By Bharat Karnad
The word is that the Modi government has informed Moscow that it will soon sign the detailed, long pending co-development agreement for the Su-50 FGFA (Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft). This simplifies the choices somewhat for defence minister Manohar Parrikar as regards the three large aircraft programmes on the IAF menu: other than FGFA, Rafale, and Tejas Mk-2. The AgustaWestland corruption scandal has pretty much sunk the Rafale deal for fear that France’s cultivation of interested parties over the past decade could end up tarring the ruling BJP regime in some way considering a lot of the IAF brass and MOD officials spanning the NDA and UPA govts may be implicated in any future investigation. These officials may drag the relatively clean reputation of Modi & Co., through the mud as there’s always someone, compromised and dirty in the decision loop.
With some $25 billion taken up by the FGFA project, and the politically safe decision to fund and propagate the indigenous Tejas, the prospects of the LCA Mk-2 have suddenly brightened. Even the usual naysayers among the Air HQrs brass are in a funk, seeing former CAS ACM SP Tyagi facing definite jail time — a matter of when, not if, and another Ex-AF chief ACK NAK Browne chewing his fingernails in Oslo, awaiting sessions with the CBI interrogators who are presently collecting information on the Pilatus 7C trainer acquisition. Tyagi and Browne, whose names are also mentioned along with one service chief in particular around the turn of the Century — all of whom proved great lovers of the French Mirage 2000 and ready initial pushers of the Rafale, possibly for a consideration — which is what CBI are trying to find out. So preoccupied, there will be little squeaking by IAF over Tejas and FGFA choices — of that one can now be certain.
The skew factor is how much value prime minister Modi accords his impromptu commitment to President Francois Hollande to buy the French aircraft in flyaway condition. Such commitments are not significant except to an ingenue on the international stage, such as Modi, intent on making his mark. He’s perhaps not aware that as a buyer Delhi holds all the cards. France can be told — too bad but India cannot afford the Rafale at any price and Good Bye! That’s all there’s to it.
Paris, cannot act uppity or hurt because if it acts up it can end up losing access to the still lucrative Indian market altogether.
The air force’s immediate need to make up fighter squadron strength will be addressed by a solution Parrikar very early preferred — buy more than double the number of HAL, Nasik-assembled Su-30 MKIs upgraded with retrofitment of the Phazotron Zhuk AE AESA radar for the same amount of monies invested in Rafale. The investment and advancement of the Tejas Mk-2 in mission-mode will win the govt applause, which has been rare in its 2 years in office. Together with the upgraded MiG-29, Mirage 2000, and Jaguar fleets, IAF is — honestly speaking, not in all that bad a state.
So Parrikar, will make proforma noises about the Rafale deal under negotiation, but let this deal wither away on the PNC vine, notwithstanding desperate attempts by Paris to bag a contract by lowering the cost to 7.25 billion euros (from 8.2 billion euros) for 36 aircraft or around 9 billion USD or approximately $250 million per Rafale without weapons. With the full complement of French-sourced A2A and A2G weapons, such as the MICA (advanced Sidewinder equivalent), the cost per aircraft will skyrocket to in excess of $300 million, a sum that will buy India 2.5 AESA-equipped Su-30MKIs, each with full weapon load. No matter how you cut the deal, Rafale isn’t worth the oodles of money it will cost the Indian taxpayer.
But why did the Modi govt do a turnaround on the FGFA that IAF wanted to junk? This is because, as stated in earlier posts, Modi government was warned about the outcomes of “buying West”. It weighed the danger of Russia simply terminating all engagement with this country in the military sphere coupled with a proportional link-up with Pakistan, and deeper weapons co-development with China that would place India in a deep hole. It would have instantly seeded dangers on numerous fronts. Firstly, the hardware void cannot be easily filled by Western sources because the bulk military armaments are ex-Russian. Secondly, the termination of technical assistance in advanced and sensitive projects would quite literally put all prestige Indian projects into a freeze, which cannot be thawed out by Western countries as few of them will willingly sell other than “cutting edge minus-minus”-quality weapons and weapons platforms, and none of them is prepared to cooperate in actual technology transfer of the substantive kind, leave alone co-design and co-develop with India sophisticated armaments for love or money.
India thus has no choice– an unenviable position India is in because for 60 years a succession of popularly elected governments in Delhi have talked big about meeting all military needs through indigenous sources but in reality invariably given into temptations of numbered accounts and payments in kind (green card, “scholarships” and jobs for progeny in foreign multinational companies, etc.) offered by foreign supplier countries, and remorselessly throttled promising military high-tech, high value, R&D DRDO projects in the cradle.
The result is a hollow military and armed services that can at any time be stopped cold by any of a multitude of foreign suppliers turning off the spares spigot, and grounding the country’s fighting capabilities in a trice.
It is ultimately the political class that is to blame for this situation, because it cannot summon the vision or the will to decree no more arms import and stick by it, come what may, and it does not incentivize the domestic private sector to step in to produce all armaments, however they do it, at home. Military brass and IAS bureaucrats are ultimately only order-takers. They will swill at the foreign bad money though when they see the politicians doing it.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi. He was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, ‘Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy’, ‘India’s Nuclear Policy’ and most recently, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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