Don’t forget that Rafale isn’t “really” ours

This is probably not the day to be a total buzzkill. Everyone is thrilled that the Rafale is landing in India. They left France the other day and are set to touch the ground in Ambala any time now. Arriving at a juncture when there are high tensions with China, the timing could not have been better.

I am just as happy as the next person. But we all know there is a cloud to this silver lining.

The Rafale really isn’t “ours” you know. It’s made in France, by Dassault Aviation. We might have the colors of the Indian Air Force on it, but it’s really a French fighter plane.

It’s not just that the technology stays with France. Aircraft today are so high tech that it’s almost impossible to “own” them unless you actually own the factory that produces them.

I will give you a down to earth example. Right now, there is a political movement sweeping America’s rural heartland over “right to repair.” Because tractors today, manufactured by companies such as John Deere, have computer controlled hi-tech brains that make them impossible to repair at a common mechanic shop. Unless you pay thousands of dollars to a dealership, you’re screwed. In fact, the tractor might even switch off if anyone tries “unauthorized repairs.” If you can’t repair your tractor, do you really own it?

That’s how high tech tractors are in 2020. Now imagine what a fighter plane is like.

Of course, this isn’t an argument against buying the Rafale. Our current tech capabilities don’t really match our defense needs. So we have to buy. Right now. But the important thing is to keep an eye on the real target: to have our own topline fighter aircraft.

What we “really” own is the Tejas. Sadly, not even all of that. It may or may not be widely known that the Tejas uses an American engine, made by GE. The dream was to have the Tejas powered by the Indian made Kaveri engine, which is still not ready. An outright embarrassment for DRDO.

Now there are some advantages to buying the Rafale. Long years ago, when I heard of the MRCA competition, I remember thinking that the best choice was the Rafale. How could I figure this out despite being clueless about the engineering?

Let me explain.

The contenders were the American F-18, the Russian Mig-35, the Eurofighter Typhoon, the Swedish SAAB Gripen and the Dassault Rafale.

America is a superpower. Russia is at least a military superpower. Why would we buy from a country that is so much more powerful than us? We could *never* dictate terms to America or Russia. So, no to both.

The Eurofighter is made by a consortium of European countries, led by Germany. Not a superpower, but still a very powerful combine. And anything run jointly by half a dozen countries is indecisive and difficult to deal with.

This leaves the Swedish Gripen and the French Rafale. The deal would give us leverage over Sweden or France. But the Swedish plane has only one engine (lol). It would be like bringing a knife to a gunfight. Clearly not qualified. So Rafale it is.

So as long as we are buying stuff, France or Israel are the countries to buy from. We can have leverage over smaller powers.

But in the long term, only building our own fighter aircraft can help us. A corollary of this would be having our own civilian aircraft as well. If Brazil can have Embraer planes operating all around the world, surely we can have our own.

Now this is not easy business. The Chinese still haven’t fully operationalized their C919 airliners. But India is sorely lagging behind. The National Aeronautical Lab (NAL) has been working on a civilian plane called SARAS. But so far, it’s been a lot of frustration and little actual progress.

But it is projects like SARAS and Tejas which are the long term investments in India’s future. These projects not only make India more secure and enhance our prestige, they are serious economic drivers. The US economy today would probably collapse without the “military industrial complex.” It’s the last form of big manufacturing that lives on in America, which cannot be outsourced to China for obvious reasons.

In fact, there is a huge market just waiting to be tapped. One thing that India excels at is producing high tech items at a low prices. A good example would be the PSLV. Our costs are an order of magnitude lower than any comparable rocket in the West.

If India can crack the global military market, that’s a bonanza waiting for us.

It is not like India hasn’t made strides. As I noted on this blog long ago, India’s defense exports have grown almost exponentially in recent years. Manufacturing smaller items mostly as part of subcontracts that go into bigger weapons all over the world, prominently including the United States.

But a top of line military and/or civilian aircraft would put us in a different league altogether. It isn’t just planes. We have to start exporting tanks. The big Western countries may not buy from us. But leave out 20 Western countries and 5-10 more Asian countries and you still have 150+ nations that need tanks.

There is something curious that I should mention here. India operates several hundred Dhruv helicopters, developed by HAL. The world over, people need helicopters. So why not export the HAL Dhruv?

The thing is, we did. We did sell them to the Air Force of Ecuador. Six of them.

Can you believe that four of the six helicopters we sold to them crashed? Ecuador stopped the program and I don’t think any country has purchased the Dhruv since then.

Weird, no? Like I said, India itself operates hundreds of Dhruv helicopters and no such thing happens here. How could 4 of the 6 helicopters we sold to Ecuador have crashed? It’s hard to believe this was just bad luck. The global defense market is about hundreds of billions of $$$ and Latin America is an unbelievably corrupt place. Did somebody not want India to get a chunk of the global helicopter business? The finger of suspicion can be pointed at any number of foreign countries.

What do you think?

5 thoughts on “Don’t forget that Rafale isn’t “really” ours

  1. Since you mention Embraer, the Brazilian company is in a bit of a jam currently and is available for takers at an unbelievable price of about USD 5 billion (I read this some months ago, it wasn’t reported widely). There’s no reason to doubt this bit of news as aviation across the world are in a serious state of disrepair owing to Coronavirus, with consequent effects on aircraft manufacturers. Smaller aircraft manufacturers such as Embraer, Bombardier, ATR are in even greater problems owing to low sales and tighter balance sheets.

    Here’s what India should do in my opinion, to give this class of domestic aircraft design and manufacturing a kickstart:

    The government subsidizes 75% of the cost of the deal to acquire Embraer. It encourages – nay, nudge – big Indian companies such as Tata, Mahindra, L&T, and Reliance to bid for, and secure, the deal as a consortium with only 25% payout for the total cost of the deal from their side while also giving tax concessions.

    Each of the Indian companies gets to focus on and concentrate on one piece of the whole – airframe, engines, avionics, assembly and fabrication. So each of the Indian companies has complete control over its piece with no overlap. They are put together as a fully Indian entity.

    The Indian companies each begin supplying their part to the already fully designed Brazil-based manufacturing operations (perhaps even acquiring Tier 1 and Tier 2 Brazilian companies in the process). Next stage would be to shift some of the sub-assemblies to India, next whole assemblies in an India operation. Finally, a full India-based manufacturing operation with whole assembly while still manufacturing in the Brazilian unit, perhaps dividing geographies to the two operations. When we come to the last stage, the Indian companies – each in their own specialty – would have mastered both the engineering and the scale. The government, together with the private companies, could aim for a target timeframe: say, 10 years.

    One aspect the Indian government would have to purposefully push for and not be deterred by other considerations, is to keep HAL out of the picture. They have enough on their plate and a larger number of players would accelerate development of a mature aircraft manufacturing ecosystem.

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  2. First congratulations are in order to Modi and his government for expediting the Rafale deal and getting the aircraft. As the events on the border show, the Rafales were desperately needed.

    In 1947, we had a well developed defence industry which was much better than China had at that point. Like the rest of India, the Congress party left the defence industry also in an undeveloped state.

    The Congress party was not serious about local development of high tech weaponry because the kickbacks would disappear. Also where was the need to defend when you could just give away land to all and sundry like Nehru did ? UPA wanted to even give away Siachen to Pakistan. Congress is a crypto Islamic party that is out to destroy India.

    In the past our armed forces also wants the latest shiny toys without going through the grind of development. This has led to the high reliance on imports.But of late the armed forces has realized the need for local development of weapons.

    The government needs to come up with a plan and roadmap for the local defence industry with achievable targets and private sector participation. We should not run to the West everytime a crisis develops.

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  3. If we can compete in space field why we can not compete in aviation? In natural analysis of things, temporarily we may be behind in capital and organization. The natural resources of land and vastly cheap labour are our competitive assets. The shortage of capital in a thirsty economy is shameful and artificial scarcity. The real problem upto last decade and some change years in this decade is organization.

    The organization includes realization and solution of internal and external sabotage in the development of military and civil products including aircrafts and thousands of manufacturing and consumer products. The organization includes infrastructure. It includes incentive for capital coalition. It consists of development of management and leadership quality. The standardized and mass demand in capital projects and thousands of consumer products can create the biggest economy in the world and innovative high tech products a natural corollary. The selective operators will be non corrupt, patriot, visionary, scientist minded and sanatan entrepreneurs to start with eventually taken over by the students of new bigger than Nallanda gurukullas free from Makaluyans and JNUyans.

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  4. Most of the current defence manufacturing PSUs were created by congress essentially in pursuance of creating vote banks. If you look where these units are situated, the congress in the past used to have a large vote bank in these states. There were not much jobs back then and setting up a large PSU in such a situation created committed vote banks. That is how congress won so many elections and created states where held fort for a long time until recently.

    After all, Congress was responsible for keeping India from progressing by preventing private sector from emerging in a big way and creating jobs. This helped them create Mai Baap sarkar where they will distribute the jobs and benefits of contracting to their cronies. They were the new feudal lords disbursing benefits to whoever they placed and penalising others who did not fall in line. Incidentally, they also created the commie vote banks of their own as the commie leftists took control of PSU employe Unions and created a work culture that oozed laziness and lack of accountability. Many orders were delayed or remained unfulfilled despite a long wait by armed forces. This led the armed forces to large scale imports to meet their requirements. This in turn created a vested interest of its own as Congress discovered the easy corruption route in defence imports! Which is why congress makes a big noise against bringing in the private sector in defence manufacturing. They want to protect their business interest of manufactured commissions on defence imports!

    HAL, GSRE, Ordinance Bureau, MDL, CSY, were all created in that era. None of them reached their potential and continue to remain seeped in chalta hai culture. None of of the large / important orders of Navy, Airforce or Army were delivered before the delivery dates as per the procurement contracts signed with these entities. Extreme delays were a common feature. Some notable exceptions to the poor PSU culture were PSUs like BEL and MIDHANI.

    The biggest stumbling block to the emergence of private sector in a big way in defence manufacturing are again the congress and commie left who wage a misinformation campaign that the government is ignoring the PSU and giving contracts to private sector. Unless the particular defence PSU is engaged in manufacturing of strategic assets for the armed forces, these PSUs should be privatised or at least partially privatised to the extent of 49% of the equity by either issuing IPOs or bringing in a strategic private sector partner.

    We have thank late Manohar Parrikar Ji who finalised Rafale contract to meet the strategic gap in the air force requirements. Thanks to him five Rafales have landed today in Ambala. Look at their manufacturing efficiency, they delivered before the agreed delivery dates despite the Wuhan virus affecting normal work routines.

    It is unfortunate that Late Manohar Parrikar Ji suffered health issues and had to leave DM. He was the only DM so far who had the courage, knowledge and wisdom to see the need for private sector MIC to emerge. In fact, he had prepared a good policy paper in this area and was about to set the ball rolling when he had to leave DM due to health issues. Unfortunately, other ministers who followed him in DM could not take the initiative forward for a variety of reasons, most important being lack of courage to create such paradigm shift.

    Tejas is an achievement we should be proud of. This is a great fighter aircraft in its category. If we back it up with a potent weapons system and produce it in large numbers it will make up the quantity requirements of the air force. Tejas development created a ecosystem of suppliers and manufacturers who will be lost if there is no continuous order pipeline. Yes, its based on GE engine but the Gripen fighter engine also has an american engine.

    Kaveri engine development suffered due to variety of reasons one of which was the inadequate fund allocation for research of such important technology which money cannot buy. Some other problems were the lack of proper testing facilities. Kaveri engine was not a total failure. It produced and engine but it fell short of the thrust required to power a fighter aircraft. It can still be sufficient to power UCAV programme if required. We can build on the experience of Kaveri engine development by creating a national programme of engine development with a proper mission and required funding and facilities to create a truly capable engine.

    In the meantime, cheers to the arrival of Rafale. Thanks to Late Manohar Parrikar Ji.

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  5. Forget about manufacturing our own air crafts. Except very recently, didn’t we witness one MIG going down every other week? We were very happy when the news came that the pilot(s) ejected safely!! Did we ever hear about the MIG going down in Russia even tenth as frequently as we had? The reason reported was we had been maintaining/repairing these MIGs with “indigenous” manufactured nuts and bolts. We have a long way to go.

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