India's Rafale Deal: Why the Outright Purchase Was a Balancing Step

21 Apr, 2015    ·   4866

Air Commodore Prashant Dikshit VM (G) (Retd) writes why the direct purchase of the Rafale aircraft was a necessary strategic balancing act

The Indian government’s decision to purchase 36 Rafale MMRCA aircraft from France outright, as against the original 18, with a direct government to government deal with France could be the best option. This is because the issues were no longer merely commercial in nature; there were strategic reasons to be considered.

The most apparent and crucial matter of the rapidly decreasing combat punch of the Indian Air Force (IAF) was not the only issue at hand. The decision to select the Rafale at the outset was already made with the conscious view that it was the best buy. It not only satisfied the operational framework of the IAF, but also ensured that with its acquisition India will put the eggs in the correct basket.  

India has invested more than adequate material resources in the burgeoning strategic equation with the US and has acquired maritime and heavy-lift transport aircraft, among other weapon systems. Deeply emboldened by the mutual India-US wooing syndrome, the US administration is leaving no stone unturned to participate in the India’s aircraft carrier industry.  On the MMRCA front however, there were disappointments in the US industry circles that India had found the F-16 aircraft somewhat outmoded and the F-18, too heavy and alien for its systemic construct.

But it had obviated Indian policy planners’ deeply embedded fears that the complex structure of the US regime – that consists its presidency, the senate and the congress – could place embargoes on technical and material support in the future for such a crucial combat ingredient;  just because some law-wielding segment US did not see, eye to eye, with Indian policies elsewhere. There was precedence on this score in the past and the Indian establishment has institutional memory of having encountered such impediments; and the development of India’s Light Combat Aircraft is one of the many examples.

As for Russia, India is already acquiring over 250 Su-30 MKI air superiority fighters and most importantly, is developing Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft plus a Medium Transport Aircraft along with other weapon platforms such as the BrahMos in collaboration with Russian majors.

Although, the all-weather relationship with the erstwhile USSR and now Russia has stood the test of time and India availed of Russian support on not only the Arihant nuclear submarine but also substantially for the operation of nuclear power plants, uncertainties and irritants faced by India’s defence establishment for provision of spares for military hardware after the breakup of the USSR and again, before the eventual induction of the aircraft carrier, INS Vikramaditya, could not be ignored. Additionally, there is an emerging perception that with the rising clamour for enhanced price structures by Russian companies, the mutuality of equations is tilting towards greater commercial gains and the tenor of the relationship may have come to a saturation point. The Indian endeavour would rather be to sustain than to increase.

India had already procured adequate materials from UK during its post-independence relationship. The British-made Jaguar joined the IAF fleet with over 150 aircraft to fulfil the IAF’s requirement for Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft; over 120 of the British Aerospace built Advanced Jet Trainer, the Hawk, have been inducted in the IAF and the India Navy with an Indian government investment of nearly $ 2 billion. These purchases had set up a pipeline for infusion of spares periodically from aviation majors in UK. The British industry had nothing more to offer.

With France the story is different and the developments had to be placed on an even keel. First, the uncertainties in nurturing the contract with the French aviation major Dassault, the producer of the Rafale, had emerged because the manufacturer had declined to accept responsibilities for the 108 machines that were to be assembled by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited. There is a strong view that some in the South Block had persuaded Dassault to accept this clause against the manufacturer’s judgment and these doubts could not be kept under wraps beyond a point.

Eventually, the whole deal was falling through due to procedural impositions of the treatment of “Request for proposals.” There was an emerging perception that at risk was the equation with France – whose support in operating their Mirage 2000 with the IAF was pivotal in countering the aggression during the Kargil war. France is going to be a supplier of nuclear materials to India, and with whom India is pursuing several space ventures through its Department of Space. However, the most crucial of all reasons why this is strategically important is due to France’s unstinted support for India’s membership in the UN Security Council.