Rafale Comes As A Breather

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The Rafale will stem the steep decline in IAF fighter numbers but it’s not quite enough

THE Rafale is in, the IAF’s (Indian Air Force) first purchase of a new fighter jet in nearly 20 years. The Rafale comes in smaller numbers and minus of course the indigenous make element. Ironic for a government that is touting Make in India but this was perhaps the only way forward.

As Defence Minister Parrikar noted last year: “I also feel like having a BMW and Mercedes. But I don’t because I can’t afford it… So, 126 Rafales was economically unviable. It was not required.”

Parrikar’s decision was made easier by the fact that the previous UPA government dilly dallied after the Rafale emerged ‘numero uno’ in the MMRCA competition. It had no stomach for a multibillion dollar deal that could open it to further allegations of sleaze and shady payoffs.

The French were anxious to strike a deal but could do nothing so long as Delhi was not willing. In the interim, the Rafale assembly line got a reprieve after orders from Egypt and the UAE. Now with 36 more fighters in the order books, Dassault can breathe easy.

The 36 jets will not make up for the Indian Air Force’s (IAF) depleting numbers, but it leaves the door open for a repeat order. There are other benefits including the 50 per cent offset clause which could see as much as three billion euros flowing back into India as offsets.

A Defence Ministry official noted: “The final deal has a certain amount of technology transfer that will help scale up the production of the indigenous Tejas aircraft. The Kaveri jet engine project may get restarted with the help of Safran.”

This could be a boost to the Tejas light fighter programme which will bridge the gap at the lower end of the combat spectrum caused by the phased retirement of the MiG-21s. If built in considerable numbers, it could help arrest the decline in the IAF fleet (currently 33 squadrons against the required 42).

The Tejas is due for final operational clearance sometime towards the end of this year or early next. In 2018 Hindustan Aeronautics will hand over an improved variant, Tejas 1A, that will have the latest AESA radar and avionics. Sweden’s Saab, makers of the Gripen, could be partners in these improvements.

Another project is the 5th Generation Fighter, the Russian PAK-FA, negotiations over which seem to have resumed after a gap. This fighter again is in the Sukhoi class and will figure at the top end of the combat spectrum. It is still quite some years away and whether it will actually come to fruition is unclear.

Defence Minister Parrikar had indicated a second assembly line (the first is obviously Hindustan Aeronautics) in the private sector for fighter aircraft production. A decision is expected from the government by the year end, on one of three contenders: Boeing’s F/A 18 Super Hornet, the Lockheed F-16 and the Swedish Saab Gripen. Incidentally, all three were in the MMRCA race not too long ago, losing out to the Rafale and Eurofighter.

Clearly, the Rafale deal while it has come as a shot in the arm for the IAF, will not resolve its problem of depleting fighter numbers. Given the high cost of buying foreign aircraft (the per unit cost of a Rafale is Rs.1600 crore), it makes sense to design and build locally.

A decision on a fighter production project in the private sector, in collaboration with a foreign vendor, will be eagerly looked forward to. But looking even beyond, the IAF and the Aeronautical Development Agency need to speed up the pace of work on the AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft) project. With the IAF brass reportedly backing it, AMCA could be the indigenous breakthrough the Indian defence industry needs.

High Light

Other benefits include 50% offset clause which could see as much as three billion euros flowing back into India as offsets

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