(Brig (retd) GB Reddi)
Politically, no end is in sight over Rafale fighters “Price War”. And, now the ‘war’ between the ruling NDA government headed by Narendra Modi and his ‘obsessive’ Opposition has pushed it into the Judiciary’s court. In the bargain, who is the sufferer? The Indian Air Force and the National security!
Shouldn’t the Supreme Court stop the “media war room?” Yes, battling like headless chickens to obfuscate real issues! Hence, stop politics over Rafale fighters costs!
To stop the intellectual/professional fraud, the Supreme Court must promptly deliver its judgment. Whilst doing so, the Apex court must review all variables/factors that go into the fixation of Rafale fighter costs with the latest add-ons.
Ipso facto, the issue of determining the “real life-cycle costs (LCC)” is extraordinarily complex. Perforce, the need for the Supreme court to shift the “Court room battle” to “Air Force War room” for an ‘In Camera” review of the entire gamut of current IAF operational capabilities and the Defense Acquisition Procedures that includes price negotiations and fixation.
It is common knowledge that in today’s advanced military technology age, combat system costs involve “direct” and “indirect” costs. Even within them, there are a number variables considered before reaching an informed decision in the best interests of national security.
It is also common knowledge that the base aircraft, like all other land, sea and sub-sea systems, is only a weapon’s delivery platform, which forms only part and relatively less critical one. Most important to consider as part of the “direct costs” include:
- Weapons – advanced missiles of various types – both short range and air to air and air to ground beyond visual range (BVR); and guns.
- Advanced state of the art radars; avionics, Electronic Warfare suites etc.
- Spares back up particularly engines, simulators, training etc.
Not to be sidelined or overlooked are the “indirect costs” associated the combat system that wary from fighter to fighter and from country to country to include:
- Technology transfer costs.
- Recurring expenditure (RE) to include: FH – Flight hour costs; number of sorties per day in live combat situations, maintenance costs etc.
- Loans and subsidies.
- Commercial offsets.
- Political and commercial agreements, etc.
Yet another significant factor not to be overlooked or glossed over is non-recurring expenditures (NRE), the recipient country must pay no matter if you buy 1 aircraft or 1 thousand to include:
- R&D costs.
- Production line set-up.
- Weapons integration.
Ipso facto, NRE is a vicious cycle: initial production systems are very expensive, but the more units are produced, the more these costs are diluted, which results in subsequent batches getting cheaper. Remember also, several promising designs were canceled due to the low planned sales, as in such cases the NRE would result in a very high unitary cost. More aptly, sunken costs or phenomenal wasted expenditures!
For example, Rafale is made by France designed to use French weapons. It implies that NRE gets diluted on fewer sales, which results in elevated unitary costs, which is reflected badly in RE. It must also be understood that the elevated RE of French weapons, plus the elevated NRE of integrating non-French weapons, meant that the RE of the Rafale would be high – vicious cycle at its best.
What does it imply? Integrating indigenous ASTRA and BRAHMOS missiles would result in escalating the Rafale costs.
Next, the LCC constitutes an important factor in decision making. What must be accepted that an aircraft that is considered cheap today in terms of total cost initially may prove very costly in maintenance infrastructure over the next 20 years of its life. Factors to determine the LCC of fighters include:
- MMH/FH [Maintenance Man Hours/Flight Hour].
- MTBF [Mean Time Between Failure] of the aircraft per se and its components.
- MTTR [Mean Time To Repair] at O level and I level.
As per experts, the Mirage 2000 of the IAF which was initially very costly is said to be economical when considered from the LCC because of ease factor of maintainability.
Quite a few have drawn comparison of Rafale with SU 30MKI which is like “Comparing Apples to Oranges”. Ironically, such is the intellectual fraud on grand display.
As per data available in public domain, the MMH/FH of the Rafale is one of the best in the world at a figure of 9 like that of Gripen which is 10. American aircraft have a much higher MMH/FH fluctuating between 12–17.
Last but not least, the Rafale is a twin-engine multi role fighter, just like the Eurofighter, F-15 and F-18; but unlike the Tejas which is a single engine fighter. Having two engines usually means better survivability, it also means higher FH – you have two engines to maintain. This is one of the reasons why the Rafale’s FH is much higher than the F-16’s.
In comparison, the FH of the Rafale and Eurofighter are largely the same. But the fact that the weapons for the Rafale were much costlier meant that, in most cases, using the Eurofighter was actually cheaper than using the Rafale.
However, Eurofighter is the product of 4-countries of Europe. In reality, budgetary pressures encountered by the four original partner nations are already delaying “optimization for future higher-tempo air-to-air and strike operations”. Germany has cut its own orders short on the present model. Importantly, the four original partner nations are reluctant to collectively fund enhancements that extend the aircraft’s air-to-ground capability, such as integration of the MBDA Storm Shadow cruise missile.
The USAs Lockheed Martin has declared its intent to shift its production line of upgraded F-16V Block 70 of the legendary Fighting Falcon that first flew more than 40 years ago to India. Even the F-18 are another competitor. All of them with their upgrades fall under the Generation 4+ or 4++ or 4.5 category.
Of course, the IAF urgently needs to discard the MIG-Bison fleet. Tejas Mk 1 is yet to roll out in adequate numbers. So, the IAF has to make a choice between the Rafale or the F-16V Block 70 or F-18s with 4++ or 4.5 Generation fighter capability . Of course, the IAF is competent to decide on the best model option – 4.5 or 4++ model.
Even their FH costs are best left to IAF professional determination, but not the prerogative of generalists. Even the F-18 is about the same as F-16 in many aspects, but its FH costs are more than 50% higher.
In reality, the IAF also urgently needs to acquire Generation 5 stealth fighter to match Chinese J-20 and J-31 series. USAs F-35’s current FH is at least 30% more expensive than Rafale’s. However, it is stealth and has more internal fuel, both factors that reduce the strain on other systems, like escort and tanker aircrafts, so the overall combat FH can actually be smaller, not to mention that some missions possible with the F-35 are impossible with the Rafale. But, its unit costs are phenomenal.
In sum, “unit – each fighter flyaway costs” are hard to compare. Arithmetic comparison that X is Y times the cost of Z is quite absurd. Today, every “Tom, Dick and Harry” in the political and media arenas are passing judgments based on “Zero” professional knowledge.
Viewed in the foregoing, the Apex Court would be doing a yeoman service to the nation by visiting the “IAF War Room” to conduct “In-Camera” hearing of all details of Rafale costs and delivering its verdict expeditiously. If considered appropriate, the Apex Court must pass strictures on the failures of successive governments over the lackadaisical approach to national security and provide guidelines to the “Blindmen of Hindoostan” to follow in posterity.
Meanwhile, the apex Court should impose a ban on spreading “fake news” to obfuscate real issues for reaping political dividends.