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Rafale in storm clouds, Parrikar says IAF can make do with Sukhoi-30s

For the first time since January 31, 2012, when the French Rafale fighter was chosen as the future medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) for the Indian Air Force (IAF), a top Indian official has admitted serious problems in negotiating the purchase with French vendor, Dassault.

Speaking to the media on Tuesday evening, Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar said there were “complications” in the negotiations that have already dragged on for almost three years, with the French side reluctant to meet commitments that the IAF had specified in the tender.

Parrikar did not reveal details. Business Standard has reported earlier on Dassault’s unwillingness to assume responsibility for the production of Rafales by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, which the tender mandated. HAL is to build 108 Rafales in India with technology transferred from Dassault and its sub-vendors.

Ominously for Dassault, Parrikar said that additional Sukhoi-30MKI fighters, which HAL builds in Nashik, were adequate for the IAF in case it was decided not to procure the Rafale.

The IAF currently plans to have 272 Su-30MKI fighters by about 2018. HAL’s Nashik production line is building the fighter at Rs 358 crore each, less than half the estimated cost of buying the Rafale.

“The Su-30MKI is an adequate aircraft for meeting the air force’s needs”, said Parrikar.

Earlier this month, Parrikar had assured his French counterpart, Jean-Yves Le Drian, during the latter’s visit to New Delhi on December 1, that Rafale negotiations would be placed on a “fast track”, according to MoD officials.

The defence minister revealed on Tuesday that the French defence minister “has (committed) to send an empowered person to negotiate after New Year.”

According to the terms of the MMRCA tender, 18 of the 126 fighters being bought would be supplied fully built abroad, with the remaining 108 manufactured by HAL. The cost of the project, originally sanctioned at Rs 42,000 crore, has now crossed Rs 100,000 crore, according to expert estimates.

Border infrastructure

Signalling a major thrust on building roads along the 4,057-kilometre Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China, the defence minister announced that the Border Roads Organisation (BRO), which has been plagued by infighting between its civil and military personnel, would come directly under the MoD.

“BRO is being delinked from the Ministry of Surface Transport. It will be entirely defence controlled and defence financed. We are (also) considering transferring of more than 6,000-7,000 kilometres of roads, which are not in sensitive areas, to the National Highways (Authority of India)”, said Parrikar.

Weighing in against the principle of “dual command”, the defence minister said: “Ministry of Surface Transport was their (BRO’s) administrative department and defence was their [operational department]. So obviously there was confusion, when you have two masters, you don’t get work output.”

Parrikar confirmed that the proposal had been discussed with Minister for Surface Transport, Nitin Gadkari, and both had agreed that, from the next budget onwards, BRO would come under the MoD.

The BRO was charged with building 61 Indo-China Border Roads (ICBRs), of total length 3410 kilometres, by 2012.  Of these, it has completed only 17 roads, of length 590 kilometres, the defence minister told parliament on December 12.

Parrikar explained that high technology, especially the practice of tunnelling with rock boring machines, was essential for building roads in difficult terrain, for which the private sector needed to be involved. “The way it is being cut today, I don’t think we will complete (our target) even in 15 years. If the target is 5 years, we will have to use technology”, he said.

The defence minister also revealed that he was working with the railways minister, Suresh Prabhu, to expand rail connectivity across Arunachal Pradesh. “We have decided to improve the railway connectivity as well as the road connectivity. We will finalise things in the days ahead”, he said.

The defence minister told parliament on December 12 that four strategic railway lines have been prioritised for survey.

Arms agents permitted

Parrikar reiterated his intention to permit foreign arms companies to station “representatives or technical consultants” in India, reversing a ban on “agents” that had been imposed after the Bofors gun scandal of 1987-88. This had been reported earlier by Business Standard (December 13, “Parrikar likely to allow arms agents, impose steep fines for wrongdoing”).

The defence minister downplayed reports of increased Pakistani firing on the Line of Control (LoC), stating, “Across the LoC, (firing) incidents have reduced during 2014. There were increasing incidents on the International Border, but they have also fallen during the last two months compared to this time last year.”

Even so, Parrikar emphasised the army’s muscular posture, saying his orders were”“Don’t hesitate; react appropriately and without holding yourself back. We don’t (start firing). But if there is something going on from the other side we retaliate with double the energy.”

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