The French Dassault Rafale has reportedly won the coveted contract for 126 MMRCA on the basis of its price being lower than the Eurofighter Typhoon. It is still early days, however, as months of detailed negotiations would inevitably follow before such a complex and high priced contract is finally signed.
The IAF had always rooted for the Rafale and hence it should be happy and satisfied over a job well done considering the complexity and the time delays involved when a large number of decision makers are in the loop. One of the reasons the IAF favoured this fighter, besides intrinsic merit, is its experience with the Mirage-2000 fighters acquired in 1984-85. The Mirage was used first in the opening phase in Sri Lanka. Later the Mirage also proved its superior technology during the 1999 Kargil conflict when the small enemy targets at high altitude could not be successfully engaged with other strike fighters. The Mirage-2000 fleet has maintained a very high serviceability and utilisation rate and above all an unbelievably envious flight safety record. It is hoped that the Rafale would prove equally effective and economical in the long run. The main reason for the high serviceability of the Mirage-2000 fleet, I am told, is the near instant availability of spares and technical support from the French Dassault and the Thales team, and a state of the art avionics laboratory in Gwalior that is more sterile than the best hospital’s Intensive Care Unit (ICU). Considering that the quality of technical manpower is about the same across the IAF, it must be the Western technology, training and SOPs formulated by the French and the constantly close interaction between the user and the provider that are responsible for the success of the Mirage-2000 fleet. It is perhaps for this reason that India has chosen to upgrade the Mirage-2000 fleet for a whopping USD 1.8 billion. The IAF will surely do the same with the Rafale to obtain timely spares and maintenance support.
This is the first export contract that Dassault has won and the possibility of the IAF ordering more Rafale fighters in due course puts a very heavy responsibility on the French as future global contracts will probably be influenced by the Indian experience. Dassault will be expected to transfer all the requisite ‘knowledge’ for safe and efficient operations of this fourth generation fighter. High sortie rates and easy maintainability would be the key to the success of the Rafale project. Although a shade less expensive than the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Rafale is among the most expensive fighters in the world. India would thus look for real value for money in Transfer of Technology (ToT) and life cycle costs.
Another key area of cooperation would be the assistance France provides for India’s long running Kaveri engine programme. All defence contracts of this scale are said to include up to 50 per cent offset obligation. Given the current state of Indian defence industry and the associated regulations, both India and France would have to find new and innovative ways to translate that into reality. The Rafale carries a wide array of highly sophisticated weapons and missiles without which it is but an advanced platform. India would be well advised to explore the manufacture of as many of these weapons and missiles as possible. Avionics including the AESA radar (itself under development) is another area for close cooperation and ToT, if this relationship is to become truly rewarding for both sides. HAL, the Indian company that will eventually manufacture the remaining 108 fighters in India, and other associated SMEs would also require very close support and understanding to put India firmly on the hi-tech trajectory. France can play a vital role in easing the learning curve. In fact, the MoD, especially its Department of Defence Production, must facilitate India’s defence industry to team up with France to design and develop other systems such as UAV and UCAV, multipurpose missiles especially MANPADs, PGMs and a host of other weapons for Indian consumption and even exports.
The first batch of 18 Rafale fighters in flyaway condition is likely to reach the Indian skies only in 2015 which gives the IAF adequate time to carefully prepare the support infrastructure for the Rafale. At least initially, the IAF will most probably house the first squadron at Gwalior, the Mirage-2000 base. Given Indian flying conditions, the IAF will also have to ensure a relatively bird-free flying environment.
It must be noted that though the Rafale may cost less than the Eurofighter, it is still awfully expensive. Unit costs of upwards of USD 100-125 million or Rs. 500-625 crore have been mentioned. The aircraft’s upkeep and maintenance would thus demand a very high level of training and skills both by the pilots and technical personnel. We simply cannot afford stupid mistakes. This would require a fundamental change in our outlook to peacetime operations where availability of support services such as weather forecasting, air traffic control, ground infrastructure such as clean and clear runways and navigation and radar facilities would have to be ensured on a 24/7 basis. Murphy’s Law operates even in today’s hi-tech environment, perhaps even more so. Peacetime flying operations are as demanding as those in war. The IAF will have to quickly train its pilots and support personnel to make the Rafale fully operational in good time.