Rafale scuttled to appease the US?

With the Indian Air Force now shopping again for fighter planes, there is strong suspicion that the deal for 126 Rafale jets was jettisoned by PM Modi under US pressure

Defence Minister Rajnath Singh performing the puja of the first Rafale fighter plane at a Dassault facility in Merignac in France on October 8, 2019.
Defence Minister Rajnath Singh performing the puja of the first Rafale fighter plane at a Dassault facility in Merignac in France on October 8, 2019.

Sarosh Bana

S o far as defence deals go, the Rafale deal signed in 2015 has been the most secretive – and questionable – that India has signed to date. More than five years since then, questions still arisebut elicit no answers, compelling yet another question: Why this secrecy?

The opacity in the deal, which India signed with France’s Dassault Aviation for the purchase of 36 Rafale multi-role fighterplanes in flyaway condition for €7.87 billion has been baffling. The first five of the warplanes, which the IAF had asked for in 2005, arrived in India on 29 July, the remaining 31 are scheduled for delivery by 2022.

In a wholly unexpected move, India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi had signed the agreement –he termed it a government-to-government deal - during his state visit to France in April 2015. None in his Cabinet, including the then Defence minister Manohar Parrikar, had any prior knowledge of it. Parrikar was not even part of the Prime Ministerial entourage, though such military deals are by protocol initialled by the Defence Minister.

The deal implicitly annulled an agreement between the previous UPA government and Dassault for 126 Rafales at a much cheaper price of €8.86 billion (approximately 67,000 Crore INR), which, by the yardstick of the 2015 contract, would have cost India €27.5 billion( approximately 2.1 lakh Crore INR).

The previous agreement involved outright import of only 18 of the aircraft, the remaining 108 were to be indigenously manufactured under licence by state-owned aerospace company, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). Modi’s deal edged out HAL from the reckoning and omitted any joint prodution between Dassault and an Indian partner company, which is mandated by India’s Defence Procurement Procedures for securing compensatory offsets and technology transfers, and for helping set up a military industry. The UPA Government’s tender officially stood withdrawn in July 2015.

Rafale was in 2012 selected over six other contenders, namely, F-16 Block 70 of Lockheed Martin and F/A-18 E/F Super Hornet Block III of Boeing, both American defence majors, Saab’s JAS-39 Gripen E of Sweden, European consortium Eurofighter’s Typhoon and the Russian MikoyanGurevich Corporation’s MiG-35.

Lockheed and Boeing’s elimination had led the then US Ambassador to India, Timothy Roemer, to resign the very next day. His departure was in the context of a communication from then US President Barack Obama to the then Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh stressing that favouring an American fighter would cement the Indo-US strategic partnership and be mutually beneficial in creating thousands of jobs in both the countries.

Clouding the Rafale deal further had been the absence of any clarification on the 90 aircrafts left out of the agreement and which were required by the IAF under the original tender. The IAF had made known this requirement back in 2005 when it had issued an initial tender for new jetfighters to replace the vintage Soviet-era MiGs that had been its mainstay since the early ‘80s.

The ground, it seems now, was being prepared for the two US companies, left out in 2012, to stage a comeback.

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Published: 05 Sep 2020, 1:30 PM