By Bharat Karnad
Defense News (US) recently carried a story that the French negotiators had upped their stance on the Rafale combat aircraft, now insisting that the $8.9 billion government-to-government contract be first signed for 36 planes before the supplier company, Dassault Avions, even considers signing a 50% offset deal, with 30% of the offsets allocated for “futuristic military aerospace programs”—whatever this phrase means, and 20% for producing Rafale components to satisfy its ‘Make in India’ obligation. The French firms Safran, Thales and MBDA along with Dassault are reportedly committing to transferring stealth tech, radar, thrust vectoring for missiles, and materials to DRDO units.
The Dubious Incentives
A few days earlier, an Indian pink paper carried another related story sourced from the French Embassy about Safran helping revive the waylaid Kaveri engine project, completing the 30% remaining work to bring it up to 90 KN power level at a cost to France of 1 billion euros and requiring no additional investment whatsoever by India. (Kaveri, incidentally, had reached the 81 KN mark in bench test with no help from anyone before the programme was stalled.)
So, a revived Kaveri engine is another inducement to GOI/MOD to hurry up and sign the Rafale deal that will easily cross the $30 billion for lifetime upkeep, retroactive AESA radar and ongoing weapons fitments.
If all this incentive-making sounds fishy, well, it is. Especially, in the context of how the French made monkeys of India not too long ago. Recall that in the years preceding the announcement in 2014 of the Rafale winning the IAF’s MMRCA sweepstakes, the French company SNECMA was in talks with DRDO for assistance for the Kaveri project. The idea was to reconfigure the Kaveri around the SNECMA M-88-2 hot core. The French kept on stretching the negotiations months on end, year after year, according to those in the know, raising objections or some piffling issues to deliberately cause delays and prevent a successful closure.
Reflecting on Past Failures
The French negotiating strategy is plain enough in retrospect. This is because soon after Rafale’s selection, SNECMA called off the negotiations, begged off the deal. Now to get the Rafale over the finish line, they are falling back on the same old tactics. This time another French firm promising to get the Kaveri off and running just so long as Delhi signs on the dotted line. Obviously, the day the Rafale ag is initialed is when Safran will withdraw its offer. What’s the sacrifice of $1.4 billion—assuming a penalty is imposed should Safran fail to deliver as inevitably it will—if it fetches $30+ billion in return?
India’s traditional military suppliers have absolutely no interest in helping make India self-sufficient in critical aviation technologies, such as combat jet engines. The fact that not doing so is a perpetually paying proposition, became clear to them in the wake of the decision by the extremely short-sighted defence minister VK Krishna Menon in the Sixties who declined to pay 5 crores to the English firm, Bristol Siddeley, to make adjustments in its BOR 12 jet engine which had just lost the NATO fighter engine race to an American company, to outfit the multi-role HF-24 Marut, whose proposal included complete transfer of technology.
The Steep Slide of India’s Defence Industry
Those were simpler times, and the full tech suite would have been transferred, setting India on the course of jet engine independence. It began the steep slide of the indigenous defence industry, established with such imaginative verve by Nehru importing, not combat aircraft, but the premier fighter designer of that time, Dr Kurt Tank. It provided the IAF the justification for ditching not just the Marut as under-powered but its Mk-II designed by Tank-trained HAL designer Dr Raj Mahindra, and to start the shameful period lasting to this day of purchasing combat planes abroad. Tejas is still just a blip—which, even with its induction, could be sidelined as the Marut was, if IAF is offered half a chance to do so.
But the BOR 12 on Marut-episode also was the sudden dawning of wisdom among Western suppliers. It alerted them to the benefits of keeping India on the supplier string. After all, why sell India the capability to design and produce jet engines and, per chance, even eventually set it up as a competitor when, with a collaborationist IAF and Indian government in tow, they could sell an unending series of whole, inordinately expensive aircraft, continue making oodles of money, and thanks to spendthrift nations such as India, keep themselves commercially in the clover for ever?
If we still haven’t learned from the French, whose perfidy is replicated by every other military hardware supplier in one guise or another, then it isn’t Paris’s fault, surely. Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Keep getting fooled interminably, what’s left other than to hang a shingle out on the MOD gates in South Block?
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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