The Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft deal [MRCA], worth at least 18 billion dollars is turning into a controversy. The whispers of unhappiness that were audible for the past month about the government’s decision to award the contract to the French firm Dassault for its bid for Rafale aircraft, are distinctly getting louder. A first-rate controversy threatens to cast a shadow on this ‘mother of all arms deals’ and may refuse to go away till the 2014 general election.
Defence Minister A.K.Antony promptly ordered an enquiry on the basis of a formal letter from a Telugu Desam MP, M.V. Mysoora Reddy who has alleged irregularities — “manipulation of the evaluation process” — by the Defence Ministry in selecting the Rafale bid.
Reddy claimed his “patriotic responsibility” prompted him to make the allegation against the MOD. Indeed, he pointed out something that intrigued a lot of experts (Indians and non-Indians), namely, that no country has ever purchased Rafale and that the aircraft probably performed badly in the Libyan war last year.
However, this matter is going to go beyond something between Reddy and Antony. No sooner than the government’s preference for Rafale became apparent in February, London made it clear that it would get the GOI decision reviewed. Britain, of course, is pushing for the bid by Dassault’s competitor, Cassidian, which is offering the Eurofighter Typhoon.
The British Defence minister for International Security Strategy Gerald Howarth was quoted by Jane’s on February 10: “If the [Indian] decision turned only on price, Cassidian will put in a revised price offer. The four nations [constituting the Eurofighter consortium: Germany, Italy, Spain and the UK] can produce a winning financial proposal and I fully expect that Cassidian will be doing that.”
Howarth virtually threatened a price war in the Great Indian Arms Bazaar. According to Jane’s, “Per unit, the Typhoon bid is thought to have been more expensive than the Rafale, while operational costs would also have had a bearing on India’s decision… Dassault’s total package price was bid at about 15 per cent to 17 per cent less than that from Eurofighter and the Rafale was about USD5 million cheaper than the Typhoon per aircraft.”
Howarth told the House of Commons on March 7 during a parliamentary debate that the Eurofighter consortium and its partner nations “stand ready to enter into further discussions with the Indian Government, should that be their wish.” In essence, he taunted Delhi to reopen the bid. Quite obviously, Britain won’t take ‘No’ for an answer from Antony.
London could now be hoping, perhaps, that thanks to Reddy’s sense of “patriotic responsibility”, Eurofighter bid may get a fresh lease of life. Reddy should have anticipated this to happen and should have gone, in my opinion, a step further and asked whether the MMRCA deal is indeed such a critical need for India’s defence modernisation as it is made out by some quarters.
Arguably, this could be an opportune moment for Antony himself to suo moto ask that question in deep introspection. India needs to learn from China’s modernisation programme, which heavily emphasises developing its own technological capabilities with a long-term perspective. China is making robust attempts to develop its J-20 fifth-generation stealth fighter jet, notwithstanding technological deadlocks at various stages, by tapping into Russian systems (which, of course, Moscow is wary about).
Ironically, there has been talk of India jointly developing the fifth-generation fighter aircraft with Russia. (And unlike with the Chinese, Moscow shows no hesitation to share high technology with Indians.) Suffice to say, I am at a loss to understand what is the critical gap in the IAF’s inventory that the MMRCA hopes to fill in, anyway.
The unsavoury allegations (true or false) over the MMRCA deal only go to underscore that some hard questions need to be asked. Isn’t it a far better proposition that India focuses (with its meagre resources) to develop the fifth-generation fighter aircraft with cutting edge technology at affordable costs jointly with Russia and thus develop our indigenous capabilities also in the bargain, rather than get entangled with western arms merchants like Howarth who never hesitate to extract their pound of flesh?
By the way, if the Eurofighter can be sold for a cheaper price than Rafale and Britain could still make a neat profit out of the deal, why was a higher price quoted by Cassiddian in its original bid? Most certainly, the 18-billion dollar issue here is not between the eventual ‘friendly’ price of Rafale or Eurofighter. It is about India’s critical need of either of those aircraft at a whopping cost of Rupees 50000 crores. Maybe, Reddy should write another letter to Antony.
– March 13, 2012