HAL, Rafale and Air Force
by N S Rajaram on 18 Oct 2018 3 Comments

A PIL has been filed in the Supreme Court of India to investigate the recent Government-to-Government agreement between India and France on the supply of Rafale fighter jets by Dassault to the Indian Air Force. The PIL has been filed by one Mr. Sharma a lawyer. At the same time, another lawyer cum politician Prashant Bhushan, accompanied by former minister Arun Shourie, and joined by Yashwant Sinha, another out of office politician, have met the CBI Director and asked him to file charges against Prime Minister Narendra Modi.


It appears that the activists are acting on charges of corruption mounted by the Congress Party. Their views are not based on technical considerations. Thus, the charges are essentially political in nature, in both motive and content.


At the same time, former Defence Minister Mr. Sharad Pawar found no problem with the deal though he criticized the defence minister for her presentations. (He later retracted, on political pressure).


It is intriguing that the litigants seem to have no knowledge of air force needs or related technologies. Mr Bhushan is a lawyer turned politician while Mr. Shourie, educated as an economist, is known mainly as a journalist who served briefly in the Vajpayee cabinet and is now retired. So all complainants are out-of-office politicians without any background in, or knowledge of, defence. It is therefore natural that their charges should be political and not technical.


My background is mainly technical. I served as a research scientist for Lockheed (now Lockheed-Martin) and worked for NASA on contract for over a decade. In addition I had ties with the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base which is America’s, if not the world’s, largest multi-function air base. In fact the U.S Air Force funded my Ph.D. research for the four years it took me for the work.


Cost comparison: apples and oranges


It is meaningless to compare a basic bare bones aircraft with fighter or any other military aircrafts. It is the weapon system - radar, sensors, missiles and artillery - that are essential part of any military aircraft. Recognizing this Lockheed has built a separate company called Lockheed Missiles and Space Company to weaponize aerospace vehicles. A flying vehicle without weaponry is of no military use.


One can understand this by comparing it to building a house. One does not get a liveable home by building only the walls. It is the interior, plumbing, appliances and the like that makes it a home. It is the same with military aircraft.


There are so many diverse claims and counterclaims, it is best to focus on the technical side and ensure that the fighters meet India’s needs in a timely fashion. Others can be addressed in due course, based on documents. In a case like this, documents speak; the rest is mostly hearsay and opinion. It has no bearing on the aircraft or its performance


The HAL Conundrum


It is said that the Government should have involved the Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) in the contract. The HAL officials should have approached Dassault with a proposal to the effect, as Anil Ambani must have done. Dassault will not come to HAL and share their technology secrets with them. Technology companies are very protective about their wares. But HAL being a government enterprise seems to lack the initiative to sell its services by making a convincing proposal.


Since HAL has deals with other aerospace companies including Russian companies which Dassault sees as potential rivals, it is unrealistic to expect them not to be careful about their technology. An aerospace expert wrote:

“When people ask why would India buy such an expensive jet like the Rafale, then we need to look at the package the French are giving. From weapons application to training and support. It has got to be top notch for the IAF. No wonder the IAF is so adamant in buying the Rafale even though they have over 200 Flankers in service. Also India is getting a very good deal both in terms of performance and price. Ultimately, it is performance that counts”.


It is not worth saving money by buying an inferior product. In addition HAL has a less than stellar record of producing and delivering high tech aircraft. It is yet to deliver its promise on its Tejas Light Combat Aircraft. Its effort to develop the Kaveri engine failed, forcing the purchase of GE 404 power plants from the US (another Dassault rival). Politicians may not be willing to say it in public but the HAL has been a failure, unlike ISRO which is respected because of its record.


HAL seems to focus on design of airframes and wing sections and its capacity for producing engines is nothing to write home about. Its capacity for integrating high tech weapon systems is next to non-existent. This does not change by politicizing the issue. HAL should identify its deficiencies and work on them so that it becomes a credible world class aerospace company which it is not today.


Mr. Rahul Gandhi has visited HAL [Oct. 13] to speak to its employees. This will not turn it into a high tech industry. As one who has lived in Bangalore for the last twenty years and has given lectures to aerospace organizations, I can assure that no one will believe if Mr. Gandhi or anyone who accuses Mr. Modi of corruption. So the decision to acquire Rafale has to be judged on technical grounds. The ability to do this seems to be lacking with the political critics. 

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