Tharoor asks why Modi govt isn't buying more Rafale jets

The Congress had bitterly criticised the Modi government's order for 36 Rafale jets

Rafale Su-30MKI Garuda A Rafale of the French Air Force (front) and an Su-30MKI of the IAF during Garuda-V in Jodhpur in 2014 | Embassy of France

Congress MP Shashi Tharoor has a habit of ruffling feathers, be it in his own party or in the ruling BJP.

Tharoor did just that late on Wednesday night when he asked on Twitter why the Narendra Modi government was not buying more Rafale fighter jets from France, given the standoff with China over Ladakh.

Prime Minister Narendra Modi had announced a 'surprise' deal for 36 Rafale jets from France on a visit to Paris in 2015. With the announcement, the Modi government ended negotiations to buy 126 Rafale jets after the aircraft had been selected by the Indian Air Force in 2012 during the tenure of the Manmohan Singh government.

The Congress had bitterly criticised the Modi government's order for 36 Rafale jets, claiming "its deal" for 126 aircraft was more economical and levelled corruption allegations.

On Wednesday, Tharoor tweeted, "Two yrs ago @INCIndia asked why the ModiGovt had reduced UPA's planned purchase of 128 Rafales to just 36. We never got an answer. Today Western strategic experts  ask the same question as India gears up to face China in the mountains: why not more Rafales?"

The opinion of "western strategic experts" Tharoor referred to was based on an article in Forbes magazine on June 19, which was titled, "India is buying the wrong warplanes for fighting China".

The article refers to the Indian Air Force's impending purchase of 21 MiG-29 and 12 Su-30MKI fighters from Russia. The Su-30MKI is numerically the most important fighter in the Indian Air Force. The Indian Air Force operates more than 250 Su-30MKI fighters. The Su-30MKI is also the heaviest fighter aircraft in the IAF fleet. It was the P.V. Narasimha Rao government that finalised the first order for the Su-30 jet in the mid-1990s, with every subsequent dispensation placing follow-up orders.

The Forbes article noted, "The Su-30 not only lacks the latest precision air-to-ground ordnance, it doesn’t perform well from the high-altitude air bases that support Indian operations..." along the Line of Actual Control.

The Forbes article quoted veteran aviation journalist Tom Cooper, who claims, "for decades, the Mirage 2000 has been a more effective fighter in Indian service than the Su-30 has been".

According to Forbes, Cooper had argued on Facebook, the Su-30MKI "doesn’t work well" in taking off from the Leh airport, which is 11,000 feet above sea level. At high-altitude airfields, aircraft face a greater strain on their engines on account of the thinner air and find it difficult to take off at their maximum weight. Cooper was also critical about the Su-30MKI's tires and brakes.

While many commentators have argued that buying additional Su-30MKI jets is a more cost-effective option than ordering more Rafale jets, others have criticised the Russian jet's poor serviceability record in Indian Air Force service. One of the factors touted in support of the order for 36 Rafale fighters was the French aircraft’s higher operational availability when compared with the Su-30MKI.

Pertinently, China operates hundreds of aircraft derived from the same design as the Su-30MKI, such as the Su-30, J-11, J-16 and Su-35. In addition, the Su-30MKI's larger size and relative lack of stealth features mean it can be detected more quickly by radar than the smaller Rafale.

The Rafale is being considered by the Indian Air Force for an order for 114 jets, along with offerings from US, Russian and European companies. However, a decision for the 114-jet contract, estimated to be valued at $15 billion, will take at least a year.

Tharoor's tweet may just reignite debate on an old topic!