Victim of politics or serious intent ?
Air Marshal M. Matheswaran on the new RFI
In this reactive piece, Air Marshal M Matheswaran writes on the IAF’s recent RFI issued on 6 April 2018, for fighter aircraft, this detailed document deriving much from the earlier fully evaluated MMRCA project which was scrapped in 2015. Since much of the information of already available with the IAF, he opines that with the Government moving into 2019 election mode, this second round may go on much longer than anticipated.
The Indian Air Force issued a RFI ( Request for Information) on 6 April 2018 to global OEMs of fighter aircraft, and in the process abandoning the RFI for single- engine fighters floated two years earlier. The current RFI of 73 pages is a detailed document, which has derived much from the earlier fully evaluated MMRCA project, scrapped in 2015. Much of all the information is already available with the IAF, thanks to the earlier evaluation. Nevertheless, the RFI signals an intent, and allows the OEMs to furnish certain technical and policy related information that would be very useful in formulating a very practical and viable RFP. Effectively, the RFI signals a repeat of the MMRCA process for the same multi-role aircraft, technologies and production intent. The players are the same, similar processes and methodologies, and so, what is different now? Going by GOI’s track record on major acquisitions, this would well be another 5-year cycle, which means if everything goes well and efficiently, the first aircraft may be with the IAF not before 8 years, that is not before 2026! Why couldn’t the government fast-track the process through a sensible G to G agreement? Quite obviously, affordability is an issue but MMRCA has also become a victim of the politics of the day.
There are some significant differences that come into play in this repeat MMRCA process. In the previous evaluation, there were one or two aircraft that may have been considered as still under development, for example the Gripen-NG and the MiG-35. In the current scenario all competitors will have fully developed and matured platforms, particularly the Gripen E and the MiG-35. New upgraded avionics and sensors may be in operation. In the last evaluation, AESA radar, which was a critical requirement, was mostly part of subjective evaluation as except for the Americans, none had operationalised AESA radar. In the current scenario, all the contenders will field operational AESA radars. Technology requirements asked for in the current RFI
are virtually a repeat of what was asked for in the earlier RFP, but it is now supported by DPP 2016 with better clarity in policies with respect to categorisation, TOT requirements, and indigenous content strategies. More importantly, while the previous RFP dealt with HAL as the sole production agency and technology partner, the RFI indicates the options for Indian private sector as the production agency. This could be a double- edged sword. Unless Indian private sector with strong foundation in manufacturing and technology innovation are involved, they could end up as glorified licence-production agents of foreign OEMs. We can see various OEMs and Indian private sectors adopting a hedging strategy by announcing MOUs for partnership. With the recent announcement of Boeing, the alignments are clear: Boeing with HAL and Mahindra, Lockheed Martin with Tata (TASL), Dassault with Reliance Defence, and Saab with Adani. Eurofighter and the Mikoyan have not announced anything yet but it is most likely that they would prefer HAL as their partner. In all these groupings, other than HAL there is really no private sector with any significant aerospace and fighter aircraft manufacturing experience. While Tatas and Mahindras have the manufacturing culture and foundation, the other two, Reliance and Adani are primarily trading and infrastructure companies. Given the complexity of fighter aircraft technologies, these private sectors will take decades to imbibe the hitech manufacturing and innovation culture, provided its apex leadership moves away from trading culture to technocrat culture. It is therefore, imperative that the government creates a strategic mechanism to closely monitor and steer the Indian private sector towards achieving strategic objectives of technology acquisition and development, much like the French DGA.
DPP 2016 has brought in major changes which will impact on how the evaluation is now reinterpreted. As opposed to the earlier simple set of ‘ mandatory SQRs’, DPP 2016 permits SQR to be listed in three sets: Essential Parameters A (which will be tested fully in evaluation), Essential Parameters B ( which need to be validated in a
certain timeframe), and Enhanced Performance Parameters ( where each OEM can highlight additional or extra technology strengths, which could give them additional evaluation credits). This could make the evaluation more comprehensive, as well as complex and tricky.
Why is it that India’s major acquisitions are always delayed repeatedly causing
grievous damage to the country in terms of adverse impact on force structures, higher costs, opportunities lost, and missing the technology bus ? The IAF’s AJT selection was completed first in 1985 but it took 20 years more to sign the contract. The air-toair refuelling tanker proposal continues to go around in circles for more than 10 years. LUH for the Army and Air Force went through three repetitions over the last 12 years, and there are many more cases.
The problem lies in the absence of right coupling of defence industrial strategy and military modernisation. It becomes worse when political leaderships do not have the expertise or the time for defence issues, which allows the generalist bureaucratic system to play the decision making game. If defence ministers are not technocrats and lack the depth in understanding military operational and strategic issues, it compounds the problem.
The original MMRCA RFP was a pathbreaking one and could have benefitted the country immensely if it had been followed in earnest. While forwarding the draft RFP for MOD approval (which took two more years), a most important issue was flagged – that the final decision on this selection should be in consonance with para 59 of DPP 2005. This said that in major high value acquisitions, considerations should come into play in terms of strategic, technological, political, and economic benefits that would accrue to India from the competing vendor’s country, and such a decision would be made by the CCS, irrespective of whoever is the L1. The implication of this is that governments should get involved, and CCS should make the final decision as to who should be negotiated with. Quite obviously, this was too complex for officials involved, and was ignored with conveniently different interpretation. Para 59 is repeated verbatim as para 73 in DPP 2006, and a watered down version as para 105 in DPP 2016.
It is very evident that the government has already moved into 2019 election mode. If the RFP process and the trial evaluation are not completed before it, which looks very unlikely, the second round of MMRCA may go on much longer than anticipated.
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