A dose of re­al­ism

Vayu Aerospace and Defence - - Opinion -

There is some­thing about the pro­cure­ment of mil­i­tary equip­ment from western com­mer­cial sources that gen­er­ates pub­lic in­ter­est far greater than its fi­nan­cial or strate­gic con­tent. The en­tire spec­ta­cle of open ten­der­ing, nail-bit­ing se­lec­tion, fol­lowed by end­less ne­go­ti­a­tions - all played out in the pub­lic do­main – does lit­tle jus­tice to the very se­ri­ous busi­ness of deal­ing with a weapon sys­tem for the bat­tle­field which, in re­al­ity, should re­main strictly con­fi­den­tial, if not to­tally se­cret. In rare cases of con­tracts ap­proach­ing fruition, chances are that at some po­lit­i­cally op­por­tune time, these would also be­come the sub­ject of po­lit­i­cal con­tro­versy with scarcely any con­cern about the ad­verse im­pact this will have on na­tional se­cu­rity, the op­er­a­tional ca­pa­bil­ity of the armed forces or, in­deed, on their morale.

The lat­est to join this league is the trun­cated MMRCA pur­chase of 36 Rafale air­craft from Das­sault Avi­a­tion against the In­dian Air Force’s re­quire­ment of 126 air­craft, a process that was ini­ti­ated in 2007 as a com­mer­cial bid, but re­mained dead­locked till a new govern­ment took charge, scrapped it, and took a de­ci­sion to go by the govern­ment-to-govern­ment route. Po­lit­i­cal op­po­nents have now fired a salvo, al­leg­ing that the fi­nal con­tracted unit cost per air­craft was far greater than the one that had been ne­go­ti­ated by the pre­vi­ous govern­ment and that due pro­ce­dures laid down had been vi­o­lated. This, in turn, has gen­er­ated a free­wheel­ing pub­lic de­bate much of it based on lim­ited tech­ni­cal knowl­edge and per­cep­tion rather than on hard facts.

As some­one who has spent nearly a decade in Air HQ in the plan­ning and pro­cure­ment branch in var­i­ous ca­pac­i­ties, in­clud­ing its head as deputy chief of air staff, was part of the min­istry of de­fence team that ne­go­ti­ated the An­glo- French Jaguar con­tract in the late 1970s (which, at the time, had more than its share of spec­u­la­tive me­dia de­bate and cor­rup­tion crit­i­cisms), ob­served at close range how the United King­dom and the French mil­i­tary aero­space in­dus­tries func­tion and been a part of nu­mer­ous MoD ne­go­ti­at­ing teams there­after, one feels morally bound to in­ject some re­al­ism in this self-de­feat­ing de­bate. This is be­cause what­ever may be the po­lit­i­cal or moral com­pul­sions driv­ing it, at the very least it un­der­mines the con­fi­dence that the IAF rank and file will have in its own mil­i­tary lead­er­ship and ad­versely af­fect morale. That is why the IAF chief has been con­strained to take the un­usual step of pub­licly stress­ing that it was a govern­ment-to-govern­ment con­tract, and that it was a bet­ter deal with lower cost im­pli­ca­tions than the ear­lier MMRCA con­tract ne­go­ti­a­tions.

Even in com­mer­cial con­tracts that re­late to mod­ern com­bat air­craft and as­so­ci­ated weapons and sys­tems, na­tional gov­ern­ments and strate­gic se­cu­rity in­ter­ests of both seller and buyer coun­tries are in­vari­ably in­volved. Na­tional gov­ern­ments of aero­space sup­pli­ers hence keep a be­nign check on their own in­dus­tries – to pro­mote their in­ter­na­tional sales foot­print – as also on their in­dus­trial prac­tices to pre­vent diplo­matic em­bar­rass­ment. All sup­pli­ers also re­quire that their costs are treated as ‘com­mer­cially con­fi­dent’ in­for­ma­tion for the buyer only. In the event of such con­tracts be­ing backed through a govern­ment- to- govern­ment un­der­stand­ing, these com­mit­ments take on a more for­mal role.

Un­like many stand-alone prod­ucts, it is too sim­plis­tic a no­tion to cal­cu­late costs per air­craft, be­cause with­out ground and test equip­ment, weapons, spares sup­port, re­pair fa­cil­i­ties and a host of other es­sen­tials, the air­craft has no util­ity as an op­er­a­tional weapon sys­tem. Any cost com­par­isons to

The Rafale at Aero In­dia 2017

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