Narendra Modi has handled Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping, and Barack Obama well. So fending off pressure from the Indian Air Force (IAF) and European states on medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) should be easy, especially because favouring the French Rafale aircraft or the German Eurofighter is likely to permanently tar the reputation of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party as the Bofors gun scam did the Congress party. A boondoggle lurks just below the MMRCA decision and requires, not finalising, but scrutiny by the Central Bureau of Investigation.
The MMRCA was conceived by the IAF brass as means of procuring Western aircraft under the rubric of “diversifying supply sources”. The deficiencies in the MMRCA concept and the Rafale aircraft and deal have been analysed in my previous writings. But how supplier states brazenly play a con game using transfer of technology (TOT) provisions with the full connivance and complicity of the ministry of defence and services headquarters is astonishing and has, so far, gone unnoticed. An egregious example is that Dassault, as part of the Rafale contract, has promised gallium nitride (GaN) technology to make semi-conductor chips utilised in high-powered avionics but refused to part with technology for the foundries to fabricate the chips! India will thus pay through its nose for technology that cannot be converted into a component, which will end up being imported for the lifetime of the aircraft.
Eurofighter has come back into the reckoning because the visiting German foreign minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier offered 126 of this aircraft for Rs 20,000 crore less than the Rafale. A discounted price cannot outweigh the redundancy aspect attending on the MMRCA in general and the negatives of the Eurofighter/Rafale in particular. Take the case of the AESA (active electronically scanned array) radar enabling combat planes to shift between ground attack and air-to-air interception roles. The European consortium EADS talked up the dated and deficient Captor-M PESA (passive electronically scanned array) radar when IAF was assessing the Eurofighter. It is to be enhanced to full AESA capability courtesy a $1.8 billion 5-year Captor-E project just sanctioned by the UK government. New Delhi will thus pay for the development of the enhanced Captor-E system, which will be available a decade late for retrofitting on the Eurofighter peddled to IAF without, however, enjoying intellectual property rights on the AESA technology as its development-funder!
More significantly, this plane has an unstable flight control system driven by faulty software that, according to a story in reputable periodical Der Spiegel dated July 10, 2013, has led to many near-disasters such as the aircraft almost flying into the air traffic control tower at the Neuberg air base in 2007. Other serious problems afflict this plane such as a flawed pilot ejection system. Design and system deficiencies have periodically grounded the Eurofighter fleet in the German Air Force. The Austrian Air Force, with 15 Eurofighters in service, detected 68 defects in it that potentially could have caused fatal crashes such as the altimeter being off by nearly 200 feet, unbalanced aircraft owing to incorrect pumping of aviation fuel into the engine, etc.
The main production plant at Manching, moreover, lost its licence to manufacture the Eurofighter because a German defence ministry review, in the words of Der Spiegel, found “unprecedented sloppiness in production”, identifying 35 defects in the production process and another 49 in the quality control process. Worse, EADS delivered only 108 aircraft instead of 143 Eurofighters for the contracted sum of 18.6 billion Euros. Further, the Eurofighter, like the Rafale, has found no buyers, because it represents obsolete technology! Most problematically from the Indian perspective is the fact that Eurofighter has many US-made components and its networking system (data fusion, air-to-air and other communications links, etc.) is designed by the American company, Raytheon. From India’s past experience of the US terminating spares and other material supplies over policy differences and in violation of contractual obligations, Eurofighter is thoroughly compromised goods. Grounding of C-17/C-130 transport fleets is one thing; losing whole squadrons of frontline combat aircraft this way in a crisis is something else altogether.
Interesting revelations may tumble out if CBI inquired into how, why, and by whom the MMRCA decisions were crafted. In the early 2000s, as a “stop gap” measure a decision was taken to acquire 12 Mirage 2000-5 aircraft with 85 per cent of its life still remaining from Qatar, which had acquired them from France in 1997. The tripartite deal, involving aircraft producer Dassault, was struck in April 2005 for $600 million, including a stock of 500 air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles. It was aborted a few months later when IAF headed by Air Chief Marshal S P Tyagi arbitrarily slashed its offer to $375 million. The decision by a protesting Qatar to back out of the deal was used to conjure up the entirely novel MMRCA requirement and push for global tender, which Dassault hoped to win and, surprise! surprise!, did.
It is unfortunate that military bosses cry wolf in order to stampede the government of the day into approving purchases of often unnecessary weapons platforms they desire. The IAF brass did so to get the Qatari Mirages sanctioned before abruptly junking the deal and opting for shinier hardware; now they say they can’t do without the Rafale! If the need was so urgent 10 years ago, why was the termination of the Qatari transaction engineered? The problem of depleting fighter squadrons that IAF complains about can be filled in short order and at fraction of the eventual $30 plus billion MMRCA cost, as suggested by this analyst, by accelerating production and induction of the Tejas Mk-1 for short-range air defence combined with off-the-shelf buys of the multi-role and technologically superior Su-30s and MiG-29Ms (whose servicing infrastructure is in place) until the Indianised genuine 5th generation fighter, Su-50 PAK FA enters service by the end of the decade. Finally, after cutting Rs 3,000 crore from the army’s procurement budget as an economy measure, defence minister Arun Jaitley may find it hard to justify a requirements-wise questionable MMRCA costing Rs 1.8 lakh crore, or sixty times as much.
The author is professor at the Centre for Policy Research and blogs at www.bharatkarnad.com