These are tough times for the Indian Air Force. Over the past year, the IAF has been stretched thin due to a border crisis in Ladakh. In order “to conserve flying hours and equipment,” it recently cancelled its showpiece training exercise Iron Fist, which is supposed to be held every three years. The need to conserve came because its fleet only has around thirty squadrons of fighter jets against the 42 authorised by the government. More importantly, it is in desperate need of a qualitative upgrade. After the embarrassing outcome of the limited aerial skirmish over Jammu and Kashmir skies during the 2019 Balakot crisis, an upgrade would at least restore the IAF’s technological superiority over its Pakistani counterpart. The IAF seems to consider the induction of 36 French Rafale fighter aircraft as the panacea for all its ills.
The three-part investigation into the Rafale deal by the French news portal Mediapart could not have come at a more inopportune time for the IAF top brass at Vayu Bhawan. The IAF as an institution has been perceived as enthusiastically batting for Dassault, the manufacturer of the Rafale aircraft, since the end of the 1999 Kargil War. The support has been loud and vociferous—at times, embarrassingly so—especially after Prime Minister Narendra Modi made the sudden announcement, in 2015, that India would buy only 36 Rafale jets and scrap the ongoing negotiations for 126 jets. After serious allegations of wrongdoing in the deal were made by The Hindu and The Caravan, senior IAF officials came out on news television to give a clean chit to the political leadership.
Hamstrung by a slow pace of modernisation and facing threats on two fronts, the IAF’s desperation to somehow save the deal and acquire the Rafale aircraft at any cost is understandable. But when that cost is paid by the Indian exchequer, from whom substantial amounts have reportedly been siphoned off to a shady defence agent, questions are bound to be asked. Those questions are not about the quality of the Rafale aircraft or its operational suitability for the IAF, as is often portrayed by sympathisers of the government. The queries are about serious procedural violations, opaque decision-making, the leak of top-secret defence-ministry documents, the involvement of dubious middlemen, the removal of anti-corruption clauses, favouritism and corrupt practices in one of India’s biggest defence deals.