India opted to buy 36 of the Rafale French-made fighter aircraft. The deal is now mired in a massive controversy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Arnaud Gaillard
India opted to buy 36 of the Rafale French-made fighter aircraft. The deal is now mired in a massive controversy. Photo: Wikimedia Commons / Arnaud Gaillard

The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is facing one of its gravest political challenges, just a few months ahead of general elections, scheduled for April. A deal to procure 36 Rafale combat jets from the French aviation company Dassault has become a raging controversy.

A clutch of petitioners approached the Supreme Court seeking its intervention in the matter. The petitioners include lawyer Prashant Bhushan, former finance minister Yashwant Sinha and former telecommunications minister Arun Shourie. They have demanded that the government come clean on the pricing of the deal and the reasons for bypassing laid-down procedure for a deal that is in the region of US$9 billion.

At a day-long hearing of the case in the Supreme Court, Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi surprised everyone by seeking the views of the Indian Air Force on the finer aspects of the deal.

The IAF has been desperate to induct new multirole combat jets for nearly a decade to replace its aging Soviet-era MiGs. After a protracted series of tests, the French Rafale emerged as the winner, beating the Swedish Gripen, the Russian MiG-35 and the the American F-16 and F-18 combat jets. The original plan was to procure a 126 jets.

However, after assuming power in the 2014 general elections, the Modi government scrapped the 126-aircraft deal. On a trip to France in April 2016, Modi surprised everyone by announcing a fresh deal for only 36 combat jets. As it turns out, the announcement suffered from several key procedural lapses. This led to furious protests from the opposition parties, and the petitions in the Supreme Court.

However, what serving IAF officers submitted in the apex court has given rise to fresh controversy.

When Gogoi asked when the last induction of advanced fighter jets was, Air Vice-Marshal T Chalapati said these were in the 1980s in the shape of Mirage aircraft. Gogoi said: “That means from 1980s till date there have been zero additions.”

This is sheer hogwash.

The IAF has inducted Su-30MKIs from the mid-1990s onward and has more than 270 of these fighters. The more recent deliveries have electronics comparable to the current state of the art. The aircraft may be classified as 3.5 generation, but that is because it was designed in that time period. To impute that the same plane made in 2010 is limited to that period’s capability is also rubbish.

For that matter, the Rafale prototype was up and flying in the late 1980s. I witnessed the Rafale in Farnborough, England, in 1988. The Su-27 – the forerunner of the Su-30 and Su-35 – made its debut in Paris in 1987, where, incidentally, it crashed during a flying display.

Chalapati also suggested that the “existing fighters do not have stealth capability.” This is also misleading. Radar signatures have been progressively getting smaller and only the American F-117 is truly stealthy – but because of its design it can do less and its cost is exorbitant. The Su-30s have stealth built into them with composite materials and radar-absorbing paint. But its size makes it a difficult plane to hide. But the upgraded MiG-29s too have more stealth built into them.

Finally, for the government to insist that revealing the overall unit price would expose the true capability of the new Rafale combat jets is a complete concoction and figment of imagination. It is just a lie. What the price will reveal (since the India specifications haven’t changed since 2013) is whether the Modi government inflated the cost, for reasons that are very easy to guess.

This interaction took place in the presence of the vice-chief of the air force, Air Marshal Anil Khosla, the deputy chief of the IAF, Air Marshal V R Choudhari, and Additional Defense Secretary Apurva Chandra.

This raises the question – why are serving air force officials not revealing how the Su-30s were inducted in the same period that they now claim did not see any combat-aircraft acquisitions?

Mohan Guruswamy is a distinguished fellow at the United Service Institution of India, New Delhi, and a visiting professor at the Administrative Staff College of India, Hyderabad.

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