Intensifying since the turn of the new year, you couldn’t possibly have missed the roar of AL-31s in all talk of India’s turbulent final dash for a Rafale jet deal. It’s unmissable. The fact that the Su-30 MKI was pushed into the M-MRCA conversation by none other than India’s defence minister ensured the notion strengthened quickly, unscathed by intrigue and rumours. And then, it exploded.
On the evening of December 30, Manohar Parrikar suggested to reporters that ‘additional Su-30s’ could save the IAF in the event that ‘complications’-ridden negotiations with Dassault Aviation for 126 Rafale fighters didn’t end in a purchase contract. The seed of the idea came from the proverbial horse’s mouth, and not South Block hearsay. And that gave it furious immediacy.
The suggestion caught the Indian Air Force completely off guard, flying as it did in the face of an unusually defiant stance the IAF leadership had decided on in 2013 about there being ‘no Plan-B’ in the event that the Rafale failed. But this time, the IAF resisted an immediate rebuttal. This was, after all, the Defence Minister who had weighed in. But what truly unnerved the IAF — and several planners within the MoD — was that Parrikar had gone out on a limb less than two months after being handpicked as Defence Minister. His specific comments on the negotiations revealed three things: One, that he’d hit the ground running and was fully abreast of the negotiations and where they were stuck. Two, that he was fully willing to question for the first time the presupposition both within the MoD (and especially the IAF) that while there was likely to be extended turbulence, a deal would finally be signed. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, it showed that Parrikar has been empowered by the PM to lead decision-making on a deal that’s so large that it has everything to do with the political leadership, and little to do with the actual act of hardware procurement.
As January wore on, there was blood in the water that couldn’t be ignored. If Parrikar’s pre-New Year comment sparked a fire, he pretty much flung a barrel of gasoline at it two weeks later when in an interview to Karan Thapar on Headlines Today, he said in response to a question on the possibility of the Rafale deal not working out, “Sukhoi-30 choice is always there. What I mean to say is: upgrade the Sukhoi-30, make it more capable.”
The latch-on was instantaneous. Hours after Parrikar’s comments were broadcast, Russian think-tank the Center for Analysis of World Arms Trade declared on Jan 13 that India’s potential choice of more Russian Su-30 MKIs instead of Rafales would be “advantageous to the country’s air force in terms of cost, tactical and technical characteristics of the plane and a series of other reasons“. For good measure, the Russians stoked France’s controversial hold-back of Mistral-class amphibious ships intended for Russia. The example had been broached before, but Moscow really ground it in this time.
A month later, Livefist learns, a concerted effort was made by Russia’s mission & trade office in New Delhi to pull India’s External Affairs Ministry into the conversation. The specifics of what was on the table isn’t fully known even now. A curious Russian media report
quotes junior minister in the MEA, former Army chief, Gen (Retd.) Vijay Kumar Singh as having said that the Su-30 was cheaper than the Rafale and more reliable. He was quoted nowhere else.
In February, with the Su-30 vs. Rafale debate stewing for nearly two months to the deep consternation of Dassault, IAF chief Arup Raha was fairly buttonholed at Yelahanka into saying, “There’s M-MRCA and there’s Sukhoi-30. The requirements are slightly different. And they have their own capabilities. They compliment each other but do not replace each other
.” This was a statement that practically subverted what the Defence Minister had suggested. Twice. Parrikar ignored the comment. It was explained away as a technically accurate clarification by the Chief of Air Staff.
At the air show, where the IAF chief made that comment, the spotlight also shined conspicuously on friction between Sukhoi and the IAF over the unexplained seat ejection that caused the type’s fifth accident last year. The Russians weren’t happy. And the IAF saw Sukhoi’s remarks to journalists as hostile and out of line. “When we are wrong, we will say so. When the Indian pilot is wrong, the IAF should not be shy to admit that,” an irritated UAC officer told me at the time. While the IAF chief kept his cool about Sukhoi’s comments, in private IAF officers fumed at what they saw as temerity.
Dassault Aviation and the French government were always prepared for rumblings of power-play and suggestive pressure from the Indian MoD, but the speed at which the conversation heated up caught all involved by surprise. For Dassault, it would now be fighting on two fronts — one, with a confident new government that promised quick action either way. And two, with the Russians, India’s largest suppliers of military hardware, who were practically invited into the tense last lap of the M-MRCA fight by the Indian MoD. The French Defence Minister, who visited Delhi last month for the second time in less than eight weeks, didn’t bring up the Su-30 MKI. The French didn’t have a direct play, political or otherwise. It was felt that things were too delicate at the negotiations table to poke at something that was, as Paris understood it, a clear message that India wasn’t going to budge on final sticking points. Told that it needed to work on a joint liability matrix with HAL for the license build programme, Dassault decided to put its head down and bide its time.
Of course, by this time, plenty of journalism in India, Russia and France — and the furious online military aviation subculture — had gotten the Rafale and Su-30 to dogfight on paper. Social media saw much of this shared enthusiastically by stakeholders on both sides. But it wasn’t until March that France’s patience finally cashed out. It was a veritable neutron bomb on the Su-30’s two month supercruise through arms & diplomatic circles, and even the French couldn’t have expected such a breather: a statement by Defence Minister Parrikar himself that the Su-30 fleet had serious problems
. It was by no means a body blow to the Su-30 MKI fleet — the Minister clarified that things were looking up — but it gave Dassault the break it needed after two seriously sleepless months.
And the French government finally got some play in what was clearly an ambush the Russians were fully prepared to capitalise on. And will.
Here’s the latest state of play:
- Russia smells real blood. Through their Trade Office and the Embassy, an existing conversation about additional numbers of the Su-30 & upgrades of earlier units has been re-energised with the additional sweetener of a markedly higher degree of local content and sourcing on any additional Su-30s India may choose to license build in Nashik.
- Livefist can confirm that Russia has also offered India the Su-35 ‘Super Flanker’, but kept the details open. The type is officially on the table now with Russia inviting India to help configure a Su-35 ‘MKI’.
- Russia is attempting to contain the twin damage of (a) information about engine trouble and fleet availability. Rosoboronexport has begun discussions with the IAF and HAL. And (b) the issue of the mysterious seat ejections. Both sides have decided to sort out the issue cordially and in private. It doesn’t want to lose the momentum it received from the initial suggestion that more Su-30s could cushion the potential collapse of the M-MRCA.
- Dassault and HAL are currently working at a furious pace to have something to show to the MoD in the next one week, though it remains unlikely that there will be anything for Prime Minister Modi & President Hollande to announce next week in Paris.
- On March 18, Defence Minister Parrikar said, “They have to tell us whether they can do it or not. Can’t keep waiting.”