Politics on Rafale hits India’s fighter procurement 

Politics on Rafale hits India’s fighter procurement 

Rafale aircraft flays during the rehearsal session Aero India 2019 at Yelahanka Airbase in Bengaluru on Sunday 17th February 2019. Photo by Janardhan BK

With India declaring its intention to buy close to 170 fighter jets for the IAF and Navy, it’s natural for global aviation majors to make a beeline for India’s biennial air show at Bengaluru. They did so in 2007 and 2011. The fact that not many foreign fighters will take off from Yelahanka this time is probably an indication of how political slug-fest ruined India’s fighter procurement process, at least in the immediate future.

To a certain extent, the Defence Ministry and Air Headquarters are themselves to be blamed to create the procurement mess in the first place over the last two decades. It began in 2000 when the Indian Air Force initiated a plan to buy 126 fighters in the wake of the Kargil episode.

The first proposal was to buy 126 Mirage 2000 II – manufactured by Dassault Aviation. IAF pushed for it despite fully knowing that the Defence Procurement Procedure bars single vendor purchase. When the ministry raised objections, IAF explored several routes to stick to the plan by convincing the government in the next four years. The ministry continues to cite the rule books and finally discarded the plan in 2004 asking the IAF to go for competitive bidding.

The Air Staff Qualitative Requirements for 126 jets was issued in January 2004 and Request for Information to vendors in November in the same year. The RFI had sought detailed information about warranty, maintenance, and product support, patent rights, transfer of technology and offsets.

The process did not add much value but delayed the acquisition process by another three years as the vendors took their own sweet time.

The Request for Proposal was finally issued in 2007. The technical evaluation bid (after flight trial) was accepted in 2011 when the ministry announced that Rafale and Eurofighter Typhoon made the cut.

The defence ministry began negotiations with the L1 vendor Dassault, but after four years, the RFP was cancelled by then Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar as the NDA government settled for direct purchase of 36 Rafale fighters from France in a flyaway condition, possibly sensing legal and commercial troubles on the stalled negotiations.

The entire procurement process, points out the Comptroller and Auditor General in its report on the capital acquisition for the IAF, was so flawed that five out of six aircraft could not meet the ASQR in the MMRCA bid and multiple waivers were given to several of these aircraft to make them eligible for the flight trials.

The two shortlisted aircraft Eurofighter and Rafale were cleared based on their presentation in the laboratory as to how they proposed to meet the shortcomings in meeting certain ASQRs. They were technically accepted without evaluating the significant modification or enhancements made on them. Russian MiG-35 was the only one that met all the ASQR but was not considered after the trials.

The CAG analysed 11 IAF acquisitions and found that it took 8 years even to buy Doppler weather radar. Buying of Apache and Chinook helicopters from the USA took 9 years and the MMRCA deal couldn’t be closed even after 15 years. Spending such a long time on the decision making puts India at a disadvantage as companies are bound to inflate their bills.

The national auditor has suggested a thorough overhauling of the procurement system. It also points out that going for L1 (the lowest bidder) is always not the best approach, particularly while buying fighter aircraft. Instead, the defence ministry and IAF should look at value for money.

But such overhauling requires a lot of time, which is in short supply for the IAF that witnesses a steady fall in its fighter squadron numbers. IAF has a sanctioned strength of 42 fighter squadrons – a figure that it never achieved. Its best was 39.5 squadrons in the early 1990s after which there is a steady decline.

At the moment, IAF has 31 squadrons including six number-plated units of MiG-21 and MiG-27 that are being phased out. The IAF is still to receive 23 Su-30MKI from Hindustan Aeronautics Limited and the nine Tejas Light Combat Aircraft inducted into the service are too ill-equipped to be called a fully potent combat platform.

A new process to buy 110 fighter jets for the IAF began a year ago. All the six companies that took part in the MMRCA – Boeing (F/A-18), Lockheed Martin (F-16), Dassault (Rafale), Airbus (Eurofighter Typhoon), Saab (Grippen) and Russian United Aircraft Corporation (MiG 35) are in the fray with the same aircraft. There’s a second Russian contender (Su-35). “We are in the process of fixing the ASQR,” said IAF Vice Chief Air Marshal Anil Khosla.

The Navy too looks at buying 57 carrier-borne jets for which the RFP is being prepared with Boeing, Lockheed, Dassault, Saab and RUA evincing interest.

Aero India 2019 could have been an ideal opportunity for these aviation giants to bring their birds to add to the optics of the show, which is being witnessed by the officials and policymakers at various level. But only Rafale is still confirmed to take to the sky. The two Americans (F-16 and F/A 18) may join and there would be a static display of Grippen. Others curtly say no.

The message is clear: more time is required for the mud to settle down before the government starts overhauling the procurement process and resume the dialogue with the company.