Rafale deal ready for take off, awaits final thumbs up

The key subject matter of concern appears to be the slow pace of acquisition of whatever equipment and assets are required. Hope of the forces is that their requirements should be fulfilled and the process should also be expedited. The effort of the government would be to work in that direction–

Defence Minister Arun Jaitley on 24 June

On the face of it, any defence minister would be expected to make such a statement, especially if he is meeting the media after addressing the military top brass. To that extent, Arun Jaitley’s media interaction in the wake of Naval Commanders’ conference was unexceptionable except that he has had extensive briefings and interaction with all the three services during the one month that the new BJP-led NDA government has been in power and if the brass at the Army, Navy and Air Force HQs is to be believed, both Jaitley and Prime Minister Narendra Modi are all set to give a booster dose to the military that it hasn’t seen for at least five years.

The new sense of urgency in the Ministry of Defence is discernible, the brass says, by the very fact that bureaucrats are themselves calling up the service HQs and asking for meetings, quicker clarifications and pushing files faster than witnessed in recent times!

The biggest beneficiary of the new decisiveness could be the Indian Air Force, struggling to maintain its traditional conventional edge against Pakistan. Jaitley was told at an extensive briefing at the Air HQ how the IAF is in danger of losing that edge if the contract to buy 126 Rafale medium multirole combat aircraft (MMRCA), is not clinched immediately. The IAF, which ideally requires 44 squadrons but can do with 39, is down to 32 squadrons, 12 of them of the near-obsolete MiG-21s.

Apparently concerned, the minister had just one question to ask: how much money would be required once the contract is signed. The IAF’s answer: Rs 100,000 crore spread over 10 years immediately evoked a positive reaction from Jaitley. 

This is not a surprise. Money was never a problem, decision-making or lack of it under former defence minister AK Antony was. 

Enthused IAF brass now says IF the government (read political leadership) gives the clearance, this massive and in many ways first-of-its-kind contract is ready to be clinched in the next six months. 
Those in the know told me three of the subsets of the complicated deal are over and done with. The committees that were in charge of Offsets, Maintenance, ToT (transfer of technology) have concluded their work. It has taken them over two years to prepare documents that run into thousands of pages. It includes details of work share between Dassault Aviation and HAL, liabilities, and costs to maintain and run the 126 jets that the IAF would like to use over the next four decades IF India decides to buy the Rafales from the French aviation major. 
Over 41 articles in the defence procurement procedure (DPP) have been taken on board in arriving at the final documentation. HAL (Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd) has been designated the lead domestic production agency. Eighteen of the 126 jets will be produced in France and rest 108 at Indian production facility.

The only committee that needs to finalise its report is the one responsible for costs and contract. The process of finalising the value of the contract has been long drawn and involves what is called life-cycle costs. Once the political clerance comes, this part of the contract can be ready for signing in less than two months, those in the know say.
There are of course lobbies that are against the MMRCA are hard at work. Some are pro-US, others are pro-Europeans and yet others are pro-HAL but none is pro-IAF.

There is a group that is pushing for inducting the HAL-made Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas instead of buying what it calls an expensive Rafale. But as the IAF brass has repeatedly told me, the final operational clearance (FOC) of the Tejas is yet to come despite the home-grown fighter being in the making for over 30 years now. As per revised timelines, the first full Tejas squadron in the IOC (initial operational clearance) configuration will be in place only by 2016-2017 at the earliest. The second Tejas squadron, in the FOC configuration, will come thereafter. The four Tejas Mark-II squadrons, with more powerful American GE F-414 engines, will start becoming a reality from 2021-2022 onwards.

“We have been hand holding the LCA for long and will continue to support it but it is NOT a replacement for a medium, multirole fighter aircraft. Its reach is barely 200 km when we need at least a ‘1000-km reach’ aircraft if we have pose any challenge in the Tibet Autonomous Region (TAR) where India expects a major threat to its air combat power in case of a conflict with China,” a top Air Force officer pointed out.

Meanwhile, as the French foreign minister Laurent Fabius arrives in New Delhi on Sunday on a two-day visit to India, the Rafale deal will surely be on the top of his agenda.  The question is: will Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence/finance minister Arun Jaitley make it their own priority too? 

Up on the 5th floor of the Air HQ the brass is hoping in hell they will.


But as they say it is not over until it is over. So for the sake of India, fingers crossed!