White Elephant? Make that a White Whale because the Dassault Rafale fighter aircraft will cost the Indian taxpayer more than $22 billion in equipment, spares and other services, not to mention the fact that it will be almost as expensive to maintain in flight as some commercial jets. The high cost of the Rafale is the reason why France has thus far not been able to sell any of these military jets to an air force other than itself. Even that induction has reportedly been reduced to a number which makes the aircraft irrelevant in an actual conflict. The French air force may buy only a little over two dozen aircraft over the years from Dassault Aviation, far less than the number it had originally agreed to purchase. Almost certainly, the undistinguished performance of the Rafale in the Libyan theatre in 2011, and its ineffectiveness in quelling insurgents in Mali two years later (where helicopter gunships proved far more deadly in taking out the enemy than this high-performance, super-high cost aircraft) may have helped such a decision by the French authorities. Besides, of course, the fact that it will be hugely expensive just to keep the aircraft in operation, although it needs to be said that NATO member states that specialise in producing weaponry said that it would be financial suicide to actually use the aircraft in appreciable quantities.
Based on the information given to him, this columnist elsewhere argued in 2011 and subsequently that the zeal which Nicolas Sarkozy (then President of France) displayed in ridding the world of Muammar Gaddafi was because of the need to sharply ramp up defence sales to the Gulf Cooperation Council powers. His economy on a downward slide and the defence sector gasping for oxygen, Sarkozy looked towards the GCC and India (both locations where decisions over procurement get made on grounds having some relation to the Swiss) to purchase huge volumes of super-expensive French equipment, especially the Rafale. That Sarkozy was an admirer of the major shareholder of Dassault Aviation is something he or his spouse Carla Bruni ever kept secret. The GCC wanted Gaddafi to go, so off with his head. They wanted Bashar Assad to disappear, which is why Sarkozy’s successor Francois Hollande has been declaiming about the “civilisational necessity of getting rid of cruel dictators”, except — of course — those buying French armaments. Thus far, however, despite doing the GCC’s bidding and getting rid of Gaddafi, a man who unwisely unilaterally disarmed himself just years before his public execution in the presence of French Special Forces, and by leading the wolf pack against Assad, no GCC defence ministry has placed orders for the Rafale. It is only India, and that too without asking for the removal of any inconvenient personality, which has placed an order for the Rafale which will cripple the economy for years to come, and make the Air Force as financially strapped in its operations as the Navy has become after it went in for that huge shard of floating junk, the aircraft carrier “Admiral Gorshkov”.
Not surprisingly, given that the government in Brazil is much more accountable to standards of good governance than any government in India has been, Brasilia chose the Saab option. Some years ago, when the Air Force MMRCA deal was being discussed in the media, this columnist had indicated his preference for Saab, not just buying the Gripen fighter but the entire company, which was then available for a price below what the Rafale purchase will entail. Such a takeover would have given India access to a level of technology that the DRDO, committed as that organisation is to ensuring that each project lasts as long as the career cycle of its scientists, has never achieved. Dassault offered no such technology transfer, only a few inconsequential transfers of knowhow. Given that the company is being rescued by the India sale, such parsimony in technology transfer is testimony to the low negotiating skills of those who finalised the Rafale contract. Of course, the Gripen was attacked by backers of the Rafale as being single-engined as against the double-engine French aircraft. However, there is no demonstrable safety difference between these two types, while the Rafale has the disadvantage of needing two pilots rather than a single aviator at the controls.
Next to the Gripen, the best aircraft for the IAF to buy would have been the Boeing F/A Hornet, which is a far superior specimen than the other aircraft that was offered, the F-16 (which the US administration pushed hard for India to buy). That purchase would have given India a toehold in the hi-tech segments of the US defence industry, still far and away the world’s best. However, by going in for the Rafale, this country has paid through both nostrils to acquire an aircraft that by the time it gets inducted in volume will already be obsolete when compared to its Chinese counterparts.