Speaking to the media on Tuesday evening, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said there were “complications” in the negotiations, already on for almost three years, with the French side reluctant to meet commitments that IAF had specified in the tender. Parrikar did not reveal details.
Business Standard had reported on Dassault’s unwillingness to assume responsibility for the production of Rafales by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which the tender mandated. HAL is to build 108 Rafales in India with technology transferred from Dassault and its sub-vendors.
Ominously for Dassault, Parrikar said additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, which HAL builds in Nashik, were adequate for the IAF in case it was decided not to procure the Rafale.
The IAF currently plans to have 272 Su-30MKI fighters by about 2018. HAL’s Nashik production line is building the fighter at Rs 358 crore each, less than half the estimated cost of buying the Rafale.
“The Su-30MKI is an adequate aircraft for meeting the air force’s needs,” said Parrikar.
Earlier this month, Parrikar had assured French counterpart Jean-Yves Le Drian, during the latter’s visit to New Delhi on December 1, that Rafale negotiations would be placed on a “fast track”, according to ministry of defence (MoD) officials.
The minister revealed on Tuesday that the French minister “has (committed) to send an empowered person to negotiate after New Year.”
According to the terms of the MMRCA tender, 18 of the 126 fighters being bought would be supplied fully built abroad, with the remaining 108 manufactured by HAL. The cost of the project, originally sanctioned at Rs 42,000 crore, has crossed Rs 1,00,000 crore, according to expert estimates.
Signalling a major thrust on building roads along the 4,057-km Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, the defence minister announced the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), plagued by infighting between its civil and military personnel, would come directly under MoD. “BRO is being delinked from the ministry of surface transport. It will be entirely defence controlled and defence financed. We are (also) considering transferring of 6,000-7,000 km of roads, which are not in sensitive areas, to the National Highways (Authority of India),” said Parrikar.
Weighing against the principle of “dual command”, the minister said: “Ministry of surface transport was their (BRO’s) administrative department and defence was their [operational department]. So obviously there was confusion; when you have two masters, you don’t get work output.”
Parrikar confirmed the proposal had been discussed with the minister for surface transport, Nitin Gadkari, and both had agreed that from the next Budget, BRO would come under MoD.
BRO was charged with building 61 Indo-China Border Roads (ICBRs), of 3,410 km, by 2012. Of these, it has completed only 17 roads, of 590 km, the defence minister told Parliament on December 12.
Parrikar explained that high technology, especially the practice of tunnelling with rock-boring machines, was essential for building roads in difficult terrain, for which the private sector needed to be involved. “The way it is being cut today, I don’t think we will complete (our target) even in 15 years. If the target is five years, we will have to use technology,” he said.
The defence minister also revealed he was working with the railway minister Suresh Prabhu, to expand connectivity across Arunachal Pradesh. “We have decided to improve the railway and road connectivity. We will finalise things in the days ahead,” he said.
The minister told Parliament on December 12 that four strategic railway lines had been prioritised for survey.
Arms agents permitted
Parrikar reiterated his intention to permit foreign arms companies to station “representatives or technical consultants” in India, reversing a ban on ‘agents’ that had been imposed after the Bofors gun scandal of 1987-88. This had been reported earlier by Business Standard (December 13, “Parrikar likely to allow arms agents, impose steep fines for wrongdoing”).
The defence minister downplayed reports of increased Pakistani firing on the Line of Control (LoC), stating, “Across the LoC, (firing) incidents have reduced during 2014. There were increasing incidents on the international border but they have also fallen during the last two months, compared to this time last year.”
Even so, Parrikar emphasised the army’s muscular posture, saying his orders were: “Don’t hesitate; react appropriately and without holding yourself back. We don’t (start firing). But if there is something going on from the other side we retaliate with double the energy.”