the phoren Boeing F-18 Super Hornet, or the French Dassault Rafale-Marine, come naval Tejas or high water! And no, no atma nirbharta programme, or defence minister Rajnath Singh's 'No imports' lists is going to stop them. Even if, mind you, this imported TEDBF was pushed as an interim measure, a "stop gap" solution, until the heavier two-engined variant of Tejas became available in 2032 — or a decade from now.
DRDO has promised this larger naval Tejas by then, which promise will be easier to keep considering just how adaptable the basic design is to a little upscaling for a twin-engined configuration, and because of the extraordinary progress in design and other aviation technologies already made in the NLCA programme.
But the problem is this: Once the Rafale-M or the Super Hornet enter the Indian Naval carrier service and the IAF into its 112-aircraft strong MMRCA fleet in big numbers, the sheer inertia and the procurement logic (of reducing unit cost by buying large numbers) will ensure follow-on buys of the Rafale or the F-18, and investments and interest in the Indian NLCA and successor carrier aircraft for the navy, and in the AMCA for the air force, will peter out.
This is, perhaps, what the Indian Navy and IAF want to see happen.
Assuming the Modi regime weathers the American pressure to buy F-18 and 26 Rafale-M are bought, 2032 is almost the timeline by which the sale formalities are likely to be completed and Rafale-M, if it is indeed chosen, is inducted in adequate numbers. Navy further decided that the always controversial pill of importing arms, this time the Rafale-M, would go down the government's throat better if this TEDBF acquisition piggybacked on IAF's Rafale deal.
The case was therefore made that because IAF's Rafale servicing and maintenance infrastructure was already in place, the cost-saving on this side-deal would be sizeable. Naval HQrs were confident the generalist babu-manned defence ministry would be unable to discern the spuriousness of this argument considering naval and air force fighting assets are rarely co-located.
Whatever the other ill-effects of the supposedly stop gap Rafale-M/F-18 acquisition, it will definitely write finis to the NLCA and hence also to the development of the twin engined naval Tejas, and possibly also the follow-on aircraft to IAF's Tejas Mk-1A — the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft programme. The country then can kiss a royal goodbye to genuine atma nirbharta and settle down in its long nursed arms dependency status.
The fact is there's just too much temptation offered by foreign firms for military men and civilians in the defence procurement loops that few apparently can resist. Senior uniformed officers, serving or retired, will never allude to it, but younger, more idealistic, officers in the Group Captain and equivalent grade, not yet compromised, readily point to the filthy lucre at work, all the hoo-ha about corruption-free G2G deals being so much pretense.
If the Modi government is serious about an "atma nirbhar Bharat" and wants to prevent the doing away by indirect means of the still infant indigenous defence industrial and aerospace capabilities, it can have a TEDBF, give the indigenous programmes much needed boost, and save tens of billions in hard currency — what it has to do is have Rajnath Singh immediately announce that the government has reconsidered its decision and the single engined NLCA programme will be put on a war footing, and be the precursor to the wholly India made TEDBF– the 2-engine medium weight navalised Tejas — to fly off the Vikramaditya and Vikrant decks ten years from now.
He should also announce that the government will look askance at all procurement proposals hereon from any military service for importing weapons systems and platforms that, intended or not, undermine the government's atma nirbharta policy. And that the government will ensure by diplomatic means to not put the navy in harm's way by asking it to pull distant missions beyond their ken. After all, it is diplomacy army generals, and flagrank military officers generally suggest, do they not, as the means to fend off for the nonce a conventionally superior China in Ladakh and elsewhere on the Line of Actual Control?
What are the chances the Modi government will do as recommended above?
Now let's turn to Rafale-M and how India has been a boon to France, the French defence industry, and to foreign arms suppliers generally.
France invested some $50 billion in developing the Rafale combat aircraft and found no buyers, earning for this warplane the sobriquet of a "cursed" aircraft after a bunch of countries — Brazil, Libya, Morocco, and Switzerland serially rejected it.
Then in April 2015, India galloped on to the scene replaying its familiar role of upkeeping Western defence programmes — the proverbial knight coming to the aid of fair maidens in distress, this even as the enormously capable Indian private sector defence industry is in a permanent state of funk, pleading for custom to survive! The Indian beneficence in this case came in April 2015 when Prime Minister Narendra Modi visiting Paris decided to short circuit the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) process and take Rafale in a government-to-government (G2G) deal ostensibly to cut the middleman, commissions, etc. out of the procurement circus. New Delhi plonked down $6.9 billion in hard currency for 36 "customized" Rafales for the Indian Air Force.
"Customized" usually means hanging a lot of bells and jangles on the hardware to make a duffer of a Third World customer feel he's getting something extra for his hard earned and scarce money! (Even so, many people in the know claim the costs were padded to the extent of Rs 1,000 crore for each of the 36 Rafales IAF has acquired via the G2G transaction!)
By way of contrast, the same year — 2015, Egypt too jumped on board, agreeing to consider this warplane for its air force. But a cleverer Cairo signed up only in May 2021 for 24 of this aircraft with promise to purchase 30 more in due time for a total of 50 Rafales, to be paid for — wait for it! — with France's own money! Paris agreed to finance the entire deal with a 10 year loan for the package worth $4.5 billion. With the euro's annual inflation rate of nearly 11% (10.61% actually) in October 2022 as baseline, it means Egypt will secure at least 24 Rafales for virtually nothing! (Like the masses of military hardware India got in the "good old days" from the USSR at 2% interest, i.e, virtually free.)
France has cannily played on two aspects, that (1) unlike the US, and UK and Sweden (whose Gripen combat aircraft are powered by US engines and hence sanctionable), Rafale customers can be worry free — the supply of spares and service support being outside the numbra of potential US sanctions. After all, the Indian Navy remembers how its Westland Sea King anti-submarine warfare helicopter fleet was instantly grounded once US imposed sanctions in the wake of the Indian nuclear tests in 1998, because the Sea King — a British licensed version of the Sikorsky S-61, had US components. And (2) that there are no 'black box" technologies — an inducement for India to license manufacture the Rafale to meet IAF's MMRCA need for another 112 aircraft, all technologies, including avionics, will be transferred. It is a tech transfer deal that does not include the munitions (Meteor, Hammer, etc), of course!!
The revenues in billions of dollars generated from the sale of the 4.5 gen Rafale — exactly the same generation as the Tejas, will be poured into the 6th gen fighter aircraft France and Germany have just decided jointly to design, develop and produce by 2050. The sum of $3.8 billion for the first phase (labeled '1B') for feasibility study has already been authorized.
Meanwhile, the indigenous Indian combat aircraft programmes will die a slow death from lack of service interest in them and consequent starvation of funds.
Bharat Karnad is an emeritus professor in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, Delhi and a national security expert. Views expressed here are his own.