A Self-Defeating Debate : Air Marshal Brijesh Jayal on the IAF’s Rafale
In an unprecedented low, a petition
has recently been filed in the Supreme
Court by over 300 serving army officers,
JCOs and NCOs on issues relating to their duties in disturbed areas and the dilution of AFSPA. Close on its heels, we are also witnessing another low point where the highest IAF leadership has been compelled to wade into a political controversy in order to shield their force from its corrosive and negative consequences. The world is witness to nations where their militaries have undermined democracies. Indian democracy seems determined to be experimenting with the reverse. It is time for our nation to pause and reflect.
In early September, three French Air
Force Rafale jet fighters landed at Air Force Station, Gwalior with a view to conducting joint operations with their IAF counterparts. The French contingent was in transit after having participated in the multi-nation combat exercise Pitch Black held in Darwin, Australia in which IAF Sukhois had also participated. On this occasion the French Embassy in New Delhi lauded “the depth of the Indo-French strategic partnership” and the trust that prevails in relations between the respective armed forces. Ironically, neither the French Embassy nor their contingent in Gwalior would have been unaware of the political slugfest that has embroiled the name of the Rafale fighter, and perhaps silently wondered whether their hosts actually understood the vital strategic potential of the proposed Rafale weapon system, in shadow of the sub-continental nuclear threat environment.
The French would not have been the
only ones to be so confused. We have also had the first two-plus-two dialogue held between the Indian and US Foreign and Defence Ministers where future direction of the evolving strategic partnership was under discussion. This time around, it would be the US Government teams, being conscious of the Rafale controversy, who perhaps wondered whether some of the past procurements through government-to-government programmes with the US like
the C-17 heavy lift transport aircraft, C-130 Hercules, P-8I LRMP aircraft, Chinook heavy lift helicopters and others, along with their offset obligations, could fall prey to similar controversy, thus harming reputation.
Clearly such ominous clouds of daily
political recriminations would have cast
a deep shadow not only over the skies of
Gwalior, but across all IAF crew rooms and messes, perhaps undermining confidence and morale of the force. This would perhaps explain why senior IAF leadership have been compelled to take the unprecedented step of making public statements, indirectly jumping into what is essentially a political and media fracas. The VCAS is responsible for operations and when questioned, termed the Rafale as “very capable aircraft that will give India unprecedented advantage over its adversaries, a capability that was needed very quickly”.
The DCAS, who as head of Plans and
Procurement would have intimately been
involved in the entire process, went a step further and countering allegations of any wrongdoing stating “what is being alleged does not match with the facts at all”. On the question of higher costs, he clarified “I can tell you that the Rafale that we have gone for is substantially lower in price than that was on the table in 2008”. And finally, on allegations that the offset contract had been awarded to certain private players, he said, “The facts on record, indicate that there is no truth in those allegations”.
It needs recalling that similar sentiments were expressed by the Air Chief himself late last year and repeated at Adampur in July 2018 (and New Delhi in September, see following report). Clearly, the IAF leadership appears concerned that this public slugfest is having an adverse impact not just on the morale of the service, but their confidence in the professional integrity of its leadership as well.
Unknown to those who sally forth daily
in TV studios and the mass media (and more importantly their minders), what has been a strategic step forward in the modernisation and strengthening of Indian air power is unfortunately turning out to be unsettling and self-defeating. If combat pilots “on the otherside” of our northern and western frontiers are chuckling, and our French counterparts in Gwalior embarrassed, we have only our domestic politics to blame.
As if to remind the nation of the dire
straits that the IAF finds itself in flying obsolete platforms amidst declining combat force levels, the IAF has in the last three months, lost two MiG-27s, one MiG-21 and two Jaguars with the sad loss of some lives. A cruel reminder of the strains of keeping up force levels. Unmindful, the sterile debate rages on, demonstrating that political one-up-manship means far more to our democracy than the operational capability and safety of our armed forces.
Ironically, even as the government is being accused of favouring a certain private offset partner, the Tata Advanced Systems and Lockheed-Martin Corp have announced an agreement whereby Tatas will manufacture in Hyderabad wings for all future Lockheed F-16 customers. This should have been a matter of much jubilation for our make-in-India efforts. Instead, since Lockheed are also amongst the potential bidders for the new IAF tender, they have been defensive and actually declared that this agreement is not contingent on the success or otherwise of that bid ! Clearly, international weapon system suppliers are ever mindful of having not only to compete in the technical and commercial domains, but in India’s
political minefield as well ! The price issue is a red herring and for cost comparisons to be meaningful, must be based on the total system cost on a like-to-like basis. This would need a detailed cost benefit analysis by a body of specialists, who would still be left guessing about weighing operational value which is not readily quantifiable monetarily. One example is the commitment to providing product support for two years ensuring 85% fleet availability in the IAF’s operating conditions. No one has ever, including HAL, ever committed to such an in-service operational fleet availability.
The current DPP gives foreign companies
complete freedom to choose their Indian
Offset Partners and, over the years, many
aircraft procurement programmes have
involved offset programmes. These include the C-17 Globemaster, Mirage 2000 upgrade, Pilatus PC-7 basic trainer and
the C-130 Hercules amongst others. The
corresponding Indian offset entities include the likes of DRDO, HAL, Tata Advanced Systems, Mahindras and many others.
Mercifully, never has the integrity of these come under question and progressively both the public and private sector are taking the country forward towards self-reliance in the defence field. An effort to derail this initiative will certainly undermine progres