The largely Indian designed Tejas light combat aircraft is not in the same class as the Rafale, but it is far more capable than the MiG-21s it was designed to replace

The Defence Minister is entirely justified in refusing to sign a $20 billion contract with Dassault Aviation of France for 126 Rafale fighters while life cycle costs are still disputed; these costs are typically at least three times as much as the initial acquisition price over the three to five decades that combat aircraft often operate for. As we head for a new government in Delhi, it is appropriate to consider alternatives to this hugely expensive acquisition.

India’s geostrategic environment requires the Indian Air Force (IAF) to be prepared for a simultaneous two front confrontation at multiple levels. This necessitates a combat aircraft mix of expensive high-end fighters like the Su-30 and the forthcoming fifth generation fighter aircraft along with large numbers of cheaper tactical aircraft. The latter could easily deal with low intensity conflicts where it might be risky to use high value assets like the Sukhois.

Rapid retirement of hundreds of MiG-21s, -23s and -27s that have been the tactical backbone of the IAF for decades leaves just over six upgraded MiG-21 and four ground attack MiG-27 squadrons. This means that the IAF’s inventory of combat aircraft is currently well below its sanctioned 39-and-a-half squadron strength perhaps unable to fight widely spaced conflagrations against even a single adversary. Its 2001 plan to fill the gap by significantly adding to the 49 Mirage 2000s it then had was scuppered by Defence Ministry mandarins who forced it to go in for competitive tendering. Delays in the procurement process saw the Mirage going out of production and international pressure made sure that the final tender included much heavier and expensive aircraft than the tactical ones that the service originally wanted, leave alone needed.

Cost of aircraft

A request for proposals (RfP) finally went out on July 28, 2007 for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCAs), with an option for 63 more. Rs.42,000 crore, then worth approximately $10.25 billion, was budgeted to purchase the 126 aircraft. Recent reports indicate that the short-listed Rafales are now expected to cost over $20 billion, not least because of nearly 50 “miscellaneous” items that were left unpriced as part of the original French bid. Not only will the 126 aircraft cost about twice as much in dollar terms as originally budgeted for, depreciation of the rupee with respect to the dollar since the RfP was issued from less than 41 to over 60 will force us to effectively pay about three times as much, nearly Rs.120,000 crore, just in initial acquisition costs with over Rs.30,000 crore of that paid up front.

Interestingly, five of the same aircraft that participated in the Indian MMRCA competition were simultaneously bid for in a similar Brazilian tender. The head of the Brazilian Air Force (FAB), Juniti Saito, has recently stated that they chose the Swedish Gripen NG after an exhaustive evaluation emphasised its performance, the degree of technology transfer and price. The FAB estimated that it would cost $4,000 per flying hour rather than about $14,000 for the heavier Rafale. SAAB quoted $4.5 billion as the initial acquisition cost of the Gripens plus $1.5 billion for maintenance support over 30 years while the Rafale was $8.2 billion, plus $4 billion.

The Rafale’s quoted unit cost was thus 82 per cent more than that for the single-engined Gripen while the Brazilians estimated that the Rafale’s two engines and expensive maintenance would make it cost a full 250 per cent more to keep in the air.

These figures for the Rafale are in line with those from the defence and security committee of the French Senat which estimated in 2011 that the Rafale programme cost would be €43.56 billion for 286 aircraft.

The largely Indian designed and developed Tejas multirole light combat aircraft (LCA) is not in the same class as the Rafale, but it is far more capable than the MiG-21s it was designed to replace. Modern radar and ground targeting systems, both coupled to a helmet-mounted display and sight, confer superb target acquisition and missile launch capability. Advanced beyond visual range and close combat missiles, along with precision guided munitions, make it more potent than the more powerful MiG-23s and -27s. Even if unit prices rise to $30 million by the time it attains full operational capability, 126 Tejas fighters would still cost well under $4 billion, or a fifth of an equal number of Rafales.

Operating costs would probably be comparable to that of the frugal Gripen largely because it is small, light and powered by a slightly different version of the efficient and hugely reliable GE-F404 engines that also power currently operational Gripens.

While exact comparisons between the Brazilian and “leaked” quotations for Indian Rafales are not possible, not least because of differences in numbers and payment terms, the small difference in unit acquisition cost between the two suggests that the widely reported Indian estimates are very credible. The IAF could buy 200 Tejases instead of 126 Rafales and still save nearly $14 billion or Rs.84,000 crore; this is closely comparable to the 2013-14 capital acquisition budget for the Indian Army, Navy and Air Force. The FAB’s estimates also suggest that the IAF would save over $170 million annually even if 200 Tejases, instead of 126 Rafales, each flew 15 hours per month.

Losing credibility

There is no doubt that Indian designers took on the ambitious task of developing an advanced technology aircraft without realistically estimating the resources required to accomplish their goals in the face of an often sceptical IAF and not always fully committed Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL). They then lost a great deal of credibility by projecting completion dates that were, at best, exercises in self-delusion. The Tejas has fortunately got a recent lift because Dr. R.K. Tyagi, HAL’s current chairman, seems committed to the little fighter.

It would be extremely foolish to break up the Tejas teams involved in the further development of its composite airframe and world class flight control system while full operational capability is very much a work in progress and redesign of the aircraft to more fully meet the IAF’s needs is at a critical stage.

Some commentators seem unaware that the Rafale entered service in 2001 nearly 15 years after it first took to the air; an interval that will only be slightly exceeded when the Tejas reaches Final Operational Clearance (FOC) late next year. The IAF has been far more demanding of the Tejas than it has been with respect to the MMRCA contenders whether on the hot and high airstrip at Leh or during Jaisalmer’s dusty summers. The service also seems to have forgotten that the Mirage 2000 was armed only with a cannon for three years after it entered service; largely ineffectual during the dangerous “Operation Brass Tacks” of 1986-87.

To summarise, going ahead with the MMRCA programme will cripple India for decades to come. Affordable air power is effective air power. Conversely, unaffordable air power is poor strategy.

(C.Manmohan Reddy, a former management consultant, is a columnist on automobiles, aviation and defence.)

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