Thursday, February 29, 2024

A Game-changer Jet?

While there is no doubt that the Rafale is far superior to Chinese and Pakistani fighters, India needs a minimum of three squadrons to battle the combined strength of her enemies

By Praful Bakshi

As the five Rafale jets from France touched down at Ambala recently, the entire nation was electrified to see them taxi in and gave them a fairy tale reception. The media extolled the virtues of this addition to the IAF’s inventory. But is it really going to be a game-changer for the IAF?

Incidentally, the Rafale is the fourth fighter aircraft India has bought from Dassault. The others are the Ouragan, Mystere and the Mirage. But this brings us to the question of why the Indian aviation industry and the defence industrial sector have been unable to produce a single combat aircraft or fighting system except the HF24? And why was the HF24, in spite of having performed well from 1967 to 1983, dropped? In short, over the last 70 years, the IAF has been depending on imported fighter aircraft from France, Russia and the UK.

But the IAF is facing a depletion in its fighter aircraft strength so much so that the required squadron strength of 42 has come down to 28. If quick action is not taken in the next three years, this could decrease to 23 squadrons. This is not good news with the current security situation deteriorating on the borders with China and Pakistan. India was left with no choice but to purchase 36 Rafales, beginning with the five that have come in now.

In fact, this process started in 2000 when a proposal for the purchase of 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) was floated by the government. In 2001, the Initial Request for Information was issued. Then there was a change of government in 2004 and the Request for Proposal could only be issued in 2007. This was followed by a listing of six foreign companies which wanted to present their fighter aircraft to India. The basic requirement was that the winner would produce 18 aircraft in a flyaway condition and the remaining 108 would be built by Hindustan Aeronautics Limited after due Transfer of Technology (ToT). The companies were Eurofighter with their Typhoon fighter, SAAB International of Sweden with their JAS 39 Gripen, Boeing USA with their F/A-18E/F Super Hornets, Lockheed Martin USA with the F16 IN Super Viper, RAC-MiG Russia with the MiG 35 Fulcrum and Dassault Aviation of France with the Rafale.

By January 2012, Dassault was selected. Experts upheld this choice as India was already operating the Mirage 2000 fighter jets supplied by Dassault and 92 Jaguars produced under licence by HAL in collaboration with Dassault. Dassault agreed to work with HAL to produce the Rafales but refused to take responsibility for the production of 108 jets produced by HAL as it doubted its ability to handle the complex ToT of the aircraft. The entire deal fell through. When Prime Minister Narendra Modi took over in 2014, it was decided to go over the deal once again. Modi visited France and announced the purchase of 36 Rafales in a flyaway condition.

Coming to the point of whether these aircraft will be a game-changer, especially in a war, we need to study performance, armaments and avionics compared to fighters in the inventories of China and Pakistan. China’s main aircraft are the J-10, J-17 and J-20—all reverse engineered copies of the F-16, SU-27 and F-22, respectively. But all flying aspects of the Rafale are far superior to any of these.

Coming to performance, each Rafale jet is powered by two Snecma M88 engines which develop 34,000 lbs of thrust with afterburners, while the J-20 produces 33,000 lbs. In terms of speed, the Rafale scores over the J-20 in both rate of climb and rate of turn, both main qualities in air combat. The Rafale is in the category of 4+ generation aircraft and can super cruise at 1.4 Mach. This means that without the use of afterburners, it can sustain supersonic speeds of Mach 1.4. The J-20 can only sustain super cruise for a limited period. In any fighter with afterburner, the rate of consumption of fuel triples. Hence, the Rafale can sustain a continuous supersonic dash for a much longer period without the use of afterburners. Coming to power-to-weight ratio, if this ratio is more—when weight is less and power is more—then a fighter would score over its opponent very comfortably as it can be thrown around by the pilot. In the case of the Rafale, this ratio is 0.988, while for the J-20, it is 0.92. Hence, in pure combat manoeuvring, the Rafale is clearly superior to the J-20.

However, it is the armaments loaded on an aircraft that makes all the difference in battle. In the case of the Rafale, the armaments it can carry are:

  • Air-to-air missiles: Magic2, MICA IR & EM, Meteor Beyond Visual Range
  • Air-to-ground missiles: Apache, Storm/Shadow or Scalp Cruise missile, Hammer, Paveway (laser-guided bombs), AS-30L (short-range air-to-ground, laser-guided)
  • Air-to-sea surface: AM39 Exocet anti-ship missile
  • Nuclear Missile: ASMP-A

Also, the avionics it can carry, along with jamming systems, are far superior to any aircraft’s. Whether it is the Active Electronically Scanned Array Radar and it engaging enemy aircraft in large numbers, the Infra Red Search and Tracking system or the Electronic Warfare Suite, all operate beyond the performance of any Chinese aircraft.

In addition, its stealth capability is far greater than that of the J-20 which touts itself as a fifth generation fighter. The Rafale can also carry refuelling pods so that it can fly along with another aircraft at low level even at night and supply it with fuel to replenish. This ability is not there in the J-20. The Rafale can also carry nearly 1.5 times more load than its own weight. Its Hammer missile which has been added lately can be fired at tactical ground targets from 60 km height or from 15 km. It can destroy bunkers and caves, even concrete bunkers and runways.

This is ideally suited in mountainous terrain in Ladakh and Siachen. Six of these can be carried. It has fire and forget capability and the missile range can be extended and warhead weight too can be increased.

So while the Rafale can be a game-changer, India needs a minimum of three squadrons of these fighters to fight against the combined strength of China and Pakistan. Also, the aircraft comes in a naval version too.

But along with the buying of these aircraft, there must be proper transfer of technology to meet our future demands.

—The writer is a defence analyst and a former fighter pilot 

Lead image: UNI


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