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?