The Parliamentary Standing Committee on Defence, which recently reviewed the Air Force's fighting capabilities, was alarmed at the shortage of its fighter squadrons, sought immediate acquisition of new jets but kept silent on the Rafale deal. Had the new deal not truncated the Rafale jets, the Air Force would have been better equipped to face the challenges of two-pronged threats. The Centre ordered 83 LCAs to bridge the gap arising out of order for 36 ready Rafale jets instead of 126 that were planned by the UPA government.

"During evidence, the representatives of Air Force submitted that the present authorised strength of squadron is 42. It was further stated that the total technical life of most of the existing squadron is expiring and consequently the squadron strength is progressively depleting...The committee emphasises for a time bound procurement of these aircraft, so as to replenish the Air Force squadron. The committee also urge(s) that Air Force should ensure that the new aircraft are procured in the near future so as to enhance the combat capabilities of the Force," the committee says in its "Demand for Grants (2022-23)" report, tabled in Parliament on March 16, 2022.

An Air Force representative revealed more shocking details to the panel. The panel quotes the representative saying: "There is an interesting aspect that a very large number of Sukhoi-30 and other fighters are on ground and we are hopeful that when those spares start coming from this year onwards, we are hopeful that will be able to actually add some squadrons."

What those sentences said needs to be re-emphasised to realise how alarming and scary the national security scenario is: (a) IAF's strength of fighting squadrons is "progressive depleting" (b) because the technical life of "most" of the existing squadrons is "expiring" (c) "a very large number" of Sukhoi-30 and other fighters are grounded due to lack of spares and (d) the ministry/government is being urged to buy more fighter jets in the "near future" and in "time bound" manner to fill the gaps.

In short, the security of Indian skies is in danger. The parliamentary panel duly reminded of the risks: "The committee are of the considered opinion that Air Force should have two front deterrence capabilities which is of utmost priority, as the threat on both sides of Indian neighborhood is a reality which cannot be ignored".

Ironically, these warnings come after repeat display of bravado by armed force chiefs.

On October 5, 2021, just ahead of the Air Force Day (October 8), Air Chief Marshal VR Chaudhari declared at a press conference that India was fully prepared ready to deal with a "two-front" war involving China and Pakistan and that the focus has been to enhance the IAF's overall combat capabilities.

His predecessor Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa had said the same thing in 2017, naming Pakistan and China. Again in 2017 (the relevance of it will become clear soon), the then Army chief who became the first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS), General Bipin Rawat, had said the Indian Army was fully ready for a "two-and-a-half-front" war.

Huge Gap in IAF's Fighter Squadrons

If the panel's words were scary and alarming its silences were deafening.

For one, it said the "authorised strength" of fighting squadrons was 42 but didn't say what was the gap from the actual requirement – the risk assessment gap. Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari (mentioned earlier) had also said in October 2021 that the IAF's existing strength was 30 squadrons. More ominously, he had added: "Our count will remain around 35 till the next decade, currently it is unlikely it will go up any further." He did explain why but that is understandable.

The parliamentary panel, thus, didn't focus where its focus should have been: the gap in the fighter squadrons which potentially jeopardises national security. Had it done so, it would have raised questions about the new Rafale deal of 2016 which cut the fighter jets being acquired from 126 to just 36.

Had the 126 jets been purchased – original plan had 18 in flyaway condition and 108 to be manufactured locally in India by the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) under a technology transfer clause then--this would have enhanced India's domestic capability (all the more needed after the Russian-Ukraine war broke) and justified the 'Make in India' mission. The HAL has a stellar record of making fighter jets in India – Sukhoi-30 and LCAs that the parliamentary panel mentions.

The number of fighter jets to be purchased is decided after proper assessment of the security threat. By arbitrarily cutting down the number to 36 – that is a reduction of 90 jets – the IAF has lost 5 squadrons, going by the norm of 18 fighter jets in a squadron – taking the total to 37 (existing 30 plus 5 additions plus 2 that 36 flyaway jets add).

Thirty-seven squadrons are closer to 42 "authorised" or required by the Air Force and also 2 squadrons more than what Air Chief Marshal Chaudhari estimates (35) said could be added over the next decade!

That is the significance of the new Rafale deal of 2016.

Silence on Rafale deal

The only reference to the Rafale jets/deal by parliamentary panel is half a sentence in the statement of the Defence Secretary: "We have acquired 36 Rafale fighter planes; we have issued order for 83 LCAs."

For the record, none of the serving armed force chiefs (land, air, sea), defence ministry officials, ministers or government's security and defence advisors expressed worries or raised questions about the risks to the national security because of the renegotiated Rafale deal – at least not in public.

All outsiders – defence and strategic experts, investigating journalists and others – have done it. They keep raising multiple questions: risks to national security; suspected kickback; cutting out technology transfer; making Anil Ambani's firm with no experience and no expertise (it was incorporated weeks before the deal) as offset partner for a fighter jet project while the most credible and experienced HAL was kept out.

Role of CAG and SC in Rafale case

The French anti-corruption agency, Agence Française Anticorruption (AFA), found evidence of bribery in the Rafale deal and the French government appointed a judge in 2021 to begin prosecution. No investigation was ordered in India.

In fact, the Supreme Court disallowed pleas for FIR and investigation in 2018 even after a stink was raised by investigating journalists and others. Former ministers Yashwant Sinha and Arun Shourie in the Vajpayee government and activist-lawyer Prashant Bhushan went to the court raising doubts about abut several things, including a higher cost for 36 jets over 126 jets being negotiated by the UPA (95% negotiations were complete a French official had revealed then).

A national news channel revealed in 2021 that India's premier investigating agencies, including the Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI), were aware of the bribery allegations but ignored the evidence. The news channel dug out this evidence in the documents enclosed with the CBI's chargesheet in the AgustaWestland helicopters deal.

But by then, the Comptroller Auditor General of India (CAG), the government's top auditor, too had given a clean chit to the government by producing a "redacted" report in February 2019 – which withheld critical information on "commercial details" like pricing of the fighter jets that would have nailed corruption. A redacted report from the top government auditor, the CAG? The CAG had exposed the corruption in the Bofors deal, the 2G spectrum and coal block allocations and Commonwealth Games.

This was unprecedent and a new low for the CAG.

Even curiouser is the case with the Supreme Court.

It had, in December 2018, given a clean chit to the government by citing the CAG report which came two months later in February 2019. One of its prime arguments (apart from hand-off approach in "national security" matters) was: "The pricing details have, however, been shared with the Comptroller and Auditor General, and the report of the CAG has been examined by the Public Accounts Committee. Only a redacted portion of the report was placed before the Parliament, and is in public domain."

This argument was a reproduction of what the government had given in "sealed cover" affidavit – not open to the appellant or public and hence against all tenets of natural justice. When the order was out, the obvious lies were nailed: (a) the CAG had not yet produced its findings and made it public and (b) there was no question of the PAC examining a non-existent CAG report. The government ran to the court seeking modification in the argument taking plea that the court had misinterpreted its facts.

The court not only obliged but later when its order giving a clean chit to the government without probe or trial were challenged, it rejected all such review petitions. In normal times, misleading the court would have attracted immediate criminal contempt proceedings against the government or a severe censure; the hearings would have started afresh and more likely than not, filing of FIR and probe would have been ordered. In normal times, the CAG would have faced public humiliation.

But that wasn't the normal time. None of it happened. None dared to speak.

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