Editor’s Note: The process for the acquisition of 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) by the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been claimed to be a model for all future acquisitions with its transparency and adherence to the rule book. This, first of a two-part analysis, examines the process from 30,000 feet and invites you to draw your conclusions as to the veracity of these claims. We’ll probably never really know, but let each of us decide the plausibility of the ideas that follow for ourselves and see if hindsight really is 20:20.
Preferring to remain anonymous, the author has been following the process from way before StratPost was around. Let’s call him Mark, shall we. We hope to have him writing regularly for us.
An unintended consequence of this analysis is that politicians end up with more credit than anyone else. Yes, we agree. The irony is undeniable.
The Rafale is in through a process that in Indian procurement lore is being equaled with the purity of the Immaculate Conception. There were six. And then there were two. And the last one standing was ‘technically’ the best of them all and ‘cheapest’ by far.
The almost acquiescence of the five, the virtually zero flap about whether the Rafale really beat everyone hollow on all fronts seems almost surreal compared to the huge fracas going on over much smaller orders around the world.
Suppose for a moment that this whole selection saga was more than just the logical result of a “process”. What if it was an elaborate smoke and mirrors trick where even the participants in the play were hypnotized by the ‘process’? What if the master strategists worked to a plan to deliver an aircraft that they wanted dearly but were forced to go through for the sake of a ‘process’. In hindsight, we can only create a hypothesis, a story, a supposition based on evidence that can be at best circumstantial. Nonetheless, it’s a story worth telling. About a plan that delivered.
The plan was simple: To effect a shortlist that ended up with the two contenders, Rafale and Eurofighter, irrespective of the technical merits of any of the six aircraft. And as the evidence below will corroborate, there was really no other way but to have a down select that left only these two aircraft, as having any of the other four would have queered the pitch for the pre-planned outcome.
The two single-engine aircraft (F-16 and Gripen) would have knocked off the European fighters on cost alone and having either the MiG-35, F/A-18 or the F-16 would simply have meant setting the stage for a ‘strategic choice’, dealing with which required more courage than the air force credited the government.
The result was that the two aircraft – Eurofighter and Rafale – were NOT chosen because they met technical parameters. BUT because the air force made a choice, itself, possibly partly strategic; something it was not supposed or required to do and passed it off as a technical decision.
Rewind to the beginning of the century. The solution on the table to deal with the fast depleting MiG-21 fleet was a proposed upgrade for the aircraft while purchasing an additional tranche of Mirage 2000-5 aircraft to take care of the end-of-the-shelf-life of the MiG-23s and MiG-27s.
Funnily enough, the people who did not agree with the proposal were those little credited for having much to do with Indian defense: Members of Parliament, and more specifically the Standing Committee on Defense which in its Sixteenth Report (April 2002) in the 13th Lok Sabha’s Demand For Grants reiterated an observation it had made in its 14th Report:
“The Committee note that the upgradation of MiG-21 Bis aircraft, a fleet prone to high accident rate, is not being executed at the desired speed. The C&AG has also critically evaluated the work done and the money spent on the project. The Committee feel that without adequate extension of life of the aircraft with modern systems, the programme of upgradation of MiG-21 Bis aircraft would remain financially unviable as the aircraft is likely to be in service for only 10 years after upgradation. The Committee, therefore, again reiterate their earlier recommendation made in the Fourteenth Report (13th Lok Sabha) that the Ministry of Defense should provide to the Committee the financial details of the upgradation of 125 MiG-21 Bis aircraft vis-a-vis cost of purchase of new aircraft with similar technology in the world market after thorough examination of all aspects.” (Para 95, page 33) (Bold Italics added).
The IAF, however, was not willing to give up its plan for first inducting more Mirage 2000-5. In 2003, the IAF sought the defense ministry’s permission to buy 50 more French Mirage-2000s to shore up the only MMRCAs in its fleet as a stopgap arrangement.
The MMRCA acquisition couldn’t be held back as the Standing Committee on Defense was persisting with its line of questioning and an RFI (Request for Information) was issued in 2004 which brought in four fighters of more or less the same class: The RFIs were initially sent to four vendors: Dassault (Mirage 2000-5 Mk.2), Lockheed Martin (F-16 C/D), Mikoyan (MiG-29OVT), and Saab (JAS 39 Gripen C/D).
The basis for the MMRCA was laid out in detail by IAF, HAL and MoD (Ministry of Defense) in their submission to the Standing Committee on Defense (2004-2005) Report on Demand For Grants for 2005-2006 and captured in its Second Report of April 2005 thus:
“In response to the clarifications sought by the Committee during oral evidence of the representatives of Ministry of Defense regarding force level and Lines of Production in Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) the Committee was apprised as under:
“What we are looking at are primarily the medium weight aircraft ranging from 15 to 20 tonnes. We have three classifications for the aircraft; light, medium and heavy. Su-30 is 30 tonnes and above and so that is in the heavy class. The quality of aircraft, which we are looking at, primarily caters to our strike force depletion, which is MiG – 23 and the MiG – 27, which will be phased out in the Tenth and the Eleventh Plans. So, we are looking at this 126 from that angle. As far as the LCA is concerned, that will replace mainly the MiG – 21 which are going out. That is why it is in the light category.” (Para 5.5)
The report goes on to quote the Defense Secretary as stating, “Currently, what we are talking about is F-16 and other things like Multi Mission Combat Aircraft, a medium aircraft. Then, there are slightly heavier class of aircraft like SU-30, or the American F-18. These are in the heavier category. Now, every air force likes to have a combination of heavy, medium and light aircraft. The LCA will fit very well into the front line requirement of a Light Combat Aircraft”.
Two things were clear. The IAF had decided to handle the awkward MiG-21 question by slotting the LCA against it while claiming that the MMRCA would replace the MiG-23 and MiG-27.
So how did the definition suddenly change to aircraft that were not only as heavy as the F/A-18 but even heavier?
That came about after the RFI when Dassault delivered its bender. The French company saw no reason to continue production of Mirage 2000s as the Indian process seemed to have entered a mode where the deal didn’t look like it was going to fall into their lap anytime soon. So, Dassault began the process to sell India the Rafale.
As the RFI went around to the different manufacturers and sparked excitement about a potential strategic shift for India, apart from the prospects of the ‘mother of all deals’, the IAF and Dassault continued to try and find a way out of the MMRCA guillotine.
Getting into the process would mean a playing field where even the F-16 or the F/A-18 could end up being a clear winner on costs. So, frantic efforts were made to get the MoD to buy into the plan of a pre-emptive purchase.
The IAF dragged its feet in putting together the RFP (Request for Proposal) as it was still trying to sell-in alternate French aircraft, including the ‘Mirage 4000’, a French prototype jet fighter aircraft developed from Mirage 2000 that went into cold storage in the early 1980s when the Saudis turned down the aircraft in favor of the F-15.
As late as December, 2005, and despite a global RFI out there, there was a hard-sell underway. The Hindustan Times of 2nd December, 2005 in an article “Target locked: IAF aims for Mirage 4000” let the cat out of the bag, reporting, in the terminology of the MMRCA of those days: “The Defense Ministry might be on the lookout for a new Air Superiority Fighter (ASF) aircraft for the Indian Air force (IAF) but it is not going to be the US F-16. According to a senior official in the ministry, the government has zeroed in on Mirage 4000, manufactured by Dassault of France. Sources said that senior officials from both the Defense Ministry and the IAF had already checked out Mirage 4000 and had expressed satisfaction on its performance and the features provided by the French manufacturer. “A suitable quotation has been received from Dassault and since the IAF has already used Mirage 2000, the latest from the Mirage stable is gaining over F-16,” sources added.”
However, the Mirage 4000 was not really what was on the minds of either the French or the IAF, as became evident two months later when the French offered to make an outright sale of 40 aircraft as a single source deal. According to a report filed on 22nd February 2006 by PTI, the French offer was made by Charles Edelstenne, CEO of Dassault Aviation, to the Minister of State for Defense Rao Inderjit Singh in the presence of Deputy Chief of Air Staff Air Marshal AK Nangalia. Edelstenne told PTI that he informed the minister of Dassault’s decision not to field its upgraded Mirage 2000-5 for the Indian deal.
The Dassault CEO who was a part of the delegation of French President Jacques Chirac, said, “Though India has not floated the Request for Proposals (RFP), we have conveyed to India to supply 40 Rafale multi-mission fighters in single source deal”.
The report goes on to make a prescient point, though not in the conclusion it drew: “Dassault’s bid to pitch in its Rafale fighters for the IAF’s multi-role combat aircraft project appears significant indicating that India could opt for two types of fighters in its moves to cover the shortfall in squadron strength.” On the contrary, the stage was set for heavier aircraft that were neither replacing the MiG-23s or MiG-27s nor expanding the Mirage 2000 portfolio. This was not merely shifting the goalposts, it was changing the game.
Even after the RFP was issued in 2007, Dassault continued to pitch the offer of 40 aircraft to the Government in a bid to go around the MMRCA process. That said, barring the Americans, all the other players in the initial RFI too upped their play. The Russians fielded the ‘undefined’ MiG-35 while the Swedes put on the table the Gripen NG with an extended range, enhanced capabilities and a new AESA.
However, the IAF was nowhere close to conceding that it had actually set its sight on a very different type of aircraft. The Standing Committee on Defense (2007-2008 on Demand For Grants for 2008-2009, 29th Report Dated April 2008) was merely told “The Ministry of Defense in reply to an Unstarred Question No. 1720 dated 29th August, 2007 in Lok Sabha had informed that purchasing of 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft by Indian Air Force had been delayed as it involved complex issues relating to transfer of technology, maintainability aspects product support, determination of selection criteria, etc. which required detailed consultation with different authorities.” When asked about the present status, the Ministry of Defense submitted in a written reply as under: –
“The Request For Proposal (RFP) for procurement of 126 Medium Role Combat Aircraft for the air force was issued on 27th August, 2007 and responses to the RFP are to be submitted by the vendors by 28th April, 2008.”
There was no effort to inform the Standing Committee that the gameplan had changed, that a different set of aircraft were being invited to the one defined earlier in the Demand For Grants. Perhaps, they weren’t told because they didn’t ask.
Strangely, Dassault was delivered its first fright when defense spokespersons briefed Indian media persons, without exception but without attribution as well, that Dassault had been eliminated. But this was a contender which had powerful backers.
Quietly, and without explanation, Dassault found its way back in contention even as dumbfounded media persons politely refrained from asking how the knocked out contender was back in the contest.
However, once the die was cast, things began moving fast enough and the FET (Field Evaluation Trials) took place with most contenders believing that they had witnessed a transparent-enough process. The watchword seemed to be ‘transparency’ as all the contenders felt they understood what the IAF trial evaluation team had downloaded from the various combinations of actual flights, test beds and presentations. By the summer of 2010, the trial team was ready to start writing down its report, ask for clarifications and put the report together. And by the end of June, the IAF was more or less satisfied with what it had put together and sent it off to the MoD.
And that was when the fun and games began.