The Rafale deal and its aftermath

The Rafale deal, which involves the outright purchase of 36 fighters from the French government, has proved that arms procurement in India is a mysterious process. Its clear that the Air Force wants this aircraft. The political class, in a rare spurt of pro-activeness, is willing to meet this demand. However,  the wheels within the wheels (read: the bureaucracy and government- run defence public sector undertakings) have shown their inability to go through with such a deal, showing no substantial results after twenty seven months of protracted negotiations, clearly reflecting that all is not well with defence procurement process.

The debate about India and the years of negotiations spent on the Request For Proposal (RFP) route smells of sheer unaccountability, while the services starve for equipment. The track record of the RFP route shows that any major induction of weapons in the last decade has been dismally low. In India preventing corruption and shirking responsibility seem to have overtaken common logic.
What’s worse; no one seems to be taking responsibility for the non procurement of weapons. This short term measure to procure Rafale aircraft is fire fighting at best. The flip side is that such a scenario ensures that the defence establishment slowly comes to grips with the sorry state of affairs. Meanwhile the defence establishment will have maintain its search for out of the box solutions.

In these columns over the course of the past two months, four issues have been debated: the problems plaguing defence procurement, the trials and tribulations of transfer of technology, challenges regarding “Make in India”, and the unintended side effects of weapon bans. The bottom line is very simple: India is a laggard as far as defence procurement is concerned. To change these state of affairs the Indian state has to respond in a viable time frame. In addition, transparency has to be ensured, so that, India’s reputation as an emerging power is not tarnished. The government must be seen as meaning business. A good healthy defence industry also brings some much needed jobs in the ensuing process of defence modernisation.

There are many issues surrounding the procurement process. The defence forces are blamed for frequently changing the general staff qualitative requirement (GSQR). The defence public sector undertakings are routinely blamed for their snail pace of supply. Then there are fingers pointed at the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) for not doing enough regarding the Tejas fighters. The bottom line is simple. Arms and ammunition manufactured in India lack quality control. The net result is that the men on the ground are always cribbing about the poor quality of equipment and the problems faced by them, while operating these systems. There seem to be too many holy cows in defence; don’t some of these areas need some exposure to sunlight (read: greater scrutiny)?

What does the Rafale deal mean for India? One school of thought is bound to say that the deal casts India in a poorer light, at least as far as being a place to do business is concerned: as a few years ago there was a retrospective tax, a number of bans on foreign firms, corruption and now the cancellation of a transparent RFP. Another way to look at the deal is that the government did the same deal in a more transparent manner. The government also maintains that it got a better deal than the previous one. If that is indeed the case, what were all the protracted negotiations about?
One thing is clear; the political class is at least listening to the soldiers, as far as defence-related issues are concerned. The Rafale deal may lead to many more such government to government deals. For a change the political class has been decisive and that will send a clear message to all international stakeholders. The message is very clear: India will think out of the box in order to get what its forces need rather than resorting to delay tactics, red tapism, and unaccountability.

The question which naturally arises is-what happens to “Make in India”? To do this the government needs to energize two sectors-defence and railways. The future for defence lies in producing arms ingeniously and that too in India. The government needs to find the appropriate level of public investment and willing partners. It also needs a better arms procurement policy. Above all it needs to tap the vast resources of private defence players. “Make in India” will take time. It needs a drastic cultural change of ethos, all of which will not happen soon. In the meantime, a desirable mix has to be figured out, for national defence requires solutions, not files going around in circles.

The author is a retired brigadier

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