IAF May day for MMRCA


Nearly 21 months since the Rafale air­craft was downs­e­lected in the medium multi-role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) fighter com­pe­ti­tion, a mea­sure of de­spon­dency has set in over time­lines mak­ing the In­dian Air Force (IAF) ner­vous for the first time that there’s a good chance the deal won’t go through in the cur­rent fi­nan­cial year. The IAF’s Deputy Chief re­cently claimed he ex­pected the deal to be pushed through be­fore March 2014, but if the re­al­ity in ne­go­ti­a­tions is any­thing to go by, there re­mains a moun­tain of work ahead and very lit­tle time. Se­ri­ous stum­bling blocks linger on three prin­ci­pal ac­counts, slow­ing progress and all but nix­ing the pos­si­bil­ity of an early con­tract sig­na­ture: (a) di­vi­sion of re­spon­si­bil­i­ties be­tween Das­sault and the Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Lim­ited (HAL) in terms of work­share and tech­ni­cal col­lab­o­ra­tion, (b) cost­ing of the 18 fly­away air­craft that will be pro­duced by Das­sault for the first MMRCA squadron, and (c) off­sets.

But ne­go­ti­a­tions are only one as­pect: the other, of course, is time. In re­al­ity, the In­dian Air Force is aware that time is even shorter than it seems. Its anx­i­ety is prin­ci­pally based on the un­like­li­hood of such a large deal be­ing pushed through when the coun­try is in ‘elec­tion mode’. As In­dia wades into a pe­riod of state elec­tions, fol­lowed by na­tional polls in sum­mer 2014, the MMRCA deal couldn’t have been worse poised in terms of tim­ing. Suc­ces­sive gov­ern­ments have been ner­vous about call­ing too much at­ten­tion with large mil­i­tary con­tracts ahead of elec­tions. The shadow of the Agus­taWest­land VVIP he­li­copter con­tro­versy has only in­ten­si­fied the gov­ern­ment’s paral­y­sis over bold, tough and ur­gent de­ci­sions.

“As the IAF Chief had re­cently said, there is no Plan B for the MMRCA. It must go through and quickly if we are to ben­e­fit from it. Re­mem­ber that the MMRCA pro­gramme, while a large and am­bi­tious con­tract, is prin­ci­pally a sub­stan­tive stop­gap pur­chase to bridge the IAF’s ca­pa­bil­i­ties into the fu­ture. The IAF’s fleet is to be bol­stered by its Su-30MKIs and LCA Te­jas Mk.1/2 fight­ers, with up­graded Mi­rages and MiG-29s tak­ing care of the medium ca­pa­bil­i­ties. The MMRCA is there­fore cru­cial since it fills a gap left by rapid re­tire­ments of the MiG-21 and de­lays in the LCA Te­jas. But if it does not come on time, the pur­pose of the pro­gramme it­self is lost,” says a se­nior IAF of­fi­cer fa­mil­iar with the MMRCA pro­gramme.

The re­cent demise of the Min­istry of De­fence’s (MoD) top ac­qui­si­tions man for the MMRCA con­tract, A.K. Bal, was a body blow to progress – even IAF Chief Air Chief Mar­shal N.A.K. Browne recog­nised this at his an­nual Air Force Day press in­ter­ac­tion, when he said it would take time for his re­place­ment to get up to speed on the de­tails of the pro­gramme. How­ever, the MoD, while mourn­ing the loss of the ta­lented and hard­work­ing of­fi­cial, has taken it upon it­self now to en­sure that pre­cious time is not lost.

“Any­one with the im­pres­sion that the MMRCA ne­go­ti­a­tions are sim­ply drift­ing would have a very dif­fer­ent view if they were aware of the com­plex­i­ties of this par­tic­u­lar con­tract. It must be com­mu­ni­cated to those in­ter­ested in such mat­ters that the MMRCA pro­gramme has sur­passed all pre­vi­ous de­fence con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions in In­dia in terms of com­plex­ity, depth and scale, not just in terms of value and num­bers, but in terms of the sheer de­tail into which each header is be­ing ham­mered out. When we are talk­ing about such enor­mous por­tions of pub­lic money, it is a non-ne­go­tiable duty to en­sure that ev­ery ru­pee is pru­dently spent, and that each paisa brings us the very best,” a se­nior MoD of­fi­cial in­forms SP’s.

Ru­pee de­pre­ci­a­tion has brought with it its own set of wor­ries for the gov­ern­ment and IAF, though the lat­ter has since been as­sured that all such even­tu­al­i­ties have been ac­counted for in bud­get­ing. The IAF, how­ever, re­mains de­ter­mined to see the light be­fore it be­gins to cel­e­brate. The alacrity with which the MoD moved on the ba­sic trainer con­tract has given the IAF rea­son to be op­ti­mistic that cru­cial deals can be fast-tracked. How­ever, it re­mains per­plexed over why it has taken nearly two years to com­plete ne­go­ti­a­tions, no mat­ter how com­plex.

A top of­fi­cial at Das­sault Avi­a­tion in France says, “The com­pany re­mains op­ti­mistic. We have a re­la­tion­ship with the In­dian MoD and IAF that spans many decades. De­lays and ne­go­ti­a­tions are part of due process and must be com­pleted to the sat­is­fac­tion of all con­cerned. While we would very much like to see an early con­clu­sion to the ne­go­ti­a­tions, we fully re­spect In­dian due process, which we be­lieve is among the best in the world. We would also like to recog­nise that no fighter com­pe­ti­tion has gone into the in­ner com­plex­i­ties of con­tract­ing like this one has. It has set down sev­eral bench­marks for fu­ture pur­chases, be­yond fighter jets too.”

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