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Fighter Jets For The IAF
India has invited bids for the purchase of 114 fighter jets, valued at more than $15 billion and currently the world’s largest deal in play. Amit Gupta explains how to choose wisely and quickly
AMIT GUPTA

It took India over a decade to choose the Rafale and ink the deal. The final purchase, however, was for only one-fourth of what the Indian Air Force (IAF) wanted. This was particularly troubling for two reasons: first, the IAF was shortchanged since it wanted 126 fighters but only got 36; and secondly, the French were hoping that India would do what it always does and place a follow-on order. The latter was particularly important since after 15-odd years of haggling, the expectation was that a truly big contract would follow. In fact, by the time the Rafale contract was signed, there was some discussion that if India did buy at least a small number of aircraft it would be considered a nonserious player in weapons acquisition and there was talk of “India fatigue”. Now, the IAF wants 114 fighters and once again there is competition to select the plane. At the same time, the IAF talks about it has to counter a two-front threat and, therefore, needs a plane, in sufficient numbers, quickly. So, India has to choose wisely and quickly.

Learning from the Rafale

The Rafale deal became controversial because the media and the political opposition made it into an election issue with questions being raised about the alleged irregularities in the process. Further, the argument was made that because HAL was not given a contract to domestically assemble the aircraft, there was something insidious about the deal.

What is forgotten in all this is that the Rafale is a good plane which will allow the IAF to carry out both conventional and nuclear missions. The Mirage-2000, while a good plane, does not allow for pilot survivability in the case of a nuclear mission – the pilot would not survive the aftershock caused by a nuclear weapon he delivered. The Rafale, in contrast, is a better protected plane thereby allowing the pilot to return to base and not carry out a suicide mission.

Secondly, the IAF has a long history of being dissatisfied with the standards of weapons production at HAL. In the now-defunct plan to assemble the Rafale in India, the IAF insisted that a clause be put in that Dassault guarantee the quality of the aircraft that HAL produced. Dassault, obviously refused since it would have no control over the production process. HAL then sought to protect itself by offering to assemble more Sukhois for the IAF – something that is now going to happen to make up for the squadron shortfall. The IAF was not keen on the Sukhoi option since it had problems with the engines of the domestically-produced Sukhois.

Thirdly, media analysts, politicians, and defense academics forget that the IAF was not interested in buying the Mirage 2000. It was Indira Gandhi, impressed by the effectiveness of European weaponry in the Falklands War, who decided India needed the plane and pushed its purchase. Her decision was vindicated both in Kargil and Balakot where the Mirage 2000 performed stalwartly. The fact of the matter is that the Rafale was a good buy that got clouded by domestic politics and a media which views defence analysis not as a study of strategic issues but, instead, a pursuit of scandals. And, it was marred by a lengthy acquisition delay, purchasing a fraction of what was needed, and with no real plan for acquiring technology in the future out of the deal.

The 114-fighter deal

The 114-deal came out of the problems that emerged from the Rafale purchase. The IAF still needed aircraft and was not enthused about buying more Sukhois because they wanted an aircraft that was able to fulfill a different range of missions and were worried about quality control at HAL. Further, by now, the Tejas should have been in squadron service in sufficient numbers to make a difference to the IAF’s force structure. Instead, the IAF has only been able to ready one squadron for service because, among other things, HAL has been slow in providing aircraft to the service. HAL has delivered 8 aircraft a year so to get up to even 4 squadrons the IAF would have to wait for 8 years—assuming that there are 16 aircraft in a squadron. HAL has now promised to deliver 12 aircraft a year but one should not hold one’s breath on that promise being fulfilled.

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October 2019

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