While the naysayers and conspiracy theorists in India have already begun their spin, Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi has taken the correct decision to buy 36 off-the-shelf Rafales from France rather than wait for the interminable negotiations with Dassault for licensed production to reach a conclusion. For several reasons, the off-the-shelf buy is in the best interests of broader Indian defence and economic policy.
In the field of arms sales, there is a growing sense of “India fatigue” because of the lengthy delays that mark Indian weapons procurement. The officials of British Aerospace joke that it took one-fifth of the first 100 years of flight to sell the Hawk trainer to India. In this day and age when corporations have to show continuous profits, such lengthy negotiations tend to put off prospective sellers. This is especially true when other countries such as Saudi Arabia and the other Gulf states can take quick decisions to make multi-billion dollar arms purchases. An off-the-shelf purchase made sense, therefore, since it made India a more attractive market for international arms companies.
This in turn has broader implications for India’s economic policy, which depends on external investments to kickstart various sectors of the domestic economy. In order to acquire such investments, however, the Modi government had to show that it was willing to take steps to change the perception amongst foreign investors that India was a difficult place to do business in. A rapid transformation of the Indian economy is also important for Modi, for if he cannot deliver economic benefits to India’s increasingly impatient youth bulge he is likely to lose the next general election.
Secondly, those who complain about how Modi has torpedoed the “Make in India” have to have a serious reality check about what, realistically can be made in India given the country’s technological level and its track record in arms production. Indian arms production efforts have been marked by tall claims that are not matched by corresponding results. Instead, the country’s arms producers have not been able to absorb existing technologies and develop a higher level of weapons systems. Thus, despite close to 60 years of arms production in the country, the indigenous arms producers have been unable to develop a power plant for an aircraft, tank, or ship. The Tejas fighter and the Arjun tank both depend on imported power plants.
Furthermore, India does not have the necessary machinery or technology to domestically produce the Rafale. India would have had to import these production capabilities and this was the reason the price of the domestically-produced Rafale was skyrocketing. Nor was it possible to get Dassault to guarantee the quality and reliability of the aircraft that were being produced by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), since the French company could not realistically guarantee the end product when it did not have supervisory control over the factory.
Also, HAL has a terrible record for producing aircraft as it normally makes up to eight aircraft a year. Given how the Rafale deal called for the domestic manufacture of 108 planes, it would have taken HAL close to 14 years to complete the order and this would not have allowed the Indian Air Force (IAF) to rapidly modernise its fleet—which was the rationale for buying the Rafale in the first place.
Lastly, the Rafale purchase has opened up the possibility of buying aircraft from elsewhere since it will free up funds to buy an off-the-shelf plane in place of the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. HAL has spent decades to deliver what is considered an unsatisfactory aircraft to the IAF. It will take the mid-2020s before HAL produces the Tejas Mark 2, the plane that the IAF actually wants. Indian Defence Minister Manohar Parikkar has opened up the debate on this possibility by letting the executives at HAL know that if they cannot deliver more planes quickly, India will go for an external supplier. Finally, it fired a shot across the bows of HAL and shook the aircraft manufacturer’s complacency that the government would always allow the company maintain its jobs program.
The Rafale deal, therefore, should be welcomed rather than second-guessed by arm chair strategists and politicians who are putting false nationalistic pride over hardcore and pragmatic security decisions.
Amit Gupta is an Associate Professor at the USAF Air War College in Montgomery, Alabama. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the USAF or the Department of Defense.