Looking Beyond the Rafale Imbroglio

 In Deepak Sinha, Defence & Aerospace, Democracy & Governance, National Security, Politics & Society

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The tenor of the debate, especially in the election year, can hardly be expected to be moderate or mature. While wild assertions made by the politicians in hope of swaying the electorate is to be expected and accepted, there is also a vital need for politicians to ensure that matters pertaining to National Security are kept out of the ambit of politics. Just as Georges Clemenceau, French Prime Minister during the Great War, commented that “War is too serious a matter to entrust to military men”, so too is the case with entrusting national security to just politicians. But politicians being politicians care little for such niceties, which explains why allegations of wrongdoing are flying so thick and fast in the ongoing Rafale procurement imbroglio, who, unfortunately, have been joined by respected academics and researchers, who should know better.

Attempts to garner the limelight and the few minutes of fame that goes with it is understandable in the case of politicians, but for academics to do so by drawing conclusions based on speculation that passes for facts and little else, seems to be rather hasty, if not downright fallacious and unprofessional.  A respected academic, for example, has concluded that the decision to procure just 36 jets instead of the original 126 with the attendant increase in unit cost shows “extraordinary ineptitude can only be explained by the circumvention of laid down procedures.” He further  goes on to equate the manner in which this decision was made to that of demonetization, berates the Government for being “parsimonious and incompetent” and suggests that their action was “worse than a crime—it was a blunder.”

He may well be proved right in his conclusions subsequently, but the truth is that it is one thing to question the Governments’ motivation or influence in the selection of the aircraft or the offset partners, but quite another to question the decisions it takes, however much we may disagree with them. For one, Mr. Modi was elected by a substantial majority to do just that, since that is what is expected of a leader. Moreover, we are wholly unaware as to circumstances that led to the Government to take the decision that it did, and therefore to question his decisions clearly smacks of arrogance, if not an ulterior motive. It is all very well to rant about the ineptitude and incompetence of this Government and its adverse impact on defence modernization, but what then are we to conclude at the previous Governments’ inability to push through the earlier deal in the seven years that it had to do so? Surely ineptitude or Incompetence may be too mild a term in their case.

There is no gainsaying the fact that defence procurement and corruption have had a symbiotic relationship ever since Independence and our first procurement scandal, the infamous “Jeep Scandal” of 1948. Politicians have always seen defence procurement as a lucrative source of funds and as long as our political funding regulations remain opaque, nothing is going to change. Therefore, if this Government has actually resorted to underhand means as alleged, despite it being a government to government deal, then they have only trod on the well-beaten path of their illustrious predecessors. Thus, if precedent is to be our guide, then all the brouhaha on the issue will only result in a setback for the Air Force while politicians and their minions involved getting away, as we saw in the Bofors case.

If it is accountability that we are interested in, then we need to look beyond this specific issue of procurement and ask ourselves as to why the Air Force finds itself in such desperate straits today, with regard to its combat strength. The fact that its combat strength has fallen from its authorized forty-two squadrons to the present thirty plus, over the past two decades, was neither unanticipated nor unexpected.  Like all machines, aircraft have a quantifiable life span, which while possible to extend with mid-life upgrades, will at a point in time require replacement by the next generation, if the Air Force is to be able to match and overcome the adversary’s capabilities. This does not call for either vision or foresight, just common sense and a practical understanding of the facts, which somehow the Government of India with its vast resources was unable to do. Surely someone must be held accountable for this negligence because not only does it put our national security at risk but endangers pilots who are expected to make do with shoddy outdated aircraft.

While the Air Force hierarchy must carry some of the blame, not least for lack of moral fibre for its inability to stand up for its rights, governments over the years, especially the Ministry of Defence and Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) that it controls, have much to answer for. For the most part, much of our current problems can be traced to the utter failure of HAL to produce the hugely over-budget, inordinately delayed and ostensibly indigenous Light Combat Aircraft, the Tejas. In this context, the existing perceptions within the Air Force that quality control in HAL is all but non- existent have been borne out by the recent crash of the Mirage 2000 aircraft undergoing upgradation. Initial reports doing the rounds suggest that the nose wheel broke while it was taking off resulting in the tragic death of two test pilots, the best of the best.  It also brings to mind a similar case when three paratroopers slithering down from a HAL manufactured Advanced Light Helicopter at the Army Day Parade in January 2018 fell and were grievously injured because the “strong point” to which their rope was tied broke and separated from the aircraft’s body. The question that needs answering is not just how many such cases have happened in the past, but also how many in HAL have been held accountable for such shoddy work?

This also explains to a large extent the previous governments’ inability to successfully close the deal for the 126 aircraft. It was reportedly blocked by the unwillingness of the Air Force hierarchy to accept aircraft manufactured by HAL without certification by Dassault Aviation, the manufacturers of the Rafale, something they refused to do.  That they would prefer to work with an untried and untested offset partner, allegedly thrust on them, rather than with HAL speaks volumes about what they think of the capabilities of this Defence PSU!

Therefore, politicians and academics critical of this governments’ decision to keep HAL out of the loop in this case, especially their accusation that by doing so we have lost out on technology transfer, are either being deliberately obtuse or completely out of touch with reality. In this context, Mr. Rahul Gandhi has been particularly vocal, even to the extent of meeting workers of HAL. It would be wonderful if he took the initiative to volunteer to fly in one of these aircraft or take time off to interact with the pilots who do. Maybe, just maybe, he would have a change of heart and leave national security issues out of the realm of politics.  Finally, our leaders would do well to remember that even after these aircraft are inducted into service, they will continue to be confronted by that gargantuan problem, where will the other hundred-odd aircraft desperately need come from? After all what is sauce for the goose is also sauce for the gander!


Brigadier Deepak Sinha (retd), an Army veteran, is a Visiting Senior Fellow at the TPF and is also a Consultant at ORF, New Delhi.

This article was published earlier in the Times of India. The views expressed are the author’s own. 

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