How About Some French Toys?

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I had just walked in to the office of the Defence Secretary to move one of my files that needed his okay. Mr Menon normally did not keep any file pending, but this particular file was required by me double quick. I had therefore decided to go and get his signature personally.

As I entered his office he gave me a big smile and raised his hand. ‘Air Commodore! You will live to be a hundred. I was just about to send for you. The RRM (Raksha Rajya Mantri) wants to see you immediately’. I was taken aback. Why would the RRM want to see me? Did he even know that I existed? ‘When am I to see him?’ I asked. It transpired that some high level visitor had come from France to see the RRM and he had some thing to say about the Jaguar. So the mystery was solved. I was then deeply immersed in the Nav-Attack System up-gradation of the Jaguar. I had been given the task of finding suitable vendors, assess the equipment offered and arrange for its integration with the Jaguar and also handle the commercial negotiations for the deal. It was a huge task and I was very busy. As a matter of fact, I had returned from a tour of France and England in that connection only a week earlier. I was however intrigued because I could not figure out where the RRM would fit into that matter. We had not yet completed vendor selection. I straightened my uniform and marched off to see the RRM.

I found the RRM in his chair, looking through some papers. A tall and good looking European gentleman was sitting on a chair a little distance from the RRM’s table. The RRM looked up as I entered the office and made a welcome gesture. It was an act distinctly and refreshingly different from the usual behaviour that I had found from politicians as well as senior bureaucrats in the South Block. I was further surprised when he addressed me very correctly by my rank. This was my first meeting with the RRM and I was impressed. The foreign guest sitting in the office of the RRM turned out to be one retired General of the French Air Force who was now functioning as the head of the French Aeronautical giant Avions Marcel Dassault. The RRM introduced us and told me that the General was leading the French delegation that had come visiting to sell their military hardware to us. Such visitors are common place. I was motioned into a chair by the RRM and I sat down relaxed. The relaxed mood of mine lasted but for a moment. The RRM went on to inform me that the French Government was offering many interesting stuff to us and the government was seriously interested in their offer of their latest fighter aircraft the Mirage 2000. What was my impression about the aircraft? The question by the RRM shook me to a highly alert state. The Mirage 2000 was a brand new product. It was yet to be inducted into the French Air Force. By every thing that I had read about this aircraft, it seemed to have a huge potential as a fighter. That was all that I could tell the RRM on the spot. Internally however I was flabbergasted. We had just gone through a decade long wrestling match to make the government concede to our request for the induction of a DPSA (Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft) and we were still in the process of inducting and developing the aircraft to its full potential. To be confronted with information that the Government was considering the purchase of yet another very new and costly weapon system that the Air Force had not even asked for was indeed strange. It took all my self control not to appear as a little boy being offered a lolly pop! ‘The General feels that they would also be able to assist you in upgrading the Jaguar Nav Attack system with the ones they are using in the Mirage 2000’, the RRM expanded. I was now on firmer ground. I informed him that we were already engaged with SAGEM who is the provider of the Nav Attack system for the Mirage 2000. The RRM took in that information and closed the conversation with an ‘Oh I see’. I took this to be a mild and gentle dismissal. I stood up and took my leave from the minister and his guest and came back to my office.

Three or four days passed after this in what I can only as ‘routine’ existence. Then one day I was called upon to meet the Defence Secretary. Mr Menon came to the point as soon as he saw me. I am heading a delegation to France for a week. I want you to come with the team and function as its secretary for the tour. I was a tad surprised. It had become well known over the past week that a large defence delegation to France was in the offing. The Defence Secretary was taking along a top heavy team from the three Services. Two or three under-secretaries from the ministry were also coming along. Under these circumstances it seemed unusual for him to ask me to tag along. Also, it was not easy to tear me off my chair for a week; I had too many irons in the fire as the Project Manager of the Jaguar Project. However, it would be fun to be guests of the French Government to be sure. Also, it was not difficult to convince my self that my next round of inter-actions with the BAe and Ferranti could be conveniently tagged with this team’s visit. I asked the Secretary whether it would be alright if I planned a trip to London after Paris if I came along. He usually had no objections to my movements, but this time he put forth a caveat. I was to complete and hand over the tour report for the team before leaving Paris for London. He was obviously counting on my staff work, and it made me feel happy.

The composition of the delegation became known over the next few days. The Air Force contingent was headed by Air Marshal TS (Timki) Brar. Timki was then the Senior Air Staff Officer in the Eastern Air Command. He was supported by Air Vice Marshal DA (Denis) Lafontaine. Denis was then an ACAS in the Vice Chief’s Branch. The Technical side was represented by a Director of Engineering from the AOM’s Branch and was supported by three other officers at the Wing Commander level. The Army was represented by a Brigadier and two other officers. The Naval side was headed by George Kailath who was at that moment a Captain of the Navy. I was a bit surprised to find no naval aviator in the team as the visit was likely to be aviation oriented. The only senior officer in the Naval HQ that I knew well at that time was Ram Tahliani. He was then a Rear Admiral and had just taken over as the ACNS(Air). I went to the Naval HQ and called on him. I was surprised to find that the Aviation Branch of the Navy were unaware of the magnitude of this delegation. At the Naval HQ, the subject was being dealt with by the submarine branch and the air branch did not get to know of it. Ram asked me to check in after a day which I did. He had obviously discussed the matter internally and the Navy was not very interested beyond the submarine connection. Ram requested me to keep George abreast of all aviation matters that might be of interest to the Navy.

As the nominated secretary to the delegation, a certain amount of administrative task landed up on my plate. It was a very large and diverse group. Travel authorities for the various members were to be issued by diverse bunch of ‘competant authority’. Yet, we all needed to travel together and therefore needed to be booked on the same flight. We were also required to travel by Air India. It took a spot of running around to make this happen smoothly. In this process, a small social hitch came up that needed to be sorted out. Mr Menon as the Defence Secretary and Baljit Kapoor as the Chairman HAL were entitled to travel first class. The next two persons in the list of seniority were Air Marshal TS Brar and Air Vice Marshal DA Lafontaine. Though Brar sahib was a full Air Marshal, he was not a CinC yet. He was just a SASO. He was therefore entitled to only an economy class ticket. Denis as an AVM was also entitled to a cattle class ticket. The social hitch arose from the fact that in the early fifties, both Baljit Kapur and I were in Number 1 Squadron together as young flying officers. Timki Brar was our CO as a squadron Leader. Baljit had moved out of the Air Force and had entered HAL through the short-lived Aircraft Manufacturing Depot of the IAF at Kanpur which became the Kanpur Division of the HAL. Baljit did well for himself at HAL and twenty years later he had become its Chairman. Timki Brar had also done well for himself. He went through all the long steps that one has to take in the Services and was now a full Air Marshal. I felt that socially it would be awkward for me to push Timki into the economy line while Baljit and the DefSec went through to the first class. In India, personal contacts with the right people can work wonders. In the Mid Sixties when I was a Flight Commander with the Panthers, one of the stalwarts in the unit was Omi Mathur. He was a Flight Lieutenant at that time. In December 64, Omi and I both had left the Panthers; I had gone to Andover to do my Staff College Course while Omi had gone to the Empire Test Pilot’s School in England to become a test pilot. During his training there we had lost him through a flying accident. Back in India, his widow Indu had joined Air India’s administrative carder to rebuild her life. Over the past fifteen years she had done well and was now a senior person in Air India’s commercial branch. I went to Indu and told her about my problem on hand. Well, one small note form her table caused the tickets of Air Marshal Brar and AVM Lafontaine to be upgraded to first class. (She had offered me an upgrade too, but I declined as there were a few others of my rank in the party.)

Our trip to Paris on the AI 747 was uneventful, well, at least up to the time we landed at Charles De Gaulle airport of Paris. As we deplaned, we were met by a huge reception party and taken charge of very personally by them. I had always found CDG to be an unimaginative (unnecessarily over-imaginative?) place. It enforces long walks to your baggage collection point and then to the transport boarding point for getting out of the airport. This time however, every thing happened very smoothly. Someone from the reception party took the trouble of collecting our luggage while we were gathered at the lounge and were treated with coffee and snacks. After a short break we were led to a boarding point nearby where a long line of cars awaited us. A troupe of motorcycle borne traffic police were placed at the head of this motorcade and we were zipped through Paris Traffic non stop at a hundred kilometers per hour directly to Champs-Élysées, the most important road in Paris. We were lodged in Hotel George V on the Champs-Élysées and at that time it was the most pricy hotel in town. The impact of this very highly impressive reception took our breath away. .

There was no let-up in this high pressure mehman-nawazi (in plain English it is just hospitality, but the Urdu expression sounds more colourful) from our hosts. In the evening we were treated to a ‘State Dinner’ at the Ministry of Defence. Once again a motorcade led by motorcycle mounted policemen took us to our destination. The large stone built building was not impressive externally except for its size, but inside it was highly opulent. A long and wide staircase was draped with a red carpet. Subdued lighting hung from large chandeliers made the ambience enchanting. Along the staircase, sentries in ceremonial dress stood rock-still holding long pikes in their right hand. It was indeed a romantic setting. We gathered in a large hall and were met there by our hosts over short drinks. After a short while, we were led into a huge dining all for a laid down eleven course dinner. The table was laid with gold laced crockery and gilded cutlery which, we were told, dated back to Napoleon’s time. The dinner was an exquisite display of French cuisine at its best. Amongst us, there were three vegetarian, and it was impressive to see the hosts ensuring appropriate service to these guests course by course.

Next morning, we began the grind of the tour itself. The whole French military industrial capability was on show for us. One after another the various manufacturers gave us presentations about their product. Mostly the presentations were in their factory or their office complexes and were invariably preceded / followed by lavish refreshments. It was becoming difficult to prevent over eating. Three days went by and we were on to the weekend. Through this process of discussions the focus of the French intent became clear slowly. Though they were showing us a multitude of defense goods, their main intent centered around three areas: Fighter Aircraft, Helicopters, Submarines. They highlighted their interest in doing business with us in these three areas at every opportunity. It was decided that after the week-end we would resume our interactions in the South of France where both Helicopters and Fighter Aircraft were developed. We were also to visit a submarine base in the Medeterranian Sea coast.

To keep us busy and amused over the week-end, our hosts decided that instead of flying down to Toulouse we would get a leisurely motor-coach ride through the central highlands and visit numerous medieval castles of historical importance on the way. Night halts were arranged at picturesque touristy resorts. Food halts were meticulously planned. Indeed it was one of the best planned tours and sightseeing I have ever experienced in my life. We resumed our planned activities at the Toulouse facility of Marcel Dassault on Monday morning with a very impressive presentation of the Mirage 2000 program.

The Mirage 2000 was a company project of Marcel Dassault without any firm commitment or support by the French Air Force. At the time of our visit, three prototypes had been built. The second prototype along with all the air to ground armament that it proposed to carry were laid out on the dispersal. The third prototype was readied for a flying display. The aircraft was certainly impressive. It looked neat. It moved gracefully on the ground and through the air. Its demonstrated maneuverability was breathtaking. Its controls were totally computer controlled with no manual reversion as a stand-by. It was what the new jargon called a fly by wire aircraft. The airborne radar it carried was ahead of the best we had by more than a generation. The cockpit was modern for the time with a good-looking Head-Up Display and a smart instrument panel. (The days of ‘glass cockpits’ had not yet dawned!) . The cockpit was not cramped. In short, we were impressed.

After Marcel Dassault and Mirage 2000, it was the turn for helicopters. We were taken to the facilities of Aerospatiale where its current main product the Dauphin was presented to us with much fanfare. The HAL already had a lot of association with Aerospatiale and its predecessor SudAviation. We were manufacturing the Alouette III as Chetak and the Lama as Cheeta in large numbers under license. We were in the process of inducting the Russian Mi-8 into the Air Force in large numbers. We were therefore not really interested in looking at the Dauphin. The French however were very keen to make us interested in that product. We just sat through their high pressure presentations. The HAL was at that time in the process of design and development of the Advanced Light Helicopter and was very interested in receiving help from Aerospatiale both for the supply of a suitable engine and for design consultancy. Baljit Kapur was therefore the centre of attraction during our visit to Aerospatiale.

After the helicopters, it was the turn of the Submarines. Once again, the emphasis on a sale of French submarines and possible manufacture of submarines in India was very pronounced. In these discussions it was George Kailath who front ranked. The interactions were very substantive and it seemed that some action would follow.

After three days in the south of France we flew back to paris to wind up the visit. The task of writing up the visit report fell on me as directed by Mr. Menon. The report was written, was vetted by all concerned and was submitted to the Defence Secretary in 24 hours, well in time before he went for a farewell call to the minister for defense. The visiting team stayed on for the day at Paris before they returned to New Delhi. However, I and Baljit Kapur had some business to transact at London. We proceeded by different flights for our errands early that morning.

In retrospect, this visit of the Indian Defence Delegation turned out to be extremely effective. It ushered in a process through which the Mirage was procured for the Air Force. Though the Dauphin was not procured by the defense entities, it was purchased later by Pawan Hans (regretfully). The interaction between HAL and Aerospatiale deepened and the French help in the development of the ALH was important for us. I cannot directly link the purchase of Scorpeane submarines to this visit of ours to Pais, but it is likely that the seeds of the transaction were planted at that time. I am happy that we did purchase the Mirage 2000 as a direct follow up of our visit. It was a good decision for the air force and for the country.

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One response »

  1. What I remember most of all of this trip is the absolutely fascinating Mirage scarf that Baba brought back and the ‘smartest’ of our siblings-my second sister-immediately appropriated!!!! Rightly so-she best suited the style…but we routinely squabbled over it!!!
    I remember thinking the Mirage was a better looking aircraft than the Jaguar that Baba had brought in and regretting that he did not have a hand in the deal!!! Today, reading this post some thirty odd years later, I am very pleased to know that he DID indeed have quite a hand in the acquisition of that smart lot!!!! 🙂

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