Complex defence contracts often lead to wrangling between buyers and sellers. Of all the big buyers of big-ticket weapon systems, India has the most cumbersome purchase process. Very often, even after a particular item has been selected, contractual bottlenecks lead to further delays. The latest example is the ambitious 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) contract, under which the French fighter plane Rafale was selected last year. Now this deal has run into an air pocket.
Under the purchase plan, Dassault, Rafale’s manufacturer, was to provide 18 planes in a “fly-away” condition. The remaining 108 planes were to be manufactured in India by Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Dassault was to provide the complete kits for the planes. Trouble arose when Dassault said it could not be held responsible for delays and other problems, if they arose, with the planes built in India. The government of India would have none of it. It wants the French firm to assume responsibility for all the planes.
Part of the problem in this case is that HAL has a record that does not inspire confidence among the ultimate users of the equipment. There is a long history to this subject. At the policymaking level, however, priorities change and issues like self-reliance in defence manufacturing come into play. The government, of course, has larger issues to consider. For example, in case of a war, will the French, or for that matter other countries, supply India with spares? It is at that level that indigenous manufacturing abilities gain salience.
Where the government has got it wrong is in confusing the public sector with indigenous manufacturing ability. There is no reason why private sector firms that are interested in such projects should not be involved. In fact, if HAL is made to compete with other domestic firms, perhaps its operational efficiency will improve. The end goal is, and should be, the quick delivery of this much-delayed equipment essential to India’s security.
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