IDSA COMMENT

MMRCA: Counter Point

February 13, 2012

Since the announcement of the French Rafale as a possible winner (possible because serious negotiations on the final price based on life cycle costs and Transfer of Technology (ToT) are yet to be concluded) on January 31, 2012, a number of very strong views against the decision have been published. Academics, strategic affairs analysts and journalists have generally highlighted two major points.1 Firstly, that the Rafale is too expensive; India could have purchased a larger number of less expensive fighters because, with the threat of a ‘two front war’, India needs numbers rather than technology. Secondly, that the choice of the USD 10 to 20 billion worth contract should have been based more on consideration of strategic gains instead of technology alone. While at first glance, there appears some substance in these arguments, a deeper analysis of the various associated issues and the long history of India’s choices in defence procurement would lead us to different conclusions.

A brief overview of India’s past decisions would show that until the current buy, all defence purchases were made without an ‘open tender’ process. As such, why the IAF chose a particular piece of equipment or why the then government gave it the green signal is shrouded in secrecy. But, it is evident that there were many weighty security and foreign policy issues behind such decisions.

In 1948, India decided to buy an unspecified number of Vampire jet fighters from Britain because at the time Britain was the only country that was ready to sell defence equipment to non-aligned India. India also had a sizeable ‘sterling balance’ or credit with the UK and did not have to pay cash. That this sterling balance was very quickly exhausted is another matter. In 1950-51, tensions mounted following the issue of refugee influx from the erstwhile East Pakistan. The then Prime Minister of Pakistan Liaqat Ali Khan showed increasing belligerence as time passed. Nehru, as a precautionary measure, alerted the Indian armed forces and even moved an armoured brigade closer to the borders in the Punjab. To its surprise, the IAF found that while it had plenty of spares of all types, the vital ‘firing mechanism’ for the Vampire guns was nowhere to be found.2 Whether by design or default, the British appeared to have placed the IAF in great difficulty. The senior officers of the IAF then felt that India needed to diversify her sources of defence supply in the event one or the other supplier decided to impose sanctions, as happened later during the 1965 Indo-Pak War. The IAF then chose the Dassault Ouragon (called Toofani in India) instead of the British Meteor, even though at that time a senior British Officer Air Marshal Gibbs was the Chief of the Air Staff of the IAF.

In 1957-57 India purchased the French Dassault Mystere IVA fighter but the next two major purchases were the British Canberra and the Hawker Hunter. The steadily worsening Cold War had already begun to constrain India’s choices as it became increasingly difficult to get defence equipment without strings. The HF-24 Marut, the very successful indigenously designed fighter programme with the help of a German team headed by the legendary Dr. Kurt Tank, did not reach fruition as no western country was then ready to give India a suitable engine.

The entry of the erstwhile USSR into the Indian defence market is very often attributed to the Leftist views of the then Defence Minister, the controversial V.K. Krishna Menon, but few today remember that the USSR was the only country to allow India the manufacture of the MiG-21 under licence.3 In hindsight, the decision makers in the IAF and the Government were unduly influenced, in fact overwhelmed, by the US decision to supply a mere 12 F-104 Starfighter supersonic aircraft to Pakistan; the Starfighter proved unsuccessful and was dubbed the ‘widow maker’ in the then West Germany which had the largest fleet of this American fighter. The Pakistanis received another dozen of these aircraft on loan from Jordan during the 1971 Bangladesh War, but the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) soon retired these. The PAF was also compelled to buy the Chinese F-6 (MiG-19) when her western sources temporarily dried up due to sanctions. India went on to manufacture many different types of the MiG-21 until 1987 as there was no alternative.

After a decade long debate, the Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA) Jaguar built by a consortium of European countries was purchased in 1979. Some 100 of these upgraded fighters continue to serve with the IAF but this purchase was also not without strings. India went on to purchase a succession of Soviet fighters, transports and helicopters for nearly three decades and, at least in one case, it is alleged, that India helped the ailing Russian industry by purchasing the MiG-23 and later MiG-27 fighters even though these were not the best choice.4

As is well known, it took more than 18 years for India to buy the British BAe Hawk Advanced Jet Trainer (AJT) despite an often acrimonious and bitter media debate on the safety record of the MiG-21. The 1980s decision to purchase the then state-of-the-art Mirage-2000 multi-role fighter from France had also raised many questions about its cost; due to financial constraints only 50 units of this type were purchased. The 1996 decision to purchase the Su-30 fighter from Russia with the aim of producing it under licence also came under severe criticism. Many commentators were sceptical of its performance and maintainability, but few realised that no other country was then ready to sell such a capable fighter, the rough equivalent of the famous American F-15, to India at that price. In fact, it is the availability of fairly large numbers of the Su-30 MKI that gave India and the IAF the much needed breathing space to find a suitable replacement for the MiG fleet.

The high price of the prospective fighters was well known when for the first time India issued an ‘open global tender’ for the selection of the MMRCA. It is quite possible that India included all the six types on offer (the SAAB Gripen, Russian MiG-35, American FA-18 Super Hornet and F-16 NG Falcon) in addition to the Eurofighter Typhoon and the French Rafale, knowing full well that there existed a large price and class difference as two of these, the Gripen and the F-16, were single-engined light-weight variety, the MiG-35 technology and performance was about the same as MiG-29K (already purchased for the Indian Navy) but the Typhoon and the Rafale outclassed them in almost all departments except the price. The IAF was not told to select the cheapest fighter.

It is for the first time that fighter purchase criteria included the two vital aspects of life cycle costs and ToT; hence it is difficult to calculate the actual price without knowing all the parameters. At the time the bids were accepted, the Government did not lay down a ‘never exceed’ figure for the price and therefore the IAF was justified in selecting the Rafale so long as it met the other criteria. While price negotiations would finally decide the choice it can also be assumed at this stage that the Rafale has met all the technical criteria.

The other issue of numbers is also easy to explain. The IAF or for that matter any other air force might like to possess aircraft in all the three categories; low cost, medium technology and high technology. It is, however, not always easy to find the exact choice in each case since India does not manufacture her own fighters. But the range, speed, armament carrying capacity and the ability to accurately deliver a variety of weapons against different targets together make the Su-30, Mirage-2000, MiG-29 and Jaguar the current IAF fleet of just over 32 squadrons far more formidable than when the IAF had almost 39.5 squadrons. There is, therefore, no need to get unduly alarmed about the time consuming induction process of the Rafale. This is the price India pays for its procrastination.

The other criticism about overlooking strategic gains is less convincing as it is a nebulous argument. No one can really forecast how another country is likely to behave in a future crisis. The only consistent support India has ever received was the veto by the erstwhile USSR in the UN on any resolution related to Kashmir. Despite India buying British and French aircraft during the 1950s the Western bloc generally found itself on the opposite side. The US too followed a very different policy towards India during the Cold War, yet was prepared to come to India’s help during the Sino-Indian conflict of 1962, but once the danger of a full scale war passed American policy changed. Since independence, India has consistently supported the Arab cause and established diplomatic relations with Israel only in 1992, but that has not prevented Israel from selling hi-tech weapon systems like the Phalcon AWACS radar and Barak missiles to India.

Very often, it is the prospects of profit that drive international relations; long established military alliances being the exception on some occasions. It is thus clear that we must not read too much into the so-called strategic gains of a defence purchase. In the case of the Rafale it appears that assurances of transfer of appropriate technology to and a long term S&T relationship with India have perhaps clinched the decision. According to some analysts the Rafale is probably the last manned combat aircraft (not counting the FGFA for which the contract was signed earlier) that India would buy from the West. In that case this is the best and the only chance for India to get the technology that its aviation industry as a whole needs.

  1. 1. Ajay Shukla, “The Rafale’s Long Flight to India,” Business Standard, February 11, 2012; Rajeshwari Rajagopalan, “Flying into rough weather,” Times of India, February 9, 2012; and, Harsh V. Pant, “Flying high,” Deccan Herald, February 8, 2012; are but a few examples. Shukla had earlier also suggested that India should have opted for the American F-35. The US DoD has, however, clarified that it never offered the F-35 to India. All that the DoD had said was that it was prepared to provide relevant information about the F-35 if India made such a request.
  2. 2. Air Marshal M.S. Chaturvedi, History of the Indian Air Force (New Delhi: Vikas Publishing House, 1978), pp. 103-04.
  3. 3. Ibid, p. 130. The French Mirage was also under consideration, but France did not permit its manufacture under license.
  4. 4. Interview with a retired senior air force officer.