Un­called for de­lays


It was over a decade ago that the In­dian Air Force (IAF) first pro­jected a re­quire­ment of six squadrons (126 air­craft) of light-weight air de­fence fight­ers in the 15-20-tonne weight cat­e­gory. This re­quire­ment was pro­jected es­sen­tially to fill the void in its com­bat fleet an­tic­i­pated due to the re­tire­ment of the air de­fence ver­sion of the MiG-21 air­craft. The pro­posal grad­u­ally meta­mor­phosed into the re­quire­ment for 126 medium multi-role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) of heav­ier weight, i.e. 25 tonnes. Though not of­fi­cially stated in ex­plicit terms, the IAF in­di­cated its pref­er­ence for twin-engine and two-seat plat­form to con­form to its newly for­mu­lated doc­trine.

Af­ter a de­lay of six years, an elab­o­rate 211-page re­quest for pro­posal (RFP) was is­sued in 2007. There­after, it took a cou­ple of years for the re­sponse to the RFP to be col­lated. What fol­lowed was a de­tailed tech­ni­cal eval­u­a­tion, gru­elling field tri­als to check com­pli­ance with the 660 tech­ni­cal pa­ram­e­ters at a va­ri­ety of op­er­a­tional con­di­tions and lo­ca­tions as also a pre­lim­i­nary com­mer­cial eval­u­a­tion, the en­tire process last­ing for over five years. Fi­nally, endJan­uary this year, the IAF made pub­lic its pre­ferred air­craft, the Rafale, fielded by the French aero­space ma­jor Das­sault. The Rafale was se­lected by the IAF from amongst six con­tenders, oth­ers be­ing the Eurofighter Ty­phoon, Boe­ing F/A18-E/F Su­per Hor­net, Lock­heed Martin F-16IN Su­per Viper, Saab Gripen and the Rus­sian MiG-35.

On ac­count of the in­or­di­nate de­lay in the ac­qui­si­tion process at­trib­ut­able to a large ex­tent to the in­fin­itely com­plex De­fence Pro­cure­ment Pro­ce­dure (DPP) that de­mands high de­gree of pro­ce­dural dis­ci­pline, com­pet­i­tive­ness, trans­parency and fair­ness, the value of the con­tract ini­tially in the re­gion of $10.4 bil­lion (`57,200 crore), has es­ca­lated and the re­vised es­ti­mate is nudg­ing at $20 bil­lion (`1,10,000 crore). As and when the deal fi­nally goes through, it will go down in the his­tory of de­fence pro­cure­ment as the largest deal un­der the “open ten­der” sys­tem not only in In­dia but in the world.

Since end-Jan­uary 2012, when the se­lec­tion of the pre­ferred ven­dor was made pub­lic, the ac­qui­si­tion process has moved to the next stage; that of de­tailed com­mer­cial ne­go­ti­a­tions be­tween the In­dian Min­istry of De­fence and the French aero­space ma­jor Das­sault. This round of in­ter­ac­tion would in­clude com­pu­ta­tion and ver­i­fi­ca­tion of data on life cy­cle costs, fi­nal­i­sa­tion of off­set ar­range­ments, trans­fer of tech­nol­ogy and fix­a­tion of the fi­nal price. Af­ter scru­tiny by the Min­istry of Fi­nance, the case will be con­sid­ered for ap­proval by the Cab­i­net Com­mit­tee on Se­cu­rity be­fore the con­tract is fi­nally inked.

At the time the se­lec­tion of Rafale was made pub­lic, it was es­ti­mated that it would take an­other four to five months for the con­tract to be signed. But seven months have gone by and there is no in­di­ca­tion that the process is near­ing com­ple­tion or even mov­ing for­ward. De­lay in the fi­nal­i­sa­tion of the con­tract is un­doubt­edly frus­trat­ing for the IAF as its plans to check the rapidly erod­ing op­er­a­tional po­ten­tial through in­duc­tion of new air­craft are un­likely to ma­te­ri­alise in the re­quired time frame. The pace at which the process has pro­gressed so far, the chances of the con­tract be­ing con­cluded dur­ing the cur­rent fi­nan­cial year are be­gin­ning to ap­pear rather slim, rais­ing se­ri­ous doubts about the pos­si­bil­ity of in­duc­tion of the first batch of Rafale air­craft pro­cured from the orig­i­nal equip­ment man­u­fac­turer (OEM) in a fly-away con­di­tion, be­gin­ning 2015. Plans for the com­mence­ment of man­u­fac­ture of the air­craft by the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited by 2017-18 may there­fore not ma­te­ri­alise and would have to be pushed back fur­ther.

De­lay in the de­ci­sion-mak­ing process com­pounded by ab­sence of cred­i­ble in­for­ma­tion on the progress of the last stage in the pro­cess­ing of the ten­der has been giv­ing rise to spec­u­la­tion amongst other play­ers elim­i­nated from the race ear­lier on. Arms trade agen­cies both in the East and the West see the de­lay as an in­di­ca­tion of the pos­si­bil­ity that the MMRCA ten­der may have run into trou­ble and could well be can­celled paving the way for a fresh ten­der in which they would hap­pily par­tic­i­pate.

While the DPP may have been crafted with the noble and laud­able ob­jec­tive of elim­i­nat­ing all pos­si­bil­ity of ma­nip­u­la­tion or mis­de­meanour in the ac­qui­si­tion of de­fence hard­ware, there is an im­per­a­tive need to bal­ance its rigid frame­work with the re­quired de­gree of flex­i­bil­ity to ob­vi­ate un­due de­lay in the in­ter­est of na­tional se­cu­rity. In the in­stant case, there is un­doubt­edly a com­pelling ur­gency to fi­nalise the MMRCA deal with­out fur­ther de­lay to en­sure that for the IAF, Rafale is a re­al­ity and that the MMRCA ten­der does not continue to re­main an ex­er­cise in chas­ing a mi­rage!

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