New Delhi: The Indian Air Force's (IAF) medium range multi-role combat aircraft (MRCA) contract once again threatened to fade away into the blue skies, like a rapidly disappearing fighter jet, when the newly anointed chief of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major, confessed "even I didn't know when it will be issued." ACM Major's comment was made to media personnel as part of his first interaction with the national media after taking over as chief.
The air force chief's confession should not come as too much of a surprise, however, as Major's predecessor, Air Chief Marshal (retd) SP Tyagi, was forced to confess on his last day in office that he too was "not aware" when the order would come through. This, after Tyagi spent the better part of his career stating that he was 'hopeful' that the tender would be issued "soon."
ACM Major's comment would be particularly galling for the air force as the country's defence minister, AK Antony, had created quite a flutter in February at the high-profile Aero India 2007 show at Bangalore by stating that the request for proposal (RFP) for the aircraft would be issued, latest by March 31.
Antony's declaration was followed by reports in the media that portrayed ministry of defence personnel as working overtime, trying to meet the deadline set by him. However, summer holidays have apparently begun a bit early in New Delhi for these personnel as no RFP is in the offing or maybe the heat being generated by the contract has become a bit too hot for them to handle, as the ACM's confession would now appear to show. (See: The IAF's MRCA contract: A split contract)
For the record, it would be correct to quote ACM Fali H Major on the matter: "Even I don't know when it (RFP) will be issued. As and when all the (concerned) issues are resolved, it will be issued." ACM Major, also took care to stress that the delay in acquiring the 126 combat jets would not have a "negative" impact on the force.
"There are many elements that have to be factored in (after a new defence procurement policy was pronounced last year). Therefore, it is taking time," Air Chief Marshal Fali Major maintained during his first media interaction after assuming office on March 31.
"Does this have a negative impact? I don't think so. This is because it's already been factored (into the IAF's perspective plans)," added Major.
"Any credible air force has to learn to fight with what it has," said Major.
Defence? Let's have a scandal instead…
Indeed, it does. Brave words from the force's chief, but unfortunately the comment leaves the brave boys in blue neither here nor quite there. The country's friendly neighbourhood air force's, that of China and Pakistan, are already inducting the latest 4+ generation fighter aircraft. The jointly developed JF-17 Thunder has already begun entering service with the Pakistani and Chinese air forces.
In Pakistan's case matters go further with the Bush administration clearing the sale of the Block 50/52 F-16 Fighting Falcon's. The point behind the sale of these F-16's is not the aircraft itself but the avionic upgrades and the latest munitions that they come along with. These supplies effectively fritter away whatever technological advantage the IAF had built up over the last few years. Even as it loses its advantage the IAF now has to sit back and watch as the civilian 'decision making' process meanders its way through 'strategic imperatives' that essentially tries to be all things to all people.
The point is not to demean the 'imperatives' that govern policy making in a complicated international environment. But some pompous policy making individual, politician or bureaucrat, will have to stand up and explain what are the 'imperatives' that have been delaying the decision on an issue that has been pending for six years at the very least, have cost the lives of scores of pilots, young and experienced and has caused hundreds of crore of rupees in losses to the national exchequer.
More than all of this has the country's defence preparedness paid a price - or miraculously has that remained unaffected all this while. May be the whole point is to make ad-hoc purchases and tide over a crisis.
The purchase orders for an additional lot of 40 Su-30MKIs will help the air force breathe easy in spite of the delay over the RFP - and may be that is what ACM Major is referring to when he says that the delay is 'factored in' and that there would be no negative impact.
Maybe that is what the latest round of controversies are also all about - the one about the latest purchases of Su-30MKIs not meeting 'offset' clause requirements. And the even more strange one of Russia refusing to sign the 'integrity pact' for defence purchases. Speculation, suspicion and scandal - necessary ingredients to any defence contract in this country.
'Policy imperatives,' pompous policy makers and 'defence scandals' lurking round the corner - that is what needs to be factored in when you are talking about Indian defence. Yes, Air Chief Marshal Fali Homi Major is right when he says, "Any credible air force has to learn to fight with what it has." That is what Indian defence forces have been doing their entire career.
May be it is time to introduce some 'People's democracy' a la China, which has been sailing along into super power glory with the highest military expenditures in the world over the last two decades, or some military 'democracy' a la Pakistan, whose entire 'national' life is geared to feeding the military establishment.