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Humanising the Rafale deal

Par Capt. Jason Smith [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Benjamin Franklin famously wrote, nearly 250 years ago, that “in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.” We could just as easily add scandals in defence procurement to that short list. From the famous “Jeep Procurement” scandal of the Fifties, to Bofors in the Eighties, Coffingate in the Nineties, the Westland VIP Helicopter and Tatra allegations of this decade, and now Rafale, there has only been the odd purchase of defence equipment that has not been rocked by allegations of corruption. This is a competitive field, the deals are huge and profits humungous. Thus, the stench allegedly emanating from the Rafale deal should come as no surprise. In fact, if there had been none that would have been astonishing indeed.

As General Elections approach the contract for the Rafale will come in for increasing scrutiny among politicians and analysists and take centre-stage. The thrust and parry of academic debates in air conditioned studios and theatrics in Parliament can take nothing away from the stark fact that brave and courageous youngsters will fly any aircraft selected, even if it doesn’t quite measure up to what their adversary may have, no questions asked. We have seen that before, in 1965, when our best and brightest flying Gnats were pitted against state of the art Sabre Jets? Do we really want a repeat of that? Don’t the airmen, risking their lives in combat, deserve the best?

In competition, whatever the field of endeavour, success depends not just on ability, training or motivation, but also on the quality of the tools available, the vital difference between glorious victory and ignominous defeat. This holds true for the military as well, where war is also competition with extremely high stakes. For them the Latin words "Citius, Altius, Fortius" or "Swifter, Higher, Stronger" are not just the Olympic motto, but key to individual well- being and survival. Thus, on its induction, the Rafale, being far superior to any aircraft our potential adversaries have, will provide a clear advantage to our Air Force, thereby enhancing credible deterrence. The reported attempt of a bureaucrat in the MOD to stall the deal, by suggesting that it would be better to purchase a larger number of cheaper aircraft, clearly reflects what ails civil military- relations, apart from an utter lack of understanding of military affairs and extreme shortsightedness.

The critical importance of this contract can only be understood in the context of the fact that the IAF, at the present time, finds itself between a rock and a very hard place. Not only is the Air Force deficient ,in the required number of front line fighter squadrons , but is also in the unenviable position of having the vast majority of its operational fighter squadrons, equipped with aircraft of 1960’s vintage, which are both obsolete and overdue for replacement. Ideally, it needs new aircraft not only to make up the deficit in numbers but also to replace its obsolete inventory as well. Since this is not financially viable and delays only compound the problem, the only course open was to make outright procurement to add to its inventory immediately, while looking at other less optimal options to deal with the issue of replacements.

Incidentally, it found itself in this dilemma, precisely because of the inability of Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) to operationalize the Tejas Light Combat Aircraft, meant to replace the MIG21 inventory. Understandably, it was unhappy with the manner in which the previous UPA regime was attempting to involve HAL in the co-production of the Rafale. Discussions had stalled on the insistence of Air Headquarters that Dassault, the Original Equipment Manufacturers of the Rafale, be responsible for quality certification of all aircraft produced by HAL. Something that Dassault was unwilling to do, in light of HAL’s shoddy quality standards.

This is quite clear from the fact that the MiG 21 aircraft that India has been flying since late 1960’s have mostly been manufactured by HAL under license. Till date more than 170 IAF pilots have paid with their lives while flying this aircraft, though the numbers that have crashed are far higher. While some of these crashes have been due to pilot error, the vast majority have been attributed to equipment failure, for which HAL has never been held accountable. The same holds true for other aircraft manufactured by HAL as well.

In this context take the case of the MIG 21 that was being flown by Wing Commander Sanjit Singh Kalia on 4 th January 2005. His aircraft caught fire immediately after take-off and he was forced to eject once he realized he would not be able to land it. He delayed his ejection to ensure that his aircraft was not headed for any population centre which resulted in a serious spinal injury that ended his career as a fighter pilot. The Court of Inquiry, conducted jointly by the Air Force and HAL, concluded that the cause for the accident was poor workmanship and manufacturing defects on the part of HAL. The report further confirmed that no part in the ill- fated mishap was due to pilot error.

On finding that neither MOD nor HAL were willing to compensate him for his injuries or take appropriate action against all those in HAL responsible for the defect that caused the crash, the officer was compelled to approach the Delhi High Court and sue the Government and HAL for violation of his right to life under Article 21 of the Constitution, more specifically, his right to work in a safe environment. Despite crass attempts by the MOD and HAL to defend their organizations, by casting aspersions against his character, motives and professional abilities, a two judge bench of The Delhi High Court accepted the officer’s plea of poor workmanship and manufacturing defects as being the cause for the crash. He was awarded Rs 55 Lakhs as compensation.

Undoubtedly, Modi has been singularly successful in breaking the deadlock that gripped the Rafale contract while at the same time ensuring that the IAF’s operational capability received an urgent boost. He has achieved this by agreeing to the procurement of only 36 aircraft in a ready to fly state, though the problem of replacements for the obsolete inventory continues to loom over the IAF. A fallout of Modi’s recent initiative, is that the functioning of HAL is very much under the national spotlight .This should spur its senior management to carry out serious introspection, and look at remedial measures to thoroughly overhaul its manufacturing and quality control processes.

Attempts at the present time by opposition leaders, mostly by Rahul Gandhi, to paint HAL in glowing terms are inappropriate and myopic. Finally, if there has been interference and wrong doing on the part of the government in the selection of offset partners, as has been alleged in the media, then the government must be held accountable for its manipulations. The contract for the aircraft must be insulated from politics and allowed to proceed unhindered, in national interest. The Indian Army has yetto recover from the impact of the Bofors scandal on its procurement of modern artillery systems.The Defence Services can certainly not afford a repeat.

This commentary originally appeared in The Times of India.

Deepak Sinha (ORF)
26 October 2018

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