By Bharat Karnad
The phrase ‘White elephant’ refers to an acquisition exorbitantly costly to buy, run, and upkeep. It is derived from the story of a rare pachyderm that was acquired by the Thai court as a symbol of its Hindu power and religiosity, which ended up beggaring that kingdom.
The 36 Rafales that the Narendra Modi regime is obtaining for the Indian Air Force are, collectively, the white elephant whose costs will sink India’s military power. This is because there’ll be no monies left over after the full program costs (with steeply rising value of the euro) of US $30-$40 billion are borne by the luckless Indian taxpayer, to fund any other major military procurement for the next decade or so.
The Modi PMO is readying the cabinet note for approval of this buy by the Cabinet Committee on Security (CCS), which is a mere formality. With nobody of political weight among his colleagues to question the PM’s choice, CCS’ confirmation is a foregone conclusion. This is generally what happens when a military hardware selection process gets to this stage. There’s no instance, as far as I can recall, where CCS has come up with a nyet.
This reduction of CCS to a rubber stamp is an attribute of the Westminster model of government that the Constituent Assembly chose without pondering the practical consequences for the country and which the ex-colonial power, Britain, incidentally, long ago trashed as inappropriate.
In the IAF’s medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) sweepstakes, the Rafale was shortlisted along with the Eurofighter—Typhoon, and won the race not for any technological or operational edge it provided, but because the French have been more diligent in nursing and nurturing a “support system” over the years in the military procurement loop and within the Indian political class, Indian armed services, and Ministry of Defence (MOD). So, when it comes to pushing their wares, the French items invariably come out on tops. After all, like any other human being, we Indians can’t resist bank accounts full of euros, employment of close relatives in French transnational corporations in Europe, and crowned by repeated trips to Paris. India’s national interest, in the event, cannot compete with the inducements France can so effortlessly summon.
So, India is the usual Third World state ripe for Paris’ (and, generally, West’s) pickings, whatever the political dispensation in New Delhi.
The Eurofighter was finding it difficult to find traction even within its primary market—the four main countries forming the EADS consortium that produced it. The plane is being dismissed by the cognoscenti as something “Germany doesn’t want, Britain can’t afford, and Spain and Italy neither want nor can afford!”. And, mind you, this ‘Typhoon’ had virtues the Rafale doesn’t, especially in terms of its potential for future development as a weapons platform with its modular structure and engineering aspects (which, by the way, EADS has foresworn because of the financial unviability of a genuinely 5th generation fighter project).
If the Eurofighter lost out because of minimal price differential (and EADS’s lack in Delhi of the French-type “support system” owing to the more straight-laced dealings by Germany, the lead player), the more economical Russian MiG-35 was summarily rejected for no good reason at all.
One of the foremost aviation specialists Dr Carlo Kopp of Australia said this in an extensive 2008 write-up in ‘Air Power Australia’ of the MiG-35 and the Su-35 Flanker E+: “Perhaps the most foolish of the popular misconceptions of Russian basic technology is that which assumes that the US and the EU maintain the technological lead of 1-2 decades held at the end of the Cold War. Alas, nearly two decades later, in a globalised, digitised and networked world, the US retains a decisive lead only in top end stealth technologies, and some aspects of networking and highly integrated systems software. The Russians have closed the gap in most other areas, but importantly, have mastered the difficult embedded software technology so critical for radar and electronic warfare systems, as well as sensor fusion, networking and engine and flight controls. The Russians are working very hard at closing the remaining gap, with the planned PAK-FA fighter to be properly shaped for low observable and very low observable stealth capability”.
Some eight years later, that gap in stealth has been closed, even as the US retains the edge in terms of wide aspect data fusion.
But with IAF side lining the MiG-35 as MMRCA and, earlier, the request for the Su-35 aircraft by the Strategic Forces Command for manned delivery of nuclear weapons being also turned down, the IAF and GOI seem bent on switching the country’s critical military capabilities with Western hardware at a cost-prohibitive price and the loss of what remains of India’s balancing leverage in international affairs.
The N-delivery system is not the subject here, but consider below the reactions to Su-35 by the US military to get an idea of just how potent Russian aircraft now are. The US Air Force as long ago as 2014, dubbed it the most serious challenger to its own fifth-gen JSF-35 Lightning-II. Regarding what the Su-35 can do, consider the words of USAF pilots and aviation specialists, whose statements are reproduced from a 2014 story published in the ‘National Interest’. As the story says, the Su-35 launching its weapons from “high supersonic speeds around Mach 1.5 at altitudes greater than 45,000 ft”, and the “F-35 primarily operating in the 30,000-ft range at speeds around Mach 0.9”, the Russian air-superiority fighter’s “major advantages are its combination of high altitude capability and blistering speed—which allow the fighter to impart the maximum possible amount of launch energy to its arsenal of long-range air-to-air missiles”.
Or as an USAF officer put it, “The Su’s ability to go high and fast is a big concern, including for F-35”. The Su-35 builds on the already potent Su-27 Flanker airframe, superior to the F-15 Eagle, and “adds a lighter airframe, three-dimensional thrust vectoring, advanced avionics and a powerful jamming capability.” As an USAF pilot says “Large powerful engines, the ability to super cruise for a long time and very good avionics make this a tough platform. It’s considered a fourth generation plus-plus, as in, it has more inherent capability on the aircraft and possesses a passive electronically-scanned array. It has a big off bore sight capability and a very good jamming suite.” The addition of the electronic attack (EA) capability, according to the story, “complicates matters for Western fighters because the Su-35’s advanced digital radio frequency memory jammers can seriously degrade the performance of friendly radars. It also effectively blinds the on board radars found on board American-made air-to-air missiles like the AIM-120 AMRAAM.
But even the addition of AESA radars does not really solve the problem for F-35. “We—the U.S. Department of Defense—haven’t been pursuing appropriate methods to counter EA for years,” as per a senior Air Force official with experience on the F-22 Raptor. “So, while we are stealthy, we will have a hard time working our way through the EA to target the Su-35s and our missiles will have a hard time killing them”. The Su-35 also carries a potent infrared search and track capability that could pose a problem for Western fighters. “It also has non-EM (electro-magnetic) sensors to help it detect other aircraft, which could be useful in long-range detection”, a Super Hornet pilot said. Another of the Su-35’s major advantages: “One thing I really like about the Su-35 is that it is a high-end truck: It can carry a ton of air-to-air ordnance into a fight,” a US Navy pilot said.
Even if one were to disregard the MiG-35 as that option is gone, Rafale will face similar kind of trouble against the Su-30MKI, leave alone the upgraded “super Sukhoi” version of this aircraft, and which was part of Parrikar’s thinking when he talked of inducting more Su-30s rather than buy the Rafale.
Bharat Karnad is a senior fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi and author of most recent book, ‘Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)’.
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