Reduction of the Rs 4 lakh-crore fiscal deficit will require a drastic winnowing of defence expenditure programmes. The wasteful military procurement system that fetches, as it were, as much chaff as grain, offers obvious targets for excision. Among them the egregiously wrong-headed deals for the Swiss Pilatus PC-7 turboprop trainer and the French Rafale MMRCA (multi-role, medium range combat aircraft).
Consider IAF’s priorities: It bought PC-7s for $1.5 billion, an amount the Chinese Air Force spent to secure the entire production line from Russia of the latest, most advanced, Tu-22M3M strategic bomber! This Pilatus purchase, moreover, was approved by defence minister A K Antony at a time when Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), Bangalore, had its new HJT-44 turboprop trainer up and ready. Brazening out such mindless splurges, Air Chief Marshal N A K Browne advised closure of the HJT-44 line to enable purchase of more PC-7s!
IAF has at most tolerated licence-manufactured foreign fighter planes but sought stubbornly to kill off indigenous combat aircraft projects. In the past, it buried the Marut Mk-II, the low-level strike variant designed in the 1970s by the highly talented Dr Raj Mahindra, who won his spurs under Kurt Tank, designer of the Focke-Wulfe fighter-bombers for the Nazi Luftwaffe and of the original HF-24 at HAL, buying the Jaguar from the UK instead. History repeats itself.
French and Israeli pilots who have unofficially flown the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) have gone gaga over its flying attributes. The Tejas will come equipped with an indigenous AESA (Active Electronically Scanned Array) radar — the heart and the brains of any combat aircraft, enabling it to near-instantly switch from air-to-air to air-to-ground missions. The Flight Control System (FCS) of the Tejas is so advanced, it can deal with the sort of turbulence in flight that its counterpart onboard the Eurofighter — supposedly technologically superior to the Rafale, plainly cannot, as per an expert familiar with the FCS in both aircraft. This deficiency nearly ended in disaster for the Eurofighter on several occasions but was not disclosed by EADS to IAF during the jockeying for the MMRCA contract. The larger, heavier, longer range Mark-II variant of the near all-composite Tejas, in fact, fills the bill of “MMRCA”. An LCA version of Tejas has already been flown weighted down with ballast to mimic the Mk-II plan-form. The fact that the Mk-II variant was coming along well, besides, was known to the IAF-MoD (ministry of defence) combo. So, how come the tender for MMRCA was not terminated midway?
The Mk-II’s chances were scuppered by IAF-MoD on the ground that Tejas was not operational. But the LCA has been prevented from entering squadron service after it obtained the Initial Operational Clearance (IOC)-1 last year, because of their insistence that IOC-2 and subsequent clearances be done by HAL rather than permitting the clearances to be obtained by the designated Tejas squadron, flying the aircraft, at the Sulur base in Tamil Nadu. The latter procedure will allow our fighter pilots to test the plane’s flight envelope and performance, and to provide feedback to designers — normal practice of advanced air forces inducting a new locally-produced aircraft. Further, rather than restricting the initial off-take to just 46 aircraft, MoD should order the full complement of 7-8 squadrons worth of Tejas to facilitate economies of scale and the farming out of work by HAL to private industry, thereby growing it. In the interim, additional “super Sukhois” could have been procured for a total force of some 70-plus of these planes, inarguably the finest combat aircraft now flying.
The fact is the original price tag for the MMRCA deal of $12-15 billion is set to balloon to $26-30 billion. Why? For one thing, having won the MMRCA contest, the French company, Dassault, doesn’t want to abide by the contract requiring the plane to be manufactured at HAL under license with transfer of technology (TOT). Dassault maintains it cannot guarantee Rafales made in India unless its chosen private sector partner, Reliance Aerospace, is tasked with its production. The arrangement with Reliance, however, is to have it import all of the most high-value assemblies and avionics as “black boxes” for the duration of the Indian production run, keeping over 500 French firms employing a workforce of 7,000 people, according to a French newsletter, L’Úsine Novelle, in the clover for the next few decades!
The real kicker here is the fact that while India will pay for full TOT — amounting to tens of billions of dollars — no meaningful technology (flight control laws and source codes) will, as in past such deals, ever actually get transferred. New Delhi as always will pay up, not caring whether India gets what it paid for or not and, even less, whether it will ever become self-sufficient in arms. It may be better to simply buy 126 Rafales off the shelf if the IAF deems it such a critical need, when it is not, rather than pay through our ears for technology we won’t get.
The conjoined Mk-II Tejas-Super Sukhois option will make Rafale redundant, and is the reason why those Indians who have pocketed French baksheesh (which totals a very hefty sum, indeed) will resist it. But for the country’s good, the best thing that can happen is that the Pilatus and Rafale contracts are immediately junked.
What about self-sufficiency that our politicians and uniformed brass keep yakking about? Alas, that’s only public speeches and posturing. When has the government ever insisted, or compelled the military to go with, a home-made product at the expense of a foreign item, and the armed services told that otherwise they would have to make do with nothing at all?
Militarily ignorant political leaders are easily stampeded into making capital acquisitions owing to public fear of a “growing gap” in aircraft, tanks, or whatever, generated with the help of a gullible media. Rather than laying down an iron law favouring indigenous hardware Antony, like his predecessors, has played into the institutionalised distrust of the Indian military of indigenous weapons platforms. IAF is merely the worst offender.
(Bharat Karnad is professor at Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com)