New Delhi: I wrote previously on the need to revisit the decision to procure 126 units of the Rafale at Rs 1,000 crore a piece for India’s multi-role combat aircraft requirement and was happy to see that this was done by the Defence Ministry led ably by Manohar Parrikar. Instead of that large acquisition, Prime Minister Modi announced on his recent visit to France that a smaller number of aircraft (36) would be purchased, at a significantly lower price. Unfortunately, resulting negotiations appear to be stuck with the French asking for $8 billion for the 36 aircraft deal, and GOI not willing to spend more than $7 billion (Rs. 47,000 crore).
This still translates to an outrageous price per aircraft of Rs 1,300 – Rs 1,700 crore. This amount is large enough to be meaningfully quantified on a per capita basis – god forbid, if a single IAF Rafale were to crash, it would cost each and every Indian Rs 13. The Rafale purchase just doesn’t make financial or strategic sense, since 36 aircraft are unlikely to swing the outcome of a war, or to meaningfully address India’s dwindling squadron strength. There is thus no dishonour in cancelling the Rafale purchase, regardless of our previous intent, since the French have been unable or unwilling to help make this a commercially viable acquisition.
A better option may be the proven mainstay of the US Navy – Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet (SH). There are several compelling arguments in favor of this aircraft:
– An operational AESA radar
– Wide range of effective missiles and munitions
– Excellent GE F414 engines, which will also be used in India’s own Light Combat Aircraft (Tejas MkII), and potentially in the upcoming Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft. Such commonality would streamline inventory and maintenance. And in EPE spec, would enable SH to operate effectively from India’s Himalayan bases
– Potential for synergy with Indian navy since SH could be used on India’s upcoming indigenous aircraft carriers
– Formidable electronic warfare capability in the EA-18G variant (Growler)
– Significantly lower cost
– Boeing’s offer to transfer the production line to India aligns well with the Make in India initiative
– Potential for Indian industry to participate in Boeing’s lucrative commercial aircraft supply chain
Manufacturing the Super Hornet in India, as Defence Secretary Ashton Carter may propose on his upcoming trip to India, would solve India’s dual quest for improving squadron strength, and achieving a higher level of self sufficiency. He will likely encourage India to sign three pivotal agreements to facilitate this – the EULA, CISMOA, and BECA. Each comes with its caveats, but it would be possible to address these through negotiation and an implicit high-level understanding.
Of concern are America’s continued arms sales to Pakistan (although these are lower spec F-16s, etc), which India may want to negotiate hard to suspend. But what may be of greater concern is the perception (not intent) that India has chosen the US as its alliance partner for the 21st century – which would disappoint Russia and alarm China. But it is also important to note that Russia already supplies some of its best military hardware, such as the Sukhoi Su-35 fighter and S-400 air defence system, to China. Apart from a credible nuclear second strike capability, the best way to counter China’s growing arsenal and assertiveness, as well as Pakistani adventurism, is cutting edge hardware, combined with comprehensive real-time operational intelligence, both of which the US may be uniquely able to supply, until India achieves self-sufficiency.
What the defence minister and the PM need to ascertain is whether these are, or will remain, available even if India pursues an independent foreign policy, as is our right to do.
By: Sohel Sanghani – TNN Blog