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IAF chief defends Rafale deal

BS Dhanoa

New Delhi: Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa on Wednesday came out in defence of the Centre's decision to procure only 36 Rafale fighter jets against the original proposal of 126 aircraft, saying there had been similar "emergency" acquisitions in the past.

His statement came a day after three public figures - former BJP Union ministers Arun Shourie and Yashwant Sinha and lawyer Prashant Bhushan - said the Indian Air Force was being pressured to publicly praise the acquisition of the fighter jets.

The Modi government has been accused of corruption in renegotiating the deal.

Addressing a seminar on the IAF's restructuring, Air Chief Marshal Dhanoa said: "Whenever the government felt the air power element of the defence forces is likely to be in a disadvantageous position, it has gone in for emergency purchases of the aircraft under the umbrella of the inter-governmental agreement. The history is that the government had undertaken emergency purchase of fighter aircraft on several occasions in the past."

He said the air force was reeling from an acute shortage of fighter jets and India was facing security challenges from two nuclear-power neighbours. "The purchase of 36 Rafale jets (two squadrons) will help the force deal with the situation," Dhanoa said.

The Opposition Congress has already questioned the government's claim that it was an emergency purchase, pointing out that no jet has yet been delivered, three years after the deal was struck. The delivery will start from September 2019.

Defending the decision to go for only two Rafale squadrons, Dhanoa said India procured two squadrons of MiG 23 MF jets after Pakistan received the first lot of F-16 aircraft in 1983. In 1985, he said, two squadrons of Mirage 2000 were procured from France, and later two squadrons of MiG 29 were purchased from the then Soviet Union.

The IAF chief said the force currently had 31 squadrons of fighter jets against the sanctioned strength of 42.

"Even when we do have 42 squadrons, we will be below the combined numbers of two of our regional adversaries," Dhanoa said, referring to China and Pakistan.

The UPA government's deal was for the purchase of 126 Rafale fighters, which Modi changed to 36 during a visit to France.

Congress president Rahul Gandhi has termed the Rafale fighter jet deal the country's "biggest-ever" defence scam.

Rahul had said the erstwhile UPA government had agreed to buy 126 Rafale jets from France at Rs 526 crore each under a technology-transfer deal mandating that 108 would be assembled by the Bangalore-based Hindustan Aeronautics Limited in India.

The Congress president had alleged that Modi dropped the public sector HAL, changed the deal and said only 36 aircraft would be bought at the cost of Rs 1,600 crore each. The offset contract was then given to a company owned by Anil Ambani, Rahul said.

The Opposition party said it was "most distressing, disgusting and deplorable" that the government was using the air force chief to defend the deal. "I do not know where your 56-inch chest has gone.... Your defence minister I will deal with, your finance minister I will deal with, your Prime Minister I will deal with, but I will not engage with the service chief whom we respect," party spokesperson Abhishek Manu Singhvi said.

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