Two years back, this is what I had jotted down here about the choice of aircraft that must be selected in India's long-running soap opera, also known as the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft [MMRCA] acquisition program,
"...Instead, moi would like the IAF to recommend and the MoD to decide on purchasing the Dassault Rafale aircraft.
Yet, the fact that it does not have an operational AESA radar may work against it, for if newspaper paper reports are anything to go by, the Indian Air Force is big on having them on its MMRCA aircraft."
Thus, it came as a very pleasant news when it was announced on January 31st, that India would enter into exclusive negotiations with Rafale's parent company, Dassault Aviation, for the acquisition of 126 aircraft being sought by the Indian Air Force. "I told-you-so!", is not a statement I've been using infrequently since the day. Elated at getting this right. Truth be told, however, after the down-select carried out in April 2011, when the American F-16/18, Russia's MiG-35 & Swedish Gripen were no longer in the running for the MMRCA bid, I had stopped pontificating hard over the choice of aircraft to be finally selected. Both technically the most capable & contemporary aircrafts were left in the running, with both possessing great latitude for future growth through a possible Mid-Life Upgrade [MLU]. Besides, as made clear by the Government of India, right at the onset, technical parameters would be the sole deciding criteria. However, the choice of Rafale, brings with it some unique, advantages, both, technical, & otherwise, which makes it a more ideal choice for India's Military-Defence apparatus.
Interesting developments surrounded the announcement of the winner itself. Even while it announced Rafale's name as that closest to winning, it left a window of opportunity open for the other participants to bag some contracts too, when it announced that India would purchase an additional 80 fighter aircraft & would consider all the original participants while doing so.
"adding that the defence ministry was now considering buying another 80 or so jets and could invite bidders excluded from the current process to take part."
If 80 or more aircrafts are to be bought, I see no reason for India to buy any aircraft other than 80 additional Rafale. For long Indian planners have lamented of the nightmare faced managing operations of a virtual salad bowl of aircrafts that the Indian Air Force [IAF] flies & have expressed intentions to standardize operations on a Hi-Med-Lo mix each. Thus, any plans to buy a different aircraft in the same-class of the MMRCA would run diametrically opposite to the stated intention.
What may, perhaps, explain the rationale behind this move, is that the promise of additional aircraft purchase is a card that India could cleverly play while negotiating with the French. A favorable deal from France for the initial 126 aircrafts would automatically result into it being awarded contracts for 80 additional aircrafts, a significant part of which could then be assembled in France itself. Thus, with the French too manufacturing the Rafale for IAF, there would be two manufacturing lines working to fulfill the Indian order, essentially doubling the induction speed. This would also address the sense being expressed by the French public that, despite winning the MMRCA contract, France does not stand to gain much as far as employment generation is concerned, as 108 of the 126 birds would be manufactured in India itself1.
Precedence for such a move can be seen when the Indian Air Force had floated a global tender to acquire additional Advanced Jet Trainers [AJT] in addition to the existing fleet of its British-origin BAE Hawk aircrafts, also a relatively recent acquisition. Subsequently, decision was taken to acquire additional Hawks. Thus knowing that BAE need not be the one to provide IAF with the additional follow-on jets, could have ensured that they quote the lowest possible price again, thus winning the contract the second time around too.
For the other participants also, the possibility of being able to bag the contract for supplying 80 fighters would mean they would be dissuaded from taking any drastic steps in protest of their earlier down-select, that would in any manner jeopardies their chances of bagging the follow-on contract. This also gives the Indians some breathing space & fewer fires to douse, while its in the midst of negotiations with the French. Advantage India all the way, as far as I see it. Moreover, if some nation succeeds in mounting pressure on the Indian government, to which it finally capitulates, the 80 aircraft contract could be awarded to it, leaving the primary 126 aircraft contract untouched. Unpleasant prospects. but international arms deals are amongst the dirtiest. Unfortunate risks owing to having an underdeveloped indigenous military industrial base in country.
An adverse, even if remote, possibility could also be that India may decide to purchase 80 Swedish Gripen fighter aircrafts. The number ~80 closely matches the number of follow-on Mark II versions of the indigenously developed Light combat Aircraft [LCA] Tejas that the Indian Air Force [IAF] is to buy to meet the requirements of its light aircrafts. However, the program has faced delays [Mark I LSP-7 aircraft was expected to take to air at the end of January last month. No news, so far]. In addition, the Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft [AMCA]2 program is also to be undertaken by the same agencies developing the LCA.
Thus, there could, perhaps, be this thinking among Indian decision-makers to acquire the Gripen, which closely matches the specifications of the Tejas, though Sweden's decades of experience designing & building aircrafts, unlike India, gives the Gripen a definite leg-up. Local assembly of these aircrafts in India, with Sweden supplying critical components, could be facilitated by establishing a collaborative venture between India's biggest private-sector business enterprises, that have long evinced interest in getting into this field, having already made some modest forays. With the Swedes showing them the way, India Inc. acquires the much-needed knowledge & expertise, gaining experience from one of the oldest hands in business. Moreover, the Gripen is powered by the RM12 engine developed by Volvo Aero. This engine is a variant of the American F404 engine, currently powering LCA Tejas. India had, recently signed an agreement with the American OEM, GE, to supply a derivative of F404, the uprated F414-INS6 engines to power the Mark II variants. As supply of these engines have yet to begun AFAIK, it may not be beyond the realms of possibility to arrange a swap, re-routing supply of these engines to Sweden for the necessary modifications to be carried out to bring it up to RM-12 standards.
Unburdened of the responsibility of having to work on two projects near-simultaneously, Govt.-run Indian R&D institutes, on the other hand, could then be able to re-direct all their efforts towards working on the AMCA project, bringing in the technologies developed as part of the LCA program & newer technologies likely to come from the French & the Swedish, after successful absorption [know-why element of technology], which could then be utilised to develop the AMCA. The Americans too had, earlier, floated balloons indicating its willingness to setup/transfer a dedicated production line of the legacy F-16 fighter aircraft to India, & make it the regional hub for upkeep & maintenance of all F-16s flown by Air Forces in the region, with the possible exception of Pakistan, if it were to win the original MMRCA contract. It was also being said, if any more contracts for F-16 were to be signed by the U.S with any other country, its Indian plant would be tasked with fulfilling the contract. The Viper is, however, an aircraft of much greater vintage whose potential for growth has reached its absolute limits, IMHO, & for which any newer contracts are unlikely to appear. Thus, the carrot Lockheed Martin had earlier dangled, may not be enticing enough, compared to the Gripen, if it were to come to choosing between the two for the ~80+ aircrafts. Also, unlike Sweden which has a sovereign stake & interest in ensuring further growth in capability of the Gripen, that could thereafter reflect across all Gripens operated worldwide, the Americans, despite ad-hoc, short-term upgrade plans for the F-16, have long moved on to other aircraft development.
Moreover, such a Swedish-French tandem could facilitate in them joining hands with India towards the development of the AMCA, as neither have any publically announced plans of developing a manned Fight Generation Fighter Aircraft to replace their respective Rafale & Gripen.
Having said this, it would be tremendous blow to the morale of the Scientists & Technologists who have toiled hard to bring the Tejas project to this stage, despites numerous handicaps, some setbacks, not to mention ill-informed opinion emanating from numerous, vocal quarters. Besides, an aircraft of its class, holds a great potential for export, if it arrives up to that stage, earning India significant foreign revenue & an influence enjoyed by other weapons exporting countries of the world. Due considerations would, no doubt, be given before any such decision is taken that affects India's interest, both in the medium-term & beyond, immediate conveniences notwithstanding.
Coming back to the Rafale, since the time of the last post, development work on the aircraft's RBE2-AA Active Electronically Scanned Array [AESA] radar has been progressing well, with updates emerging of the milestones it crosses,
"Thales has announced that the production model AESA RBE2 radar with active electronically scanned array antenna has been validated on the Rafale omnirole combat aircraft. Following a comprehensive programme of flight tests conducted between September and December 2010 with the AESA RBE2 on the Rafale, Dassault Aviation confirmed that all aspects of the radar’s performance comply with the technical specifications of the ‘Roadmap’ contract, awarded by the French defence procurement agency (DGA)."
The radar is most certain to see implementation on operational Rafale fighters flown by the French, and thus would equip Indian Air Force's fighters too. Just as important to the actual presence of AESA radars onboard the Rafale, is the access to its source code & technology, as made available to its Indian operators. If reports are to be believed, then India has insisted on being made available the source code in order maintain operational & mission independence. The French President himself has assured that this would be done. It remains to be seen, how much of it would be made accessible, via some sort of an API, perhaps & the extent to which it could be tinkered with by India to suit its requirements. These and thousands of other issues will need to be sorted out and resolved by the Price Negotiation Committees [PNC] from both sides, before the final agreement is signed.
The Rafale comes with it, a formidable & a wide variety of weapon package, in order to accomplish varied missions. The recent agreement signed between the two countries for upgrading the fleet of Mirage-2000 aircrafts flown by the IAF is likely to lead to commonality in the weapons they both can be armed with. Thus, it would greatly ease inventory hassles, promoting inter-operability.
Besides being armed with French weaponry, it would also greatly serve Indian interests if they can reach an agreement to integrate future airborne weapons being developed in India, for use off the Rafale. Some of the relevant indigenous weapons under development:
- Astra: Beyond Visual Range Air-To-Air Missile [BVRAAM]
- Sudarshan: Laser-guided bomb
- Helina: Air-launched Anti-Tank Missile, primarily being developed for firing from Helicopters. Variant of the Nag Missile
Doing so would lead to standardization of weaponry capable of being launched by aircrafts across the fleet of the Indian Air Force. It would also lessen India's dependence on foreign buyers for these types & classes of weapons, irrespective of the aircraft, increasing self-reliance.
The first 18 aircrafts coming off the assembly line in France itself would mean that a squadron-strength of these aircraft would be in service with the Indian Air Force in the quickest possible time. This would allow the pilots & ground crew of IAF sufficient time to familiarize themselves with the different aspects of the plane. Thus by the time the aircraft begins rolling out of the newly set up assembly line to be run by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited [HAL], the IAF would have had a significant heads-up time ironing out issues relating to handling & operation of the Rafale.
During those stages of the competition when all the 6 aircrafts were in the running, Dassault had often given assurances to India that it would be ready to integrate Kaveri, India's indigenously developed Turbofan Engine into the Rafale, if the aircraft were selected. In the ensuing period, the Gas Turbine Research Establishment [GTRE], the nodal agency in-charge of the project, has reached the final stages of negotiations before signing an agreement with French Aero-Engine developer, Snecma, to seek their consultancy & assistance in improving the performance of the Kaveri to meet the requirements of the AMCA, possibly even power the Tejas, if things work out smoothly. As stated by the Director of GTRE, the status of the negotiations till December 2011,
"Regarding Kaveri snecma, the detailed discussions have been held; development plan, technologies, terms & conditions have been finalised. Negotiations are in final stage and are likely to be completed in the next 2-3 months. Afterwards papers will be moved for cabinet approval."
Thus in keeping with the promises made, integration of the eventual Kaveri-Snecma engine, onto the Rafale must be taken up for implementation. Incidentally, the twin-engine Rafale's power-plant, the M88-2 Turbofan engine, too has been developed by Snecma. An engine developed primarily by India powering the large number of Rafales & AMCA [hopefully LCA, too] would be a shot in the arm for carrying out further research & development activities in this field within the country.
In order to encourage & boost private sector participation in defence production, in 2005, the Government of India, formulated what is called as the 'Offset Policy'. What it essentially stated was that for every $100 USD worth of contract awarded to a foreign weapons company to supply military hardware, the company must source at least $30 USD worth of components for the weapon system from an Indian company, i.e. 30% of the value of contract. Such a move would not only bring back part of the money spent by India back to India, it would also create participation opportunities for Indian industries, thereby creating knowledgebase of expertise that could be utilised in India's own development & manufacturing efforts. Offset norms for the MMRCA have been set much higher, at 50%. While no definite figure can be stated, numerous estimates have put the eventual value of the contract at values ranging from $14 Billion USD to $20 Billion USD. Assuming a value of $18 Billion USD, it would mean that orders worth $9 Billion USD would be placed with Indian manufacturing industry. This economic windfall, increased employment opportunities & the already stated expertise, if properly managed, would play a vital role in helping boost & encourage India's defence production process. Add to that French manufacturing & assembly technology & machine tools that would equip the Indian production line. Best practices from the French way of manufacturing, ploughed back into Indian industries would only serve to improve our own way of doing things. After all Dassault is also one of the world's largest vendors of PLM solutions.
"The first MMRCA built in HAL should roll out in 2017-18. Thereafter, HAL will deliver six jets per year, which will go up to 20 per year later. HAL will achieve 85% technology absorption by the end," said a source. Both MoD and IAF are confident there are "enough safeguards'' built into the project, which includes "performance-based logistics'', to ensure India "gets the best machine, spares and product support".
Along with offsets opportunities, Transfer of Technology [ToT] would hand over to India, what could easily amount to culmination of a cumulative efforts of billion+ man hours of research and studies in developing the aircraft. Effectively handled, such such a vast repository of knowledge & data would enable India to leapfrog in its own efforts to develop comparable systems & technologies. However, for this to be made possible, it would be essential that once India is in possession of the knowledge of the technology, an intense & thorough study be undertaken, to gain a complete understanding, especially the know-why portion, of the Technology [know-what & know-how being offered as part of the agreement]. It would involve gaining a through understanding of the working of the system, its design, commence process to increasingly substitute French systems with indigenous ones, study materials used - a critical element of Aerostructures. It is only after undertaking a comprehensive and unsparing study of what we receive from the French would it be truly assimilated into the knowledge pool of the country.
While the list enumerated above are demanding, requiring intense wrangling between the negotiating parties, on counts of price & actual availability itself, India is quite advantageously positioned to ensure its own interests are taken care of. As stated previously, failure to win any foreign contract has been a thorny issue for the French. The French Defence Minister, earlier, even went to the extent of threatening to shut down the aircraft's assembly line if no contracts are won. This would automatically have caused loss of employment of thousands working at the plant & many thousands more indirectly associated with the plant's operation. In face of such dire consequences for the French, an agreement that addresses India's direct & implied interest must be that much easier to achieve. Moreover, as stated earlier, ability to flaunt an Indian contract of 126 aircraft automatically eases the way towards bagging other international contract. In fact, coupled with the Indian contract, any other foreign contract it bids for would enjoy the benefits of economies of scale, allowing the French to quote a lower price for the Rafale in those competitions, thereby further improving its chances of a win there. Thus, it would be as much in the interest of the French, as in India's, to see to it that the deal goes through. In fact, as I see it, the French have a lot more riding on the deal to let it slip by. The possibility of eventually losing the contract to their arch rival, fellow European, the Anglo-Saxon Eurofighter3, would likely be too much of a blow to their pride, to let it happen, up to reasonable limits. Upon commencement, negotiations are expected to take up to almost a year to conclude, if things proceed without major hiccups,
"France is confident that it can sign and seal a firm $12 billion deal to supply India with 126 Rafale fighter jets "within six to nine months", government spokeswoman Valerie Pecresse said on Wednesday."
In addition, successful conclusion of the contract for the Indian Air Force could also pave ways for effecting a similar sale, to the Indian Navy [IN]. The IN has been exploring the possibility of basing fighter aircrafts of a heavier weight class, aboard the second Indigenous Aircraft Carrier [IAC-2], whose construction would commence following the completion of the IAC-1. IAC-2, expected to be larger in size compared to the IAC-1 & thus would be capable of housing larger aircraft. As a result, the Indian Navy's aviation wing too would operate a mix of Hi-Lo aircrafts, with the Naval version of the LCA performing the role of the light aircraft. Acquiring the Rafale, if purchased by the IAF, would lead to the multiple advantages arising out of the commonality of systems, as stated earlier.
While, the government of India has steadfastly maintained that the choice of aircraft selected would strictly be in accordance with its technical capabilities, with the final selection based on monetary ones, the choice of Rafale as India's fighter aircraft also brings with it some inherent non-technical, geo-strategic/geo-political benefits, perhaps inadvertantly4. France is a single country developer of the Rafale. Thus any negotiations & dealings w.r.t the aircraft essentially would need to be carried out with a single country only. This is in total contrast to that of the Eurofighter Typhoon, built by a consortium of 4 European countries. Any decision taken has to be first agreed upon by each of the four countries. It is only after they have built up a consensus, can things proceed. The nature of international relationship & negotiations makes such an arrangement inherently cumbersome & time-consuming. Often interests of participating countries in the Eurofighter project have run opposite to one another, leading to prolonged wrangling. A much avoidable situation.
Furthermore, France having totally invested itself in the development of the Rafale has a sovereign stake, much like their Swedish counterparts, in ensuring further development & expansion of the envelope of the aircraft's capabilities. Thus, an Indian Air Force flying the Rafale, too, would be in firm footing in expecting similar developments being applied to its own airframe. A joint effort towards such a development project between India and France too is a viable possibility. On cannot, similarly, say this with any sense of certainty about the Eurofighter. 2 of the 4 partner countries have committed themselves to acquisition of the primarily American-lead/built F-35 joint Strike Fighter. There is also a great deal of reluctance to honour their commitment to acquire a specified number of aircrafts5. Forced to enforce massive spending cuts in its budgetary allocation, including Defence, it is very likely that Eurofighter's future development may be kept to the bare minimum, if at all. Indeed, agreement to perform a Tranche 3 upgrade of the Eurofighter is mired in intense disagreements, with each party showing clear lack of enthusiasm on this front. Even the development of its AESA radar, the CAPTOR-E, has been slower than desirable, with estimates suggesting it would see operations only in 2015. A somewhat optimistic deadline.
From the point of view of International relations too, this deal with France would be a politically expedient move. France has been stead-fast in tis support of India. Post Pokhran-II Nuclear tests conducted by India, it had been one of the few nations that supported India's decision, understanding its compulsions. Naturally, France imposed no sanctions on India, following the tests & even went ahead with a scheduled bilateral Naval exercise, while India was turned into an international pariah by the rest of the countries. While this may have been, in great parts, due to mercantile considerations, that France sought to benefit from, yet the fact that India had the support of countries as influential and powerful as France, made their action critical to safeguarding Indian interests. In recent times too, Indo-French co-operation has extended to increasing spheres of interests that are sure to reap great dividends for both nations, especially India. Few examples of this co-operation in the non-military domain,
- Development & launch of Megha-Tropiques satellite for studying the climate
- Agreement to improve academic & research ties between the two countries signed between the Center National De La Recherche Scientifique [CNRS] & the Indian Institute of Science [IISc] Bangalore
- Setting up of a an institute for Applied Mathematics to take up research projects jointly in this field
- Setting up of Nuclear Power plant by French company Areva to address India's electricity requirements, essential for economic growth
Greater co-operation with a country like France, a strong economic power whose stability is in firm footing & whose support for India would be assured, to a great extent, provided it sees economic benefits in doing so, must be a path India must embark, as it serves to safeguard Indian interests.
In fact, noted analyst Bharat Karnad has even alluded to the fact that, as a sweetener, France has talked of giving Indian Nuclear scientists working on the weapons program, access to its Laser Mégajoule Inertial Confinement Fusion facility, for carrying out further development to refine & further validate designs of its Thermonuclear device. The only other comparable facility in the world is the National Ignition Facility in the United States.
"Bharat Karnad, a defence expert at the Centre for Policy Research in Delhi, says a likely bargaining chip was the prospect of the use of nuclear testing facilities in Bordeaux to shore up the thermonuclear shortcomings of India’s nuclear arsenal."
The possibility of such a proposal having being made has not been ruled out by the Eurofighter team,
"Dassault got very aggressive on price and then Sarkozy rounded out the deal at the very end, possibly with some side-deal involving nuclear energy,” one German official says."
Such a proposal, if indeed made, would be vital to Indian interests. International reactions in response to any physical nuclear test India decides to carry out would seriously impede plans of India's economic growth. Yet, security situation in the Indian sub-continent, as well as relations with China demands India posses an credible Nuclear deterrent, whose capability leave no doubt in the minds of either its custodian or the adversary. A sound alternative, therefore, would be for India to carry out simulations of its design in operation, under laboratory conditions, as would be possible at the French facility.
Eurofighter nations, unfortunately have often been on sides opposite to that of India. The most glaring example of this is seen in the United Nations [U.N.]. Italy & Spain, along with Pakistan, are part of the Coffee Club, a coalition of countries that vehemently opposes any move to expand the number of permanent members of the United Nations Security Council [UNSC], to which India has been rightfully seeking membership. Germany too, another Eurofighter partner, recently asked India to drop its demands seeking veto powers, like the other UNSC permanent members, if it sought a realistic chance of gaining entry. Such attitudes & policies are hardly conducive for fostering partnership & co-operation between nations of the nature awarding the MMRCA contract could bring about. In addition, countries like Italy & Spain, as also the United Kingdom, are midst of their own domestic economic crisis, that considerably lessens its ability expend political currency towards fostering international co-operation. Besides countries like Italy & Spain just do not have the kind of stature & clout in the global arena that could significantly benefit India, in lieu of awarding the MMRCA contract. Moreover, American influence upon these four countries is much more stronger than that over France, which maintain a fairly strong impression of independent policy, viz-a-viz the American. Thus, even while maintaining strong & growing relationship with America, India would be well-placed to foster an equally solid partnership with France, cultivating good, friendly co-operative relationship with either countries.
The announcement to enter into exclusive negotiations with France for the Rafale has been one of the most prudent decisions taken by India. However, by no means is it guaranteed that the Rafale would finally emerge winner. The negotiations will be long & hard. International pressure from the other participants would be intense. It is vital that India & France hold on to their course & not get waylaid by extraneous impediments, and ensure that the deal finally goes through, to the mutual benefit of both parties.
As the saying goes, "There's many a slip twixt the cup and the lip".
1 - The argument for insufficient employment creation, while not without merit is, somewhat, flawed. Announcement that India has decided to acquire the French aircraft, after a trial that was declared to be one of the most comprehensive & transparent, is a resounding thumbs-up of the bird's capability & reputation, that has yet to bag a foreign customer. Riding on the back of this solid Indian endorsement, the French are now far better placed to win other contracts elsewhere in the world. Indeed, just days after the French victory in India, reports emerged that U.A.E., that had earlier stalled negotiation proceedings for acquiring its own Rafale, had re-kindled interest. Brazil, too is looking to acquire new aircrafts & the Rafale is one of the contenders. With the Brazilian Defence Minister, currently in India [assuming I finish writing the post in time], it goes without saying the Rafale win would be discussed & much information would be sought from India. Then other countries too, like Oman & Kuwait have evinced interest in the Rafale as a choice for its newest fighter to replace the French Mirage they operate. It is only natural to assume Rafale's win in India serves to tilt the balance in its favor. While the sum total of the number of Rafale purchased could be substantial, numbers purchased by the individual countries/kingdoms would not permit setting up a local assembly line in the buyer's country. Thus, these orders would have to be executed by the French in their own plants, thereby addressing employment concerns.
Moreover, even while India assembles these aircrafts within the country, the French would still remain suppliers of components & sub-systems of the aircrafts, progressively reducing in their participation, while Indian industries take time to absorb the technology to be transferred as part of the deal. A precedent for a process would be the deal signed for the Sukhoi Su-30MKI fighter aircraft between India & Russia in 2000. The deal too included Transfer of Technology & License Production as the Rafale. It is only by 2012, it was announced that India would be able to source 100% of the components for building the aircraft from within the country itself. A good 12 years of Russian involvement continued, & is likely to continue for a longer time in manufacturing its Al-31 engines.
2 - The 5th generation AMCA is expected to complement/supplement the 4+ generation MMRCA purchase, while it is in services, and take over, when the MMRCA retires.
3 - Incidentally, the French had initially been part of the confederation of countries that had come together to develop an aircraft to address the collective needs of European Air Forces. However, unable to assume position of the lead country in the project, the French withdrew. Instead they decided to pursue a program to develop a fighter aircraft development program that was wholly theirs. The end-result - Rafale. The joint European collaborative effort bore fruits and was eventually named the Eurofighter Typhoon. These two aircrafts, developed by countries of the same European Union, often compete against each other for fighter contract.
4 - inadvertent, unlikely
5 - Britain, in fact, succeed in passing off sale of 24 Eurofighter to the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, as that of its own purchase, thereby appearing to fulfill its commitment to purchase its promised share of aircraft, even the ones purchased by the Saudis.