The founders of our Constitution gave us the freedom of speech, but they possibly didn’t realise that there would be something called a Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) of the IAF that would be so set upon by some armchair critics as to blur the fine line between free speech and misinformation. Bharat Karnad’s “Why Rafale is a Big Mistake” (TNIE, July 25) does just that, besides being full of innuendos and disinformation. To be sure, this writer is just an academic now but one who spent the better part of three decades smelling burnt aviation turbine fuel on the flight line, including flight testing aircraft, and in a senior position pushing tri-service procurement proposals in HQ Integrated Defence Staff.
It would be good to give the readers of this newspaper a low-down on how the MMRCA requirement came about. The IAF, around the turn of the century, after carrying out a threat assessment found the need for a capability to be acquired to fill a void in its combat fleet to address the conflict spectrum that India was likely to face. Accordingly, a requirement for 126 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft (improved version of Mirage 2000) was projected to the government in 2000. The Mirages had performed very creditably in the Kargil conflict and since a drawdown in fleet strength was looming due to obsolescence of the MiG-21s and ground attack fleet, it was felt that the improved version of the Mirage would fit in as a replacement. But post-Kargil, the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) came into vogue in 2002 and a multi-vendor process (as mandated by the DPP) commenced with revised Qualitative Requirements (QRs). The Request for Proposal for the almost $10.5 billion project was sent in 2007 to all six aircraft manufacturers who make this class of aircraft, other than China, who then applied in the mandated two-bid format, with each vendor giving a technical bid and a commercial bid at the same time; it is important to understand this as it implies that the price bid of a company got fixed in dollar/Euro terms at that point. As per the DPP, initially only the technical bids are opened and the equipment put through an evaluation process which includes a field evaluation trial. This technical evaluation throws up vendors who meet the QRs that had been projected and only their commercial bids are opened and assessed to select the winner.
The MMRCA evaluation followed the DPP to the ‘t’ with not a whiff of any controversy, and after very rigorous ground and flight evaluations, two vendors qualified. The evaluation of their commercial bids saw the selection of the French Rafale in 2011. An attempt is now being made to make a textbook evaluation and selection process mired in controversy of performance criteria (QRs), costs, and surprisingly a corruption allegation.
That the cost of the project in rupee terms (and not dollar value) would increase is a no-brainer as more than three years have elapsed in decision-making and the rupee value has depreciated. Any further delay will jack it up further but that would have happened with whichever aircraft had met the criteria. What Karnad is now questioning is the force composition of the IAF arrived at by professional planners and, without being an air power expert himself, suggesting a new mix of “..Tejas Mk I for short range air defence, Tejas MkII as MMRCA and the Su-50 PAK FA as fifth generation fighter”. This is a perfect example of the ignorant trying to drive defence force structuring as the yet-to-be inducted Tejas Mk I is unsuitable for IAF operational requirements (and hence would limited to only two squadrons) and Tejas Mk II would have less than one-third the flight range and armament capability of the MMRCA and just qualify to be a MiG 21 replacement. Why the use of future tense? Because Tejas Mk II is still on DRDO’s drawing board and would NOT enter squadron service before 2020-22, just like the fifth generation fighter (which would be 2025 or later). But the requirement is literally now, as the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence (15th Lok Sabha) itself despairingly noted that the IAF strength was down to 34 squadrons (instead of the sanctioned 42) and reducing further, thus requiring new timely acquisitions.
It is most unprofessional to link defence acquisitions of one country with the threat perception of another as Karnad has done and it is downright spiteful for doubting the competence of test pilots and test engineers of the IAF by saying that the Brazilians had doubts about Rafale’s radar and its head-up display. Do Brazil, Canada, the Netherlands, Norway, Singapore and Morocco (cited by Karnad as having rejected the Rafale) have two nuclear armed nations as adversaries? Have these nations ever gone to war with their neighbours in the past six decades? Costs, albeit important, don’t decide acquisitions; it is the capability one desires that is the driving factor and it’s our misfortune that HAL has not delivered this to the nation. The IAF just looks at getting the right product to safeguard the national skies, as it is its duty to do so. The IAF is accountable to the nation if it does not perform; pray, what is the responsibility attached to Karnad for his alternative force composition suggestion for the IAF?
The visit of the French foreign minister and his supposed canvassing for the Rafale, that Karnad finds fault with, is something that any politician would do for his country; hopefully, there would come a day when the Indian foreign minister would do the same for a HAL-produced aircraft, Inshallah! Till then, let the professionals do their job of recommending what is good for the defence of the nation. Please trust someone. In the case of the IAF, it is a crack team of test pilots and test engineers on whom the country has spent a fortune to train. Let armchair critics not derail a capability provider that successive IAF chiefs have urged the government to procure. This trend to doubt recommendations of service chiefs is dangerous and is conspicuous by the surety of it being raised each time a big-ticket item of any of the three services is close to fruition. Disagreements based on professionally sound arguments are always welcome—but they come with a caveat in matters of national security. The naysayers must be held responsible, too. It is only right that readers of this newspaper are made wise accordingly.
The writer, a retired Air Vice Marshal, is a distinguished fellow at Centre for Air Power Studies.