Rafale deal an unmitigated disaster – Bharat Karnad of CPR

April 13, 2015

Rafale fighter jet performs during the Aero India air show at Yelahanka air base in BengaluruIndia has ordered 36 “ready-to-fly” French-made Rafale fighter jets to modernise the country’s ageing warplane fleet. But Bharat Karnad, a research professor at the Centre for Policy Research (CPR) in New Delhi, said the deal with French manufacturer Dassault Aviation is a disaster that will not meet the immediate needs of India’s air force.

On April 13, Karnad joined the Trading India Forum, a live webchat hosted by Thomson Reuters where members from the financial industry interact. He shared his views on the Rafale jet deal, its implications for India and whether the Russian-made Su-30MKI would have been a better choice.

Here are edited excerpts from Karnad’s responses in the chatroom. Any opinions expressed here are those of Karnad and not of Thomson Reuters.

Q: Your view on the Rafale deal
A: My view, encapsulated in my blog www.bharatkarnad.com on April 10, is that it’s an unmitigated disaster at many levels.

Q: I remember reading somewhere that if the Indian order doesn’t materialize, then the company will shut down.
A: Yes, because Dassault was down to producing 11 Rafales per year; now it can carry on for another 10 years. It is actually oxygen for the French aerospace industry.

Q: If not Rafale, what other option did the air force have?
A: If there was a critical requirement to make up fighter squadrons quickly, then there is no better way than putting an indent with the Russians for more Su-30MKIs. Parrikar actually favoured that as an alternative to Rafale.

Q: Is this because the aircraft are of very poor quality?

A: No, Rafale are not poor quality, but India will have to pay an arm and a leg for it at over $200 million per unit cost. While the more advanced Su-30, as Parrikar noted, with full ordnance load comes in at less than half the price.

Q: Why do you call the deal an “unmitigated disaster”?

A: Unmitigated disaster because
– it won’t solve IAF‘s immediate needs, which induction of more Su-30s can do. The first Rafales will come in by 2017 at the earliest, more likely 2018
– it torpedoes the entire TOT (transfer of technology) and “Make In India” angle, and
– while rescuing the French combat aircraft industry, deprives the Indian Tejas Mk2 and the advanced medium combat aircraft projects of much needed funding to get going.

Q: So has the government been advised wrongly?

A: Given the enormous price differential between the Rafale and Su-30 options, the decision makes no sense, unless it is that the government of India has bought into the IAF’s argument that it needs to diversify its sources of hardware. All this means that the Indian Air Force and the country are in hock to many more countries, and can be manipulated by them in the foreign policy arena and in crises. I am quite sure the PM was not offered the alternative to consider by the MEA-IAF-NSA combine.

Q: The Su-30MKI has been in service since the late 90s. If it can fill the requirement, then what was the need for the MMRCA (medium multi-role combat aircraft) tender in the first place?

A: You tell me what the need is. In fact, as I have argued, the entire concept of a medium, light, heavy combat aircraft categories are unique to IAF and entirely spurious.

Q: But if you keep buying Russian hardware, you risk being manipulated by them?
A: The reality is this – Russia post-Crimea is getting into deep financial waters and India holds the whip hand in its reins with Moscow, which is not the case with our reins with France.

Q: Is there a quid pro quo in the form of a nuclear deal? The PMO has been tom-tomming the L&T-Areva deal.

A: The N-deal for Areva, which is equally questionable is on a separate track; not connected with the MMRCA issue.

Q: What, in your opinion, should be the requirement of the IAF?

A: IAF needs can be fully met with a mix in the medium-term future – next 15-20 years – of Su-30s for strike and air superiority, MiG-29Ms (latest variety) for long-range air defence, and LCA Tejas Mk-Is and IIs for short-range air defence.

Q: What should the government’s priorities be in defence expenditure? Did the first full budget by Finance Minister Arun Jaitley address those issues?
A: No, Jaitley’s budget did not address the MOD (Ministry of Defence) priorities, but that’s Parrikar’s job. The top priorities should be to beef up capabilities against China, especially three – not one – offensive ops mountain corps, and getting another Akula-II SSN from Russia.

Q: In your view, does the IAF not need a medium multi-role combat aircraft?
A: Not, MMRCA is a dubious need expressly favoured by the IAF to go Western, rather than making fiscal sense or serve the national interest.

Q: But the Tejas was under development for more than 25 years and is still nowhere near the final product.

A: Time delays and cost escalation is par for the course for all new combat aircraft programmes. Consider the US F-35 costing a trillion dollars, over 20 years, nearly 8-10 years overdue and operationally still an absolute disaster. And this is with an established defence industry, mind you.

Q: Can you list India’s top three threats in terms of countries?
A: China, China and China.

Q: That big a threat?
A: Yes, because unless India is able to achieve at least notional parity in conventional and nuclear military terms with China, the coercive pressure from that end will be virtually irresistible in the years to come.

Q: Can India still go ahead with buying Typhoon?
A: No, Typhoon has its own developmental and operational problems and its serviceability in the German Luftwaffe is some 39 percent.

Q: It’s 36 ready-made Rafales and 90 to be produced in India with transfer of technology, right?
A: The question is TOT and licence manufacture at what price? After all, the price negotiation committee got stuck in talks with Dassault over precisely the French-sourced and HAL-built Rafales.

Q: How are Indian firms positioned to take Modi’s defence push? Do L&T, Pipavav have the technological capabilities?

A: If HAL is disfavoured as per Modi’s remarks, then Indian private corporations will have to pick up the slack. But they do not have the physical facilities for production like HAL does, and it will cost $5-8 billion to put up a production line. Can L&T or anybody else invest so much without the guarantee of future custom beyond Rafale?

Q: Russia supplies similar hardware to China as well as India. Doesn’t broadening the military partnership make sense for India?
A: No, because Russia is apprehensive of China because of its security problems in Siberia, border, etc. with China, always sells less than the cutting-edge stuff to PLAAF (The People’s Liberation Army Air Force). Moscow is more open about tech when dealing with India.

Q: Wasn’t the deal finalized by the previous government?

A: No, there was no deal finalized with the UPA government, only a commitment to negotiate an appropriate contract to meet IAF’s so-called MMRCA needs. Nothing else. It was completely the BJP government’s call.

Q: Do you think securing French aviation from the brink of disaster is a masterstroke in securing the final vote at the UNSC?

A: If you know the history of France, you’d not have asked this question. No, France will not push India’s candidature to the UNSC for love or money, other than as a generalized push by US-UK-France, and this won’t happen, because it is more profitable to keep New Delhi stringing along.

(Trading India chat hosted by Savio Shetty. Transcript edited by Sankalp Phartiyal and Tony Tharakan. Follow Trading India on Twitter @TradingIndia, Savio @abeautifulmind7, Sankalp @sankalp_sp and Tony @TonyTharakan. This article is website-exclusive and cannot be reproduced without permission)

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