Wednesday, January 23, 2019
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Tribune Special

Posted at: Dec 30, 2018, 1:53 AM; last updated: Dec 30, 2018, 1:53 AM (IST)DEFENCE

The jet that rocked the nation

The fighter plane struck everywhere — Parliament, political parties, even the Supreme Court

Ajay banerjee

Three decades after the Bofors purchase scandal caused a political storm, the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets from Dassault aviation, France, for Rs 59,000 crore, has generated another storm, polarising sections of society.

Politicians, intellectuals, legal experts, even the arm-chair ones, have voiced their opinion. The Parliament is seeing protests and the matter is taking its own turns in France, with allegations against former President Francois Hollande and the business interests of his partner, Julie Gayet, an actor.

It's unlikely for this polarisation — now largely political — to be bridged till the next General Election slated in April-May next year.

Rafale got mentioned at election rallies in India across Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Chhattisgarh — the ‘Hindi heartland’, supposedly the areas where the BJP had an edge. However, the Congress scored over the BJP in all three states and the party ‘kept alive’ Rafale as an issue. 

In Parliament, too, the Congress is pressing for a Joint Parliamentary Committee (JPC) to probe the matter. Two senior BJP ministers, Arun Jaitley and Rajnath Singh, on separate occasions, have turned down this demand. Jaitley rejected the demand for the JPC, calling it a body that is politically 'divisive' by nature and a defence deal is best adjudicated by the Surpeme Court.

Above all, factual errors in the Supreme Court order that dismissed a petition seeking a probe, are now being questioned. The government has labeled these as errors of ‘grammar’. The SC will re-open after its annual winter vacation on January 4 and then adjudicate if it accepts this as an ‘error’, or not. Clearly, the last word has not been spoken on the matter.

The BJP questioned the Congress asking it accept the verdict and termed the allegations in SC as ‘fiction’. The latter had shrugged it off saying it had not petitioned in the SC anyway — the petitioners included lawyer Prashant Bhushan and former ministers in the Vajpayee government (1998-2004), Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie.

On one side of the acrimonious divide are those who label the deal as a ‘scam’. The Congress has termed it as a 300 per cent rise in price than what was being offered by the same company for the same jet in 2012. On the other side are those, including the BJP, who cite ‘India specific’ upgrades to counter the question of pricing and hail Prime Minister Narendra Modi for providing the planes that the Indian Air Force needs while condemning the Congress-led UPA alliance (2004-2014) for going slow on procurement.

Rafale has led to another unprecedented situation — Reliance, owned by Anil Ambani group, has filed defamation cases against the Congress for questioning its role.

In all, thankfully, the capability of the aircraft, or its need in the Indian Air Force stable, has not been questioned, so far. The IAF, the MoD and strategic circles are hoping this does not slow down the process of modernisation of the armed forces under the MoD, a behemoth that spends almost 12 per cent of the country's annual budget. 

S-400 missile despite US threat 

Ignoring threat of US sanctions, India signed a deal with Russia to procure five of the S-400 'Triumf' air-defence missile systems for the Air Force, costing $5.4 billion. These will provide an 'umbrella coverage' against any air-borne threats, including nuclear missiles, stealth aircraft, fighter jets, missiles, UAVs, etc. 

N-submarine fully operational

India now has the ability to launch an N-weapon from land, air and under sea. Submarine INS Arihant completed its first 'deterrence patrol', meant to 'deter' an enemy from launching the first N-strike as a sub under sea can launch the retaliatory strike within minutes. The nuclear-powered sub can stay underwater for weeks. 

New artillery guns after 31 years

Five M777 ultra-light Howitzer guns were inducted into the Army. Remaining 140 would be inducted by 2021. Ten self-propelled guns, Vajra K-9-T, were also inducted. The remaining 90 will be in by 2020. Vajra has up to 50 per cent local content. These are the first artillery guns inducted since 1987 when 410 Bofors guns were purchased. 


In the news

Sub-hunting copters

To enhance the capability of the Navy at sea, US firm Lockheed Martin has been asked to supply 24 anti-submarine warfare-capable multirole helicopters, which will be an integral part of the frontline warships. The copters, that use sea-dunking sonars and sophisticated electronic means, will plug the existing capability gap. Chinese submarines routinely troll the Indian Ocean and the ability to pick out these is needed urgently. Currently, the Navy uses the Sea King Mk42B and the Kamov-28 copters of the 1980s vintage.

Joint military exercises

Showing diplomatic dexterity, India continued to have parallel military relations with the US and Russia and even conducted simultaneous military exercises with the two countries in India. The US has imposed sanctions on Russia and threatened to sanction countries that purchase military equipment from Moscow. The year also saw the post-Doklam thaw between India and China. Joint military exercises were resumed. There have been three visits by Chinese military delegations in the last six months of 2018. The two defence ministers also met a couple of times.

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