In the recent debates on Rafale, some reservations have been expressed on HAL’s (Hindustan Aeronautics Limited) capacity and capability to manufacture the state-of-the-art fourth-plus generation fighter jets.
Let me begin by asserting that HAL has all the experience, infrastructure, skills and competence to manufacture Rafale. HAL has been producing over the last several years’ contemporary modern combat aircraft like MiG series, Jaguars, Su-30MKI, AJT Hawk etc under Transfer of Technology (ToT).
HAL had effectively and efficiently absorbed these technologies, and produced and delivered these aircraft to our defence forces.
As per the media reports and discussions in Parliament, it appears that the contract negotiations for 126 Rafales, which had taken several years and involved a lot of resources, were quite close to conclusion in 2011-12, but could not be signed due to both parties reaching a deadlock.
Two issues on which deadlock had been reached were regarding man-hours that HAL would take to finish the job and guarantees to be provided by Dassault Aviation.
I think if these were part of original Request for Quote (RFQ) conditions against which Dassault aviation had submitted their quote, then it was obligatory on the part of Dassault to honour these conditions and commitments.
However, these issues should have been sorted out quickly in the early stages of negotiations keeping in mind the delayed signing could impact IAF’s fleet strength, which was dwindling at a rapid rate.
In my professional opinion, it may be worthwhile even now to make efforts and explore the possibilities of signing a new contract for indigenous manufacture of Rafales in an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA).
The new contract for Rafales could be same in specifications, standard of preparation (SoP), weaponry, avionics, and other systems as those we have secured in the 36 Rafales deal.
The new manufacturing contract should encompass total technology transfer that will include airframe, aero engine, avionics, radar, accessories, systems, and various other onboard equipment. Depth of technology transfer should be of highest percentage to facilitate maximisation of indigenous manufacture.
On the issue of man-hours, HAL would have, more or less, matched, and still can, the time that Dassault will take to manufacture the jets in France.
Had the contract been concluded in 2012 itself, it would have facilitated commencement of the production of Rafale in 2014-15 in India and the IAF would have received the first Rafale aircraft in fly-away condition by 2017-18.
Another aspect of the ongoing debate on Rafale has been about the benefits of producing these fighter jets in India. There are many advantages in doing so. Let me enumerate a few.
Indigenously produced Rafales with IAF will give India the best cost-effective solution for setting up of Maintenance, Repair and Overhaul (MRO) facilities, simulator and training facilities, long term product support, cost effective inventory management of engines, accessories, systems, equipment, spares and other items.
As per my assessment, indigenous production of at least 100 aircraft will be cost-effective and commercially viable for us.
If such a contract, with full ToT, is signed at the earliest, it would facilitate indigenous manufacture of this state-of-the-art aircraft in India in the next 30 months from the date of signing of the contract and delivery in 44 months from the date of signing the dotted line.
India with a large fleet of 136 aircraft and elaborate MRO facilities, and manufacturing facilities for spares, will have the potential to emerge as a major MRO hub for our friendly countries, given that France may in near future stop locally producing the Rafale line of aircraft.
Also, indigenous production of Rafales will provide best product support to the IAF fleet and reduce the French dependence on its operations and maintenance. It will ensure long-term product support in its operational cycle.
Maintenance costs will be substantially lower over a period of time as opportunity costs for the spares will drop over longer period of time, plus obsolescence management will be far easier over its life cycle.
Meanwhile, India will be operating Rafales for next 60 years, till the completion of its calendar life. The facilities set up in India could be useful for other customers of Dassault aviation. Using the existing production facilities India could manufacture Rafale fighter aircraft to mutually agreed friendly countries. Plus the man-hour rates for India will be much lower as compared to those in France. This will be a win-win situation for both countries.
The writer is a former Managing Director at HAL. Views expressed are personal.