Knife-edge tension is guaranteed as senior executives from Eurofighter GmbH and Dassault assemble on Friday in the office of Vivek Rae, Director General (Acquisitions) of the Ministry of Defence (MoD). The purpose of the gathering: to open commercial bids for the world’s most ill-conceived and biggest international arms purchase. I refer to the Indian Air Force’s harebrained proposal to buy 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) that will be outrun and outgunned by Chinese fighters soon after they enter Indian Air Force (IAF) service.
The opening of bids in any big contract is a tense moment. Eurofighter’s and Dassault’s inordinate anxiety also stems from the fact that the IAF buy is crucial to their future. Eurofighter GmbH faces serious internal problems with partner nations scaling down their orders. India is desperately needed to restore the economics of production. Britain’s Royal Air Force has already slashed its order for Typhoons. And, last week, The New York Times reported that Germany’s Luftwaffe (which ironically spearheads the Typhoon campaign in India) is trimming its purchase from 177 to 140 Typhoons. Dassault is in even direr straits, with Rafale having failed to find a single international customer; there are just 180 Rafale fighters on order, all for the French military, which hardly has a choice.
The only relatively carefree man at the start of that meeting on Friday might be Mr Rae himself, who will be sitting on the defence ministry’s war chest of Rs 42,000 crore. But his good cheer may not survive the opening of bids because the MoD’s estimate – arrived at some six years ago – will almost certainly be dwarfed by the lower bid. Last month the MoD revalued its original estimation in a process called “benchmarking”. But Mr Rae knows that if the winning quote emerges significantly more expensive than the MoD’s “benchmarked” figure, the process will begin anew.
Such an eventuality would be a blessing in disguise; and the best way to sidestep this cockamamie purchase of overpriced fighters that will take heavy casualties in any future conflict with China. Both the Typhoon and Rafale are “4th Generation-plus fighters”, inferior in crucial aspects like stealth to the J-20, China’s “5th Generation” (Gen-5) stealth fighter that took to the skies this year. Admittedly the J-20 would need a decade of flight-testing before it enters operational service, but the first MMRCA would only be delivered to India by 2015-16. Five years after that, operational J-20s, of the People’s Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF), will be dominating the Himalayas. The IAF MMRCAs, already outclassed by 2020, will limp around the skies till 2050 since the MoD will rightly protest that Rs 42,000-84,000 crore have been spent on them.
The IAF sadly is shutting its eyes to this even as China’s rising aerospace profile informs the security calculus of other regional air forces. Japan, South Korea and Singapore are realising that a Gen-5 fleet is needed for a credible defence capability against the PLA. South Korea is set to choose Lockheed Martin’s F-35 Lightening II, the only Gen-5 fighter on offer in the global market. The Japan Air Self Defence Force (JASDF) too is veering around to the F-35 after Lockheed Martin was denied export clearances to supply Tokyo the F-22 Raptor, unarguably the world’s most advanced fighter. In 2003, Singapore invested money into the F-35 development programme; it is on course to buy the aircraft.
Given that a rising China makes choosing Gen-5 a no-brainer, why then is the IAF (presumably a rational actor) inexplicably buying Gen-4+ fighters? The reason, sadly, is the political-bureaucratic stranglehold over procurement in which any IAF re-evaluation carries a penalty of years of delay. In the early 2000s, when the IAF framed the case for buying an MMRCA, no Gen-5 aircraft were available for sale. The F-35 was under development but was not ready for flight-testing, an essential part of India’s procurement process. Unwilling to wait for a Gen-5 fighter, the IAF scaled down its requirements and initiated an impartial multi-vendor contest for whatever Gen-4+ fighters were there in the market.
Years later, as the IAF finds itself choosing between two Gen-4+ aircraft, it must also note that the F-35 is on the cusp of operational clearance. It’s manufacturer, Lockheed Martin, has signalled in multiple ways that it would supply the IAF that fighter at a fly-away cost of $65 million per aircraft (significantly cheaper than the Rafale and the Typhoon) with deliveries beginning by 2015. Washington has indicated that any F-35 sale to India would be expeditiously cleared. But for an insecure IAF, used to being shoved around by the MoD, a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. The MMRCA purchase would bring in six squadrons of reasonably good fighters, even if they were outclassed by the PLAAF in war. Any change at this state, or so the IAF believes and accepts, would require fresh MoD clearances and financial sanctions that could take another three years.
But there is an alternative. The IAF must frankly tell the MoD that the situation has changed, and that national security demands scrapping the overpriced MMRCA procurement and buying the F-35 through a single-vendor contract. The defence of the realm cannot be held hostage to the procedural requirement of multi-vendor bidding; nor is overpaying justifiable if it was done through competitive bidding. New Delhi has recently procured several fine aircraft on a single-vendor, government-to-government basis: the Sukhoi-30MKI from Russia; and the C-130J and C-17 transport aircraft from the US. The procurement of a new fighter that will form the backbone of the IAF for decades must be treated with the same urgency.