The controversy around the Rafale fighter aircraft deal has brought to the fore the lack of defence sector knowledge and obliviousness on part of the political class, both the opposition and the government, and the commentariat, a reality that undermines national security.
As NDTV’s defence correspondent Vishnu Som astutely pointed out, “Rafale is a ‘scam’ because of the inability of government leaders to lucidly argue, point by point, why Rafale was not a scam.”
It may be worth adding that the deal is also a ‘scam’ because of the ignorance (feigned or real) on display in the media by many who are or claim to be strategic sector analysts.
Let us be clear on one thing, there was no price escalation in this deal. As this author has pointed out ad nauseam starting in 2011, despite what the government believed, the price (save for inflation) has remained almost constant and given what we know about the deal, it does appear to be well-negotiated, comparable to and in most cases better than negotiations other countries have carried out for the Rafale or similar planes.
What one has to understand is that contract price is always very different from unit price.
Unit price is constant barring inflation or disruption of the supply chain. Contract prices on the other hand vary considerably, based on what is included.
Weapons, training, spares, and maintenance infrastructure (all no one can do without) add considerably to any package given that engines account for 25 per cent of an aircraft’s value, more if the plane is twin-engined.
Country-specific modifications, however, are less common, and tend to be expensive and notoriously difficult. To use an analogy, this would be like taking your Audi to a chop shop to get a BMW heads up display and a Mercedes air suspension fitted, and at the end of that process, the car may not work as well as it once did as it would mess up the Audi’s integrated electronic architecture.
The extra money is for ensuring it works better. In the case of India’s Rafale(s), these will be better than the ones with the French Air Force and have significant modifications.
One must acknowledge that financial misdeeds are frequently hidden behind opacity. The question here is how to balance the two competing demands of security and accountability.
In this case, a listing of specific components and fit will be harmful to security, but will almost certainly be harmful for the commercial competitive viability of the Rafale itself, if its competitors were able to calculate backwards costs, not to mention the security implications.
Clearly, engaging in a sterile regurgitation of past promises is not the way forward, nor does it bring any increase in transparency. The defence minister got it wrong; she promised to disclose details that she was not allowed to by the agreement, but the path forward also lies in the same document: temporary security clearances to senior opposition leaders for a confidential briefing as per articles 5 and 6.
France has since day one been open to some details being shared in closed-door meetings with the opposition as per Article 5 that details the security classification and equivalent classifications and Article 6 that deals with the grant of security clearances in line with each country’s official secrets acts.
The problem is that at no point of time has Rahul Gandhi asked for a closed-door briefing, instead demanding full public disclosure and going so far as to claim that French President Macron denied the existence of a secrecy pact.
What is worse is that an ostensibly English speaking press seemed to miss the nuances of the English language, and understand what the French President said, thereby compelling a French clarification.
The India exception
The most significant and previously unexampled customisations for India has been the unconfirmed role of delivering nuclear weapons.
These modifications involve shielding every single electronic component of the plane from the several million kilojoules of electromagnetic pulse and energy that nuclear blasts release.
The problem comes in acknowledging this role publicly. On the French side, any acknowledgement of this role would place it in direct violation of the Nuclear Non-proliferation Treaty, (Article 1) and would run into trouble with the French national legislation in this regard.
Detractors are not satisfied with the flyaway costs provided to Parliament, yet claim they do not seek specificity while keeping their demands nebulous and constantly shifting. Do they seek that the two governments confirm what they know they cannot?
The nuclear and commercial viability angles are also at the core of the secrecy deal India signed with France in 2008.
This is the rubric of all India-France military cooperation, and specific avoidance of transferring information to international organisations: jargon for nuclear proliferation control bodies for obvious reasons.
As the definitional clauses make clear, anything that the parties deem classified, is classified, and cannot be ignored or have its secrecy level downgraded by a party unilaterally as uninformed casual observers have suggested.
Obviously this includes financial details which as discussed are critical for the manufacturer’s competitive edge. Moreover, the agreement has both automaticity and perpetuity built into it. The pact renews for a period of five years unless express notice of withdrawal is given and all agreements contracted under the aegis of this agreement continue to be governed by the clauses of the agreement even after the expiry of the agreement.
What has happened is deeply disturbing.
For starters, a foreign head of state, one of India’s closest allies, supplying us with nuclear platforms, has been either misquoted or called a liar, and dragged into domestic politics.
Moreover, defence analysts, who should know better, are asking for a bilateral security pact to effectively be abrogated or ignored over their nebulous concerns, completely oblivious to the fallout, or even more comically suggest information protection is a one-way street.
We have a press that is evidently less fluent in English than the French, exacerbating the damage through misreporting, and playing deaf to an official French statement. And finally, despite or oblivious to the possibility of commercial, security and nuclear fallout, the government has presented no cogent or professionally curated defence of what is an eminently defensible deal.
The fact of the matter is simple; India is asserting its rights as a Nuclear Weapons Power, and France is helping us do this at great risk to itself, and the Indian public discourse seems intent on proving India is an unreliable partner.
It is high time the government stopped treating this issue as a joke. It must understand the serious damage to national security its clumsy, incomplete and inarticulate defence is causing and offer a closed-door briefing to select opposition leaders, assuming it can mount a defence in private that it has failed to do in public.
At the same time, the Opposition, too, needs to understand the core of the India-France pacts and the Rafale specifically.
At the very least, they need to understand the enormous implications of their words, hire some serious security experts to help them navigate this while mounting a robust political attack.
Both, however, need to work on an institutional mechanism of private briefings in keeping with international secrecy obligations that balances the competing demands of transparency and security as most mature democracies do.