There are few things like defence procurement that make the passage of time seem nothing. So it shouldn't shake anyone up that its been three years today that the Indian government chose the Dassault Aviation Rafale in the final downselect of the medium multirole combat aircraft (M-MRCA) competition. The M-MRCA competition has acquired mythological status now. It has its own folklore, its own (sometimes apocryphal) anecdotes of the twists and turns. The years have almost completely transformed the programme and how it is perceived. The wisdom of years usually provides insight. The galling thing about the M-MRCA is that it has lost none of its capacity to enthral, mystify, perplex. I've already told you what currently stalls negotiations between India and, well, France. So, as we head into air show month and mark three years since the M-MRCA downselect, here's 5 developments that, in their own way, tell you where things are:
- Three Rafales return to Aero India 2015 this year. Dassault clearly hopes this is the last time they'll need to fly them in and show them off. Thing is: that was the sentiment right before the last show two years ago too.
- The public statement from India's new defence minister Manohar Parrikar earlier this month on upgraded (and additional) Su-30 MKIs could be a viable alternative to 126+ Rafales only confirmed what I'd reported here -- that the negotiations stall was bad enough for high-level messages from the political leadership to begin flying. Incidentally, the message was loud and clear.
- Delegations outside the contract negotiations committee (CNC) have been formed to meet and hammer out final hurdles. No specific results reported just yet but they're expected given that the French delegation is empowered to make decisions.
- Indian PM Narendra Modi travels to France (and Germany) in April this year. Every effort is currently being made by the French government to facilitate at least a preliminary announcement, or at the very least a positive message, on the deal when PM Modi is in Paris. The PM himself hasn't made known his view, if any, on the programme. The French government on its part made it a point to underscore the inherent 'Make in India' component of the M-MRCA, even if it is facets of precisely this that has a deal hanging fire.
- Sources suggest the political leadership is also pondering a compromise deal, based on a view that roughly half the number of aircraft envisaged in the M-MRCA could be negotiated in parallel as an outright purchase (flyaway) as a replacement deal for the actual M-MRCA. The IAF, it is said, has frowned upon the idea, though dynamics between the Finance Ministry, MoD and French government suggest this could be a serious face-saver in the event of total collapse. Speculation about a 'half-MMRCA' has swirled ever since the Rafale downselect, and is could be beset with problems.
- The empirical dynamics of the IAF's requirements have shifted per force -- they're shifting even as we speak with a fresh cloud over the IAF's upgraded MiG-27 that populates a handful of squadrons. The bean count of squadron strength (approximately 32 squadrons currently) set off against sanctioned fleet strength (42) has shifted too. On average, the IAF manages to lose a squadron's worth of fighter planes every two years. Force accretion won't, in any combination, make up for the numbers required to meet sanctioned figures. In fact, it could be just the opposite.