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Rafale dogfight: Why the French fighter has the right stuff

The bitter dogfight that has taken place in the political arena over the Rafale jet fighter has managed to obscure several important factors why the Indian Air Force (IAF) selected the French jet.

Rakesh Krishnan Simha        Last Updated: December 16, 2018  | 17:04 IST
Rafale dogfight: Why the French fighter has the right stuff

With the Supreme Court of India giving the Narendra Modi government a clean chit on the decision-making process to purchase 36 Rafales from France, the so-called controversy finally needs to be laid at rest. The bitter dogfight that has taken place in the political arena over the Rafale jet fighter has managed to obscure several important factors why the Indian Air Force (IAF) selected the French jet.

Big-ticket defence deals are rarely based on technical merit alone. It would be naive to think the French-built jet was picked because it met all of the IAF's demands. But it came pretty close. The highly professional IAF (which operates over 700 aircraft and is the fourth largest air force after the air forces of the US, Russia and China) had listed 600 parameters during the selection process, with 590 being the pass mark; anything less than that and the Rafale would have been shot down.

Geopolitical and strategic reasons certainly played a role in awarding the contract to the French. But that's exactly how it should be in multi-billion dollar defence contracts. India will - and must - extract its pound of flesh in terms of French support for New Delhi's positions in diplomacy, trade and technology transfers. One significant spinoff from the deal is that substantial French military sales to Pakistan can be ruled out for years, if not decades.

Dissecting the MMRCA deal

Arthur Conan Doyle, the creator of Sherlock Holmes, wrote that when you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth. Let's look into why the Rafale was selected and eliminate the impossible in order to get to the bottom of the story.

In the MMRCA competition announced by the IAF in 2007, the Rafale was joined by the Eurofighter Typhoon (built by a British, German and Spanish consortium), Lockheed Martin F-16 Fighting Falcon (the US), Mikoyan MiG-35 (Russia) and Saab JAS 39 Gripen (Sweden).

On April 27, 2011, after an intensive and detailed technical evaluation by the IAF, it reduced the bidders to two fighters-Eurofighter Typhoon and Dassault Rafale. On January 31, 2012, it was announced that the Rafale had won the competition due to its lower life-cycle cost.

Now let's look at how the other aircraft were eliminated, and also the reaction of the losing countries.

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Typhoon: Flying on bribes

The Typhoon made it to the final round of two but one of the reasons it got shot down was British corruption. There were two indications that the Typhoon was flying on bribes. One, the jet was embroiled in scandals in every market it had entered - Saudi Arabia, Czech Republic, South Africa, Romania and Tanzania. For instance, it was alleged the Brits had a multi-million-pound "slush fund" that was set up to funnel bribes to members of the Saudi royal family and government officials.

Secondly, Britain's Development Secretary Andrew Mitchell left no room for ambiguity that the GBP 280 million in annual aid the British were routing to India, and which the Indian government had been trying to end, was to be diverted from development to what seemed like lobbying. In December 2011, he admitted the aid was "also about seeking to sell Typhoon jets".

And indeed it soon became clear the British hadn't got rid of their colonial hangover. British MPs were reportedly "hysterical" after India's decision to award the contract to France. While the Labour Party's Barry Gardiner - ironically, a self-styled friend of India - called for "downgrading" of India-UK trade relations, other parliamentary fat cats spoke about India's "ingratitude" and demanded that it rethink the decision.

India's decision to scratch the Typhoon was vindicated in 2015. During the 10-day Indradhanush air combat exercise held in Lincolnshire, UK, IAF pilots flying the Su-30 humiliated the top aces of the RAF, blanking the Eurofighter Typhoon jets 12-0.

The IAF Sukhois were reportedly able to defeat the Typhoons not only in one-on-one combat but also in situations where one IAF pilot was pitted against two Typhoons. Besides clobbering the British during within visual range dogfights, the Sukhois also held an edge over the British jets in beyond visual range combat.

MiG-35: Corruption capers

The MiG-35 was rejected for three reasons. Firstly, it wasn't a brand new platform but an upgraded MiG-29 Fulcrum of which India has several squadrons. The Fulcrum had performed brilliantly in the Kargil War when it scared off the Pakistan Air Force and prevented their F-16s from coming within 30 km of the Line of Control in Kashmir. The MiG-29's air dominance allowed other Indian fighter jets to operate freely and pound enemy positions with impunity, leading to Pakistan's quick capitulation. The MiG-35 was basically a MiG-29 on steroids and never really excited the IAF. Plus, with 70 per cent of its fighter planes being of Russian origin, the IAF was keen on a Western fighter in order to achieve a more diversified fleet.

Secondly, the Indian Navy's MiG-29Ks suffered from serious maintenance problems. In a 2016 report, the Comptroller & Auditor General slammed the aircraft's abysmal serviceability which ranged from 15.93 per cent to 37.63 per cent. The auditors also highlighted defects in the engines, airframes and fly-by-wire systems.

The third reason was the MiG aircraft bureau's involvement in one of the most notorious cases of military corruption in Russian history. It came to light in 2007 when Algeria cancelled a $1.3 billion purchase of 28 MiG-29 fighters and returned the ones already delivered, insisting some of the aircraft were assembled from used parts.

According to the US military website Strategy Page, the publicity this scandal received caused the Russian government to look more intently into the counterfeit or defective aircraft parts situation. "Russian aviation officials were alarmed when, upon inspecting 60,000 aircraft parts, they found that nearly a third of them were counterfeits."

Since the IAF had been reeling from a parts shortage because of supply issues faced by the MiG bureau, it surprised nobody when the MiG-35 became the first aircraft to get the boot in the MMRCA competition. Clearly, the IAF commanders had made a sound decision.

F-16: Seventies' technology

The F-16 Falcon is a compact tearaway that is flown by nearly all NATO air forces and US client states around the world. It has a good combat record, albeit against small countries such as Iraq, Libya and Syria. Plus, it is a low maintenance aircraft which appeals to countries with small defence budgets.

More than 1,700 of these aircraft have been built and the production line continues to produce odd batches for countries that cannot afford modern jets. In the hands of IAF highly trained and motivated pilots, the Falcon would be a war winner. Plus, it would make American lawmakers extremely favourably disposed towards India because the F-16 is a classic example of US military pork - it is made from parts that are sourced from as many as 49 of the 50 Americans states. Thousands of Americans jobs would have been guaranteed for a couple of decades had India gone for all planned 126 buys.

However, the F-16 was developed in the seventies and does not really meet the IAF's quest for the latest aerospace technology. Also, the Pakistan Air Force has been flying the same aircraft since the 1980s so it wouldn't be a surprise weapon in a future India-Pakistan conflict.

The Americans didn't take too kindly to the F-16's ouster from the MMRCA competition. According to media reports, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ordered the CIA to hunt for alleged mass graves in Punjab in a bid to revive Khalistani terrorism. The agency's local agents conducted a few digs but drew a blank.

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Gripen: Sweden can't swing it

One of the little-known facts about the Gripen is that it was the IAF's first choice when it was looking for an advanced jet fighter in the late 1970s. However, the US - which was then a cold war adversary - blocked the sale of the Swedish fighter to India because it was powered by an American General Electric engine. India went on to buy the British-French Jaguar.

During the MMRCA competition, the Gripen was always the outlier. It was an 'honest', reliable and low-cost fighter but the fact that it continued to have an American power plant made it a hot potato. This is because in the event of war if the US slaps sanctions, Sweden would have to play along, leaving the IAF scrambling for parts.

On the positive side, Swedes were willing to produce the fighter entirely in India which would have created much-needed aerospace technical skills locally. But on the flip side, Sweden's lightweight status means India will never derive much geopolitical mileage from the Gripen.

Competition summary

A deal for 126 advanced jet fighters was unprecedented in modern military history. The country that would bag the contract would walk away with multiple benefits. One, its production lines would keep humming for the next 20 years from the Indian order alone.

Two, a large order from India would translate into more orders. This is because the IAF has a reputation as a highly professional service and therefore its decisions often become the benchmark for smaller air forces.

For instance, until India inked the Rafale deal in 2012, the French didn't have a single order; not even the French air force was able to order because of the lack of economies of scale. The picture changed dramatically after the IAF gave it the go-ahead. Orders started trickling in from Qatar, Egypt and France. Potential customers include Canada, Finland, Malaysia and the UAE.

You get the picture - when the IAF makes a purchase decision, it sends out a signal that the aircraft is competent. And that is precisely what has happened to the Rafale.

Rafale: Right stuff

There are all kinds of pro and anti-Rafale campaigns going on in the media. The thing to note is that those who are in favour of the aircraft are mostly military experts and retired air force commanders who stand to gain nothing from the contract. On the other hand, the parties who are trumpeting all sorts of allegations (including that the government forced Dassault to pick Reliance as a partner) are people who have zero knowledge of military matters. Here are some of these 'expert' opinions and why they ring hollow:

Buy more of the tried and tested Sukhois instead of the Rafale

Strictly using an apples-to-apples comparison, the IAF can buy four Su-30s for the price of a single Rafale, which costs approximately Rs 1600 crore per plane.

But such a comparison is meaningless. Each of these three aircraft is meant to perform different roles. For instance, the Sukhoi is India's meanest fighter and the IAF describes it as its "air dominance" aircraft. Its primary strength is in destroying strategic targets and establishing air dominance for other IAF aircraft to operate with impunity. As mentioned earlier, a good example of such a role played by an IAF aircraft was during the 1999 Kargil War when MiG-29s flying over Jammu & Kashmir prevented Pakistan's American-built F-16s from coming to the aid of the Pakistan Army.

This is the role the Sukhoi is meant to play in any future conflict. Currently being armed with the supersonic BrahMos cruise missile, the aircraft can also establish supremacy over the oceans to prevent a re-enactment of the 1971 War when the US dispatched its Seventh Fleet up the Bay of Bengal in a show of support for Pakistan.

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While the IAF has used the Sukhois as a fallback option in times of dwindling squadrons, it can only be a short-term fix, not a permanent solution. Just like a tradesman needs a number of specialised tools to be able to undertake and complete a variety of tasks, the air force needs specialised aircraft - light, medium and heavy, with different operating envelopes - to meet a variety of threats.

For instance, the MiG-21 is a light interceptor and fighter escort, plus it provides combat air patrol. The Sukhoi being an air superiority fighter can perform these roles. But let's say the IAF wants to vector a couple of aircraft to intercept a Pakistani JF-17 intruder. The IAF's fighter of choice against this Chinese knockoff is likely to be the MiG-21 or Mirage-2000 rather than the Sukhoi. While the Sukhoi can do the job, it would be inefficient to use a strategic aircraft in a low-intensity mission. Also, sending an aircraft that weighs over 18,000 kg (unloaded) against the comparatively tiny JF-17 (6400 kg) would be an exercise in overkill.

Or take the MiG-27 which was developed to support rapidly moving infantry and armoured columns. For instance, the aircraft is most likely to be deployed to take out a column of advancing Pakistani tanks. But what's bread and butter for the MiG-27 could prove suicidal for the Sukhoi because the much heavier Flanker isn't meant to be used in a battlefield support role. Risking a $75 million aircraft against a Pakistani Al Khalid tank that costs $5 million makes no military sense. Smaller jets or attack helicopters are better suited in this role.

Okay, then let's go for the indigenous Tejas

The IAF can indeed acquire huge quantities of the cheap as chips indigenous Tejas light combat aircraft; for the price of a Rafale, you can buy six Tejas fighters.

But do you really want to? The Tejas is a modern jet but it's not in the same class as the Rafale. Firstly, it is a light combat aircraft whereas the IAF is seeking to fill its medium segment which is being depleted as the last squadrons of the MiG-21s and MiG-27s are slated for retirement. Also, let's not forget that another medium category aircraft, the MiG-23, has been retired without replacement.

Secondly, in terms of technology, the Tejas is light years behind the Rafale. What the IAF is getting from France is a brand new weapons ecosystem that will enable the service to make a technological leap in terms of aircraft, missiles and radar. The Tejas is a promising fighter but it'll take several years and a couple of more iterations before the fighter can be tasked to lead combat missions. This is called incremental improvement and it is normal for weapons to go through demanding production cycles before final acceptance by the military. Making our pilots fly unproven aircraft is sending them on a suicide mission.

The best case scenario is the IAF builds a couple hundred Tejas fighters - waves of these small and agile fighters can be used to launch saturation raids into Pakistani territory after the Sukhois and Mirages have established air dominance. But currently Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) is able to build only 8-12 Tejas jets per year and it'll be a long time before that scenario can be played out.

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Why not allow HAL to build the Rafale in India?

Former HAL chief T. Suvarna Raju claims the state-run aircraft maker could have built Rafale fighters in India had the government managed to close the original negotiations with Dassault. First of all, let's not attribute to malice what can be explained as stupidity. The idea of HAL building Rafales in India is a joke.

With HAL hard pressed to build more than 12 units of the Tejas fighter (which took it 30 years of work), how will it undertake the production of a foreign fighter?

The reality is that HAL is no position to absorb Rafale's technology without years of handholding by Dassault. The French had made it known that they would not undertake any guarantees for HAL made aircraft and it is understandable given HAL's history of failures. To be fair, HAL's problems are clearly owing to sabotage by India's military procurement lobby which has a vested interest in seeing indigenous defence manufacturing fail. In areas where there has been no political interference, HAL has produced usable weapons. But the Rafale is beyond its capabilities, especially in the backdrop of the IAF's fighter crunch. The IAF doesn't need modern attack jets in five years; it needs them today.

Take the Sukhoi Su-30 which HAL is licence producing in India. It's commendable they are manufacturing the aircraft locally but there is a cost difference. The price of a Russian made Sukhoi is Rs 270 crore but the cost escalates to Rs 350 crore when it is made by HAL. This is when HAL has more than 40 years of experience in licence manufacturing Russian aircraft. One can only imagine the cost overruns if the state-owned company had attempted to build the Rafale.

What about Hollande and French media claims?

After former French president Francois Hollande claimed that the Indian government had proposed Anil Ambani's Reliance Defence as the Indian partner in the Rafale deal and not given them a choice, the French government clarified that they were not involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners.

Paris made it clear its role was just to ensure the delivery and quality of the aircraft. "The French government is in no manner involved in the choice of Indian industrial partners who have been, are being, or will be selected by French companies," the French government said in a statement.

The French defence ministry added that "neither GoI (the Government of India) nor the French Government had any say in the commercial decision" to include Reliance.

It is clear that Hollande was taking an opportunistic pot shot at his rivals; he has since backtracked.

The Rafale offset contract includes 70 companies and Reliance Defence is just one of them. This is a singular fact that the Indian opposition parties have managed to cloud by repeated lies.

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Still, how can you include Reliance which has "zero" experience?

There are several things wrong with this argument. Yes, experience is important. When it comes to running a company or country, flying an aircraft with passengers on board, experience is critical. But if experience was everything, they'd never send a man to the moon.

Take Mahindra Aerospace, which was a new entrant in the crowded and cutthroat defence industry. In 2011 the company acquired Australian light aircraft manufacturer Gippsland Aeronautics for $20 million. It took just two years for Mahindra to leverage the technologies absorbed from the Gippsland deal and create something big. In 2013, the company inaugurated a 25,000 square metre Bangalore facility, equipped with a suite of sheet-metal, surface-treatment and assembly capabilities to meet the requirements of the global aerospace industry. Today, Mahindra assembles 8 and 10-seater aircraft in Australia, with most of the parts manufactured in India.

Now imagine if someone had launched a campaign against Mahindra Group chairman Anand Mahindra, asking him why he was getting into an area with no experience when Mahindra should stick with the car and farm vehicles manufacturing.

Just so you know, Reliance Defence is currently building assemblies for Dassault business jets. In response to Congress President Rahul's allegation, Anil Ambani said: "Not only do we have the necessary experience but we are also the leaders in several important areas of defence manufacture."

Reliance Defence is, in fact, the company's former name; the old company was formed after Anil Ambani's takeover of Pipavav Defence and Offshore Engineering Company Limited. The company is now Reliance Naval and Engineering Limited (RNAVAL), which according to its website has the "largest engineering infrastructure in India and is one of the largest in the world". RNAVAL is the first private sector company in India to obtain the licence and contract to build warships.

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After the pioneering steps by Godrej (a leading BrahMos contractor) and Tata (which makes helicopter fuselages and other major parts for Sikorsky), an increasing number of private Indian companies are rushing into defence manufacturing. Mahindra and Reliance are integral elements of Make in India, and many are simply unaware that a large and sophisticated weapons ecosystem is forming in India, with the private sector taking the lead.

Bottom line

Let's not forget that it was the previous government which shortlisted and picked the Rafale - and then did nothing. Had the MMRCA contract been signed in 2012, India would have acquired 126 Rafales for approximately $10 billion, with around 108 of these aircraft made in India. In this backdrop, Modi made the best of a bad situation. With the rapidly shrinking IAF having declared on a number of occasions that it wouldn't be able to fight a two-front war without the Rafales, the current government had no choice but to thrash out the 36-aircraft deal.

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