"Why doesn't Modi tell everyone the cost of buying Rafale fighter aircraft. Did he personally change the terms of deal?.....There is a scam," charged Congress president Rahul Gandhi.
Although there is no news on any elaborations of the scam that opposition leader claims, the government issued a scathing rejoinder on 7 February 2018: "Unfounded allegations are being made regarding the 2016 Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) to procure 36 Rafale aircraft in fly-away condition from France. This would normally not have merited a response but for the serious damage being caused by the misleading statements, sought to be repeatedly perpetrated on a serious matter of national security."
It ought to be remembered that it was under the ten-year tenure of the previous UPA government that the earlier initiative of 2002 to meet the requirements of the Indian Air Force (IAF) for much-needed augmentation of its fighter strength ran aground. In 2012, then Defence Minister A K Antony exercised an unprecedented personal veto on the laid down institutional process then under way for procurement of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA). All this happened when there was an alarming decline in IAF’s fighter strength.
Shortly after Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s tour of France, when he announced the deal, then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar had clarified that while both countries have principally agreed for 36 planes, the final decision regarding how many planes India will build indigenously, as per the ‘Make in India’ concept, will be decided later when both India and France discuss and finalise the finer points of the deal. Parrikar further clarified that Rafale was not going to replace MiG-21, which instead would be replaced by the indigenous Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas.
In another effort to twist facts, the government is asked why it did not conduct negotiations with a particular company representing a competing fighter aircraft. It seems to have been conveniently forgotten that the then government itself had rejected that company’s unsolicited offer, made days after closure of the bid process, to declare Rafale (DA) as the L1 bidder and had commenced negotiations with it in February 2012.
The demand that the government disclose the details and value of the contract for the Rafale aircraft contracted in 2016 is unrealistic. In keeping with confidentiality requirements, the UPA government had also expressed its inability to disclose the price of various defence procurements, including in its responses to Parliament questions. The approximate acquisition cost of the Rafale aircraft has already been provided to Parliament. Provision of exact item-wise cost and other information will reveal, inter alia, details regarding the various customizations and weapons systems specially designed to augment the effectiveness and lethality of the assets, impact our military preparedness and compromise our national security. Such details would also come under the ambit of the security agreement signed in 2008. Thus, in not revealing the item-wise details of the contract, the government is merely following in letter and spirit the confidentiality provisions of a bilateral India-France Agreement of 2008 signed by the previous government.
As doubts are sought to be created about the 2016 contract for 36 aircraft, it needs little reiteration that the deal secured by the government is better in terms of capability, price, equipment, delivery, maintenance, training, etc., than that notionally negotiated by the then government in a process it could not conclude in ten years. Moreover, the present government completed these negotiations in just about one year.
The procurement of 36 Rafale aircraft through an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) with France to meet the urgent need of the IAF is strictly in accordance with the Defence Procurement Procedure in all aspects including mandating, conducting and monitoring of negotiations and seeking all necessary approvals, including that of the Cabinet Committee on Security, before entering into the IGA. The aircraft had already been evaluated successfully by IAF during 2009-10.
In the earlier proposal to procure Rafale, which ended in a stalemate, there was no provision for transfer of technology but only to manufacture under licence. The government was unable to agree on the terms for even that in its negotiations with the vendor, resulting in the long-drawn exercise under the earlier government ultimately turning futile. Further, no Indian Offset Partner for the 2016 deal for 36 Rafale Aircraft has been so far selected by the vendor (DA) because as per the applicable guidelines, DA is free to select the Indian Offset Partners and provide their details at the time of seeking offset credits, or one year prior to discharge of offset obligation.”
IAF veterans involved with the process of evaluating/selecting the Rafale had lauded Modi’s move as very good because: (a) a government- to-government deal means that the price India pays for this aircraft will be the same as that for the French air force, (b) it is a good aircraft, in fact one of the best for IAF.
A look at some characteristics of the Rafale and American F-35 is relevant. F-35 costs $ 350 million per aircraft as against $ 156 million for a Rafale. According to Defence Issues(https://defenseissues.wordpress.com/2014/10/11/rafale-vs-f-35-dogfight-performance/), F-35 has a far higher baseline drag than the Rafale, which means Rafale’s baseline performance is much better. In order to initiate a turn, F-35’s tail momentarily provides download before settling into a lift-producing position. Rafale’s canards momentarily provide upload before settling into a neutral position in which they create no lift by themselves, but improve wing lift and reduce drag. Rafale can achieve Mach 1,8 and cruise at Mach 1,2-1,4 with 6 missiles. F-35 can achieve Mach 1,6 and cruise at Mach 0,95 with 4 internal missiles. This makes it quite clear that the F-35 has inferior acceleration (and thus lift-to-drag and thrust-to-drag ratios) compared to Rafale, even when both aircraft are in air-to-air configuration.
News reports of 14 April 2015 cited Parrikar stating that the decision to buy 126 fighter jets from France cleared by the previous Congress-led government was not thought through properly. The purchase, he said, should not have been made through a global tender, but through a government to government transaction, which makes it cheaper. On his predecessor, he reportedly commented: "There was hardly any supervision or control. A Defence Minister needs to monitor but that was hardly the case." He informed that new acquisitions worth Rs. 5,40,000 crore cleared by the previous government would be reviewed. Another report stated that the Defence Minister indicated the $25-billion Indian tender for buying 126 advanced combat aircraft had virtually been scrapped, with the government stressing that any future deal for Rafale fighter jets would be through direct negotiations with the French government. Parrikar was also reported to have said: "Today we have only 40 LCAs, why can't we have 100 of these?" and added that proportion of Rafale and Tejas fighters will depend on negotiations with the French government on any further purchase from Dassault.
(The author is a retired armed forces officer and a strategic analyst. He can be contacted at email@example.com)