The tortuous journey of Rafale acquisition

The name Rafale conjures up varied feelings and thoughts, thanks to it being in the public eye for many reasons, both right and wrong.

The tortuous journey of Rafale acquisition

Hope: If the SC ruling results in changes in how our polity operates, the Rafale controversy could have a positive outcome.

Air Vice Marshal 
Manmohan Bahadur (retd)
Addl Director General, Centre for Air Power Studies

The name Rafale conjures up varied feelings and thoughts, thanks to it being in the public eye for many reasons, both right and wrong. Rafale, in French, means a ‘gust of wind’. I saw it flying way back in 1987 while doing the course for test pilots in France. That particular Rafale was a technology demonstrator, but what one saw was an aircraft with outstanding manoeuvrability and capabilities. The Rafale being procured by the Indian Air Force, three decades down the line, would be the latest version and an improvement many times over than the tech demonstrator; to an adversary, it would, indeed, present itself as much more than just a ‘gust of wind’!

The Rafale selection has been one tortuous journey and, frankly, one still doesn’t know if there are any more twists in the tale — hopefully, after the Supreme Court ruling, it should be a smooth flow. What started as a multi-role combat aircraft acquisition at the turn of the century, aiming to acquire 126 more aircraft in the Mirage 2000 category, got converted to the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) programme. Worldwide, it was called the ‘mother of all acquisitions’ since, after the end of the Cold War, no country was buying expensive combat fighter assets — certainly not in such huge numbers. 

The IAF’s evaluation team got to work in 2007, and considering the very high interest that world aircraft majors had elicited through their responses to the request for proposals, special security measures were put in place by the Air Headquarters to ensure no leakage of information on how the assessment was proceeding. It is to the credit of the IAF, especially the members of the evaluation team, that the appraisal has been held up as a model to follow in the cut-throat environment of the arms industry. Among the six contenders that were evaluated, the Eurofighter and Rafale were shortlisted. The catchword is shortlisted, since the decision to finally purchase one or the other is that of the government as there are very many parameters, other than the relative performance, that drives decision making. The decision to acquire the Rafale was also that of the government and not of the IAF.

Historical data shows that the acquisition of big-ticket items, after Independence, have almost always led to accusations from the political Opposition, leading to decision paralysis in the Ministry of Defence. The most famous case is that of the operationally excellent Bofors artillery gun of the Army. The accusation that started in the late 1980s, resulted in a freeze in any new purchase for almost two and a half decades, despite the Indian Army’s desperate cry for more guns to fill a huge capability gap — till the American M777 gun finally arrived very recently. So, how does the ‘accusation cycle’ pan out?

The flow of events following any government decision to purchase a high-value weapon system can be safely predicted. It is almost as if the arms lobby in Delhi has a fine-tuned standard operating procedure (SOP) for its actions — which leads one to suspect that there could well be a devious motive to prevent or delay capability accretion through the disruption that follows. 

There, invariably, are three components in the flow of events. Firstly, anonymous letters start arriving in the mail boxes of officers in the acquisition chain, sometimes addressed even to the PM and President, alleging foul play. As per a government directive, no credence is to be given to anonymous complaints, but this waiver is generally not made use of due to the fear that the officer rejecting the complaint may be accused of being hand-in-glove with the arms company whose item is under favourable consideration. So, these are discussed ‘on file,’ as the bureaucratic jargon goes.

Secondly, official representations start pouring in, and since they are official, they have to be discussed ‘on file’ too. Valuable time gets lost while the acquisition process attempts to move from technical evaluation to shortlisting and, finally, the contract negotiation phase. 

Finally, somewhere in between may come a query from a lawmaker, and that sometimes injects a political colour in the ‘file movement’. Once again, the observations are discussed ‘on file’ and a reply sent to the public figure. If there is an election round the corner, the accusations hit the ceiling and the acquisition programme slows down even further. So, is there a way out or do we have to just suffer this?

Considering our polity and the adage that all is fair in love and politics, I think we would be condemned to repeat this shenanigan every time if we do not make the political Opposition a party to the acquisition process. One way could be through the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence that has a fair representation of all political parties. At an opportune stage in the acquisition cycle of a big-ticket item (the value can be decided), the committee could be briefed, in camera, on all salient points of the programme, including the operational necessity and the negotiations conducted. A point may arise whether the required confidentiality can be maintained about information that has a bearing on commercial and military secrets — well, if peons and clerks, who move files and type notes in the Ministry of Defence, can be trusted, why not the elected representatives? If a private firm can be intimately involved in the research and development and construction of our nuclear submarine, why not our MPs? If required, they may be asked to sign the Official Secrets Act for this, if they are not already doing so.

This suggestion, of course, does not absolve the decision-makers of any act of malfeasance at any stage, for which adequate legal recourse is available in our Constitution. Would this put a lid on future programmes? Certainly not, but what it would do is to increase the communication flow between the government and the Opposition and stymie allegations due to misinformation by doubtful entities. This itself would be a big step in big ticket acquisition programmes that have a vital bearing on our security preparedness. If the Supreme Court ruling results in some changes in how our polity operates, then the Rafale controversy could have a positive outcome. Else, it amounts to pointing fingers, as usual.

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