Sparring over Rafale cost unwarranted as aircraft pricing depends on multiple factors from features to weapons

  • With each passing year, the concept of aerial combat changes and the old dogfight in the sky is no longer central to aerial supremacy.

  • The Russians moved into the global arena in the past decade and fought hard to lose the poor PR image of dumpy and dangerous aircraft.

  • On an aircraft carrier deck in less than 75 meters, the navy version of Rafale instantly and automatically rotates to the correct angle of attack.

In the case of Rafale, India did not really look elsewhere and was prepared to wait three years for the first delivery. There has to be some cream in the cake that is not yet known. Just as it is still up for grabs why India stopped at 36 aircraft and not 126 when there is a shortage of over 100 aircraft, compelling India recently with great irony to knock on Moscow’s door for 21 more NATO codenamed Fulcrum MiG29s urgently. That is how vulnerable India is in the air.

After Pulwama and what lies ahead on this rocky road even more so.

 Sparring over Rafale cost unwarranted as aircraft pricing depends on multiple factors from features to weapons

File image of a Rafale fighter jet. Wikimedia Commons

The more things change the more they stay the same. And it is difficult to put this jigsaw together and make total sense.

In all the muck that has been flung around over the Rafale deal, the basic question has gone unanswered. What compelled India to choose this French manufactured aircraft over others? Is it a better aircraft than the other nine odd fourth generation fighters up for grabs?

Neither the UPA nor the NDA governments have given an adequate answer. Perhaps because there isn’t any to give since we are not privy to all the codicils and clauses that have come with the deal. It would be utterly naïve to state that the Rafale is a bad aircraft. No one makes poor fighter aircraft. One do not spend several billion dollars on research and design and development to make a low calibre plane.

Ergo, the question then is what was the benefit?

With each passing year, the concept of aerial combat changes and the old dogfight in the sky is no longer central to aerial supremacy. Fighters are now more missile delivery systems and their speed and range are of the essence. Perhaps the offer of state of the art Meteor and Scalp missiles with technology was the deciding factor. For India another point in favour of the Rafale could well have been predicated to exercising an option for the naval version because it gives us an advantage.

On an aircraft carrier deck in less than 75 meters, the navy version of Rafale instantly and automatically rotates to the correct angle of attack. This critical operation is made possible by the aircraft's innovative “jump strut" nose landing gear. So if this first batch is destined for the flight deck and is the only delta winged carrier fighter in the world then maybe we have a leading edge in this deal. Why this factor is kept under wraps is a mystery because this capability is well known.

Other contenders were Boeing's F/A-18s, the Eurofighter Typhoon and Sweden's Saab's JAS 39 Gripen. Chicago-based Boeing, the Pentagon's No. 2 supplier by sales and the top US exporter, says it sees big opportunities for its F-15 and F/A-18 fighters even into the future. Yes, India could have gone back to Russia and loaded up with the MiG 29s and MiG 35s (marketed as a 4th ++ generation choice) and Sukhoi 35s and other variations at a cheaper price. Lockheed Martin’s hugely successful F16 Block 60 Fighting Falcon which has lasted longer than any other modern fighter was also on the cards.

The Russians moved into the global arena in the past decade and fought hard to lose the poor PR image of dumpy and dangerous aircraft. While Russian aerodynamism has never been in question there had been doubts expressed over its limited success with power plant technology. But by advocating a blend of western knowhow and manufacture the Russian aero-industry declared itself open to co-operative ventures and brought to the table its own expertise.

The Russians are keen to market their Sukhoi range especially since it comes with an advanced trainer. Exports of Su-27 fighters enabled Russia to preserve its operational air force. This aircraft, considered the most capable fighter aircraft in its class, may well point the way to a fifth generation of air fighters. The Su-27 is a dogfighter's dream. It has dazzled pilots with its ability to attack in the middle of screaming dives and ascents, setting 36 world records. Compared to the Rafale the Su-27 with its many variants including the Su-37 multirole, all-weather fighter kicks in at 45-$60 million. It is also seen as the Russian answer to the US F22 which rings the till at $150 million per aircraft. The F16 Block 70 offers a 50 percent longer lifespan than its predecessors which in 1998 were going at $14 million a jet. Today the Block 70 recently purchased by Bahrain would clock in at $130 million. The Eurofighter Typhoon clocks in at $90 million but it would rise in cost once the armament was selected. The Rafale was sold to India for just over $200 million.

What India got back in offset agreements, delivery, weaponry and spare parts over the longterm would shave and balance out some of this cost. If one may recall, the Germans were ready in 2016 to give us the Typhoon and even indicated readiness to ‘steal’ aircraft from other nations like Britain, Italy and themselves to shore up India’s fleet op immediately with no delay delivery.

At that time MiG 21s were falling out of the sky being labelled flying coffins and India had a spare parts problem.

They even agreed to drop the price of each plane by 20 percent. India did not pick up the offer and that has always been a point of argument. By initiating talks with Germany India could have put some pressure on Dassault to drop its price. Common sense.

There are so many variables that go into the costing. The breakdown of the base cost or what is called the “Program Unit Cost”. According to naval carrier pilot John Baker, “This is the total cost (including R&D, spare parts supply, special tools, techical representatives, flight trainers, etc.) of developing and supplying an aircraft model divided by the number of actual aircraft purchased. Naturally, this PUC number is considerably higher than the actual cost of acquiring just one aircraft."

This PUC number becomes problematic when discussing the cost of an aircraft that is lost due to an aircraft accident. Just because one airplane crashed doesn’t mean that the air force fleet lost all the spare parts and tools and stuff.

There are several other methods of computing price, each created for a specific purpose or to emphasise (or maybe to hide) a specific aspect.

Frequently when military aircraft are sold to other countries, they may not be equipped with precisely the same weapons systems capability as the US version. This also could skew the “cost” of that tranche of aircraft.

So, we are not much wiser as we wade through figures and options about why we went for this aircraft. Much the same occurred with the much maligned Bofors gun purchase. The British, the French and the Austrians were also in the final cut ahead of the Swedes. The Mayadas committee plumped for the Austrian GHN 45. The then army chief General Arun Shridhar Vaidya wanted the French TR howitzer. Overnight, all the contenders were knocked off the chessboard.

Here we played with only one piece. Still don’t know if it was a queen or a pawn.

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Updated Date: Feb 20, 2019 16:11:20 IST