Indian Airforce’s long awaited Rafales are finally arriving in the end of this month. According to a 20 July statement by the Ministry of Defence (MoD) in New Delhi: the first 5 airframes would be inducted in IAF’s No.17 Squadron “Golden Arrows” on 29th July at Amballa Airforce Base. A total of 18 airframes would be inducted into No.17 Squadron. 28 Rafales-EH and 8 Rafale-DH are on order for Indian Airforce making total of 36 Rafales. The other 18 air frames are scheduled to be inducted in No.101 Squadron “Falcons” at Hashimara Airforce Base.
IAF already operates huge fleet of 4th generation aircrafts over 12 Squadrons of Su-30MKIs. Over 260 Airframes in 3 Squadrons of Mig-29 and 3 Squadrons of Mirage-2000s are being upgraded to 4th generation standards. Sukhois and Migs mainly employ Russian weaponry. Similarly some other systems are being tested and inducted. Astra beyond visual range air to air missile is a domestically developed missile that IAF wishes to use on its all platforms. MBDA Mica BVR Missiles are already operational on Mirage-2000 and will also be used on Rafales.
Indian Airforce already possesses credible air to air BVR capability and credible air to ground and standoff attack capability. However tactical employment of that capability is matter of debate. Rafale is a welcome addition to IAF’s capabilities. Two of the noteworthy weapons Rafales will employ would be MBDA Meteor beyond visual range air to air missile and MBDA Storm Shadow long range air to surface cruise missile.
IAF operates two fix wing western fighter aircrafts namely SEPECAT Jaguar and Mirage-2000s. Rafale would be third current western type to be operated in IAF. Indian Airforce has had many opportunities to field their fighters against western airforces and western aircrafts. They have had multiple exercises with United states Airforce; Royal Airforce; Armée de l’Air Française (French Airforce); Republic of Singapore Airforce; Royal Airforce of Oman and many other major airforces that operate only western types. India is politically aligning with the west to safeguard its interest against China. Rafale is a gateway ticket for the Indian Airforce to participate in multinational exercises hosted by western airforces. Exercises are great learning opportunities, where participants learn from each other; in terms of maintenance methods, employment tactics, operational procedures etc. French Airforce is providing operational and maintenance training to the IAF for Rafales. French is a major NATO Airforce and its standards are very rigid. Thus it would be their priority that IAF abides to that standard. That may bring a significant change in the overall standards of IAF in terms of maintenance and operations that remains relatively poor.
Rafale is termed 4+ generation fighter aircraft, 4+ generation aircrafts are those which originally belong to 4th generation but with remarkably advanced capabilities. 5th generation is the stealth class of fighters with highly advanced sensory suites. 4+ generation are mainly 4th generation jets but they incorporate some of the highly advanced systems and their designing is state of art. They are aided by computers and their aerodynamic profile is highly manoeuvrable. The shape of the airframe is specially designed to reduce overall radar cross section to absolute minimum possible. Their construction material aid in reducing visibility on radar thanks to advance metallurgy,. Their sensory suits are highly advanced. Some examples of the 4+ generation class of fighters are latest blocks of F-16, EF-2000 Euro Fighter Typhoon, Rafale, Su-35, Mig-35, JAS-39 Grippen and some others.
Rafale incorporates RBE2-AA active electronically scanned array radar, it offers very long detection and tracking ranges. Fully automatic, sorting and ranking of tracked targets and target tracks independent of search volume. It has automatic terrain avoidance modes for penetration missions. RBE2-AA has high resolution map generating capability in air to ground modes. Has ECCM (Electronic counter counter measure) ability to denny enemy electronic jamming. High number of T/R modules already make it difficult to jam.
Rafale has SPECTRA electronic warfare suite jointly developed by Thales and MBDA for the Rafale. SPECTRA EW suite comprises a radar warning receiver; laser warning; missile approach warning; phased array radar jammer and counter measure dispenser. SPECTRA provides long range detection and identification of radio frequency, laser and infrared threats.
The Rafales will employ MBDA meteor missile as its primary beyond visual range air to air missile. Meteor has range of more than 100kms. It is a highly advanced missile and its kill probability is claimed to be very high. Similarly its design is highly advanced that comprise best propulsion system, guidance, seeker and overall characteristics of the meteor.
Another noteworthy weapon employed by Rafale would be MBDA Storm Shadow air to surface missile. It has a range of over 500 kilometres. Other than this, the Rafale is capable of employing various guided and unguided ground attack munitions. It can carry MBDA AM-39 Exocet anti ship missile.
Rafale is a credible 4+ generation platform, but an asset alone cannot play any significant role in any major change in balance of power in the region. Indian Airforce’s two main rivals in the region are Pakistan Airforce and People’s Liberation Army Airforce. PLAAF operates Russian Su-27, Su-30 and Su-35 in 4th and 4+ generation category. J-10, J-11, J-15 and J-16 are Indigenous Chinese 4+ generation aircrafts. PLAAF is also fielding their indigenous 5th generation J-20 stealth fighter. Meanwhile Pakistan Airforce has good number of American made F-16s, majority of their F-16 fleet is Block 52. 18 Block 52 airframes were purchased and rest of the fleet was mid life upgraded to Block 52 standard. PAF has over 100 plus JF-17 Block 1 and 2 aircrafts that constitutes in 4th generation category. PAF’s F-7PGs and Mirage-ROSE aircrafts do not belong to 4th generation category. However they are significantly upgraded with 4th generation capabilities like BVR, Data Link, Advanced Avionics, Enhanced EW capabilities etc.
Rafale is a significant threat for both PLAAF and PAF but in least likely scenarios. As Honorable Prime Minister Narendra Modi quoted about 27th February clash between IAF and PAF “ If there would have been Rafale consequences could have been different “, Many analysts would disagree to that, it would have been more difficult for PAF to undertake that attack but it wouldn’t be impossible. PAF had beautifully employed its assets and force multipliers; it was perfect demonstration of modern airforce’s integrated operation. That force integration is the element that defines the scope and capability of a fighting force. It’s the integrated tactics that enabled six decades old Mirage-V to conduct strike in the face of Syder surface to air missile and huge number of interceptor planes in the area. Integration is complicated process.
Indian Airforce’s majority fleet is Russian made fighter jets and only Mirage-2000 multirole fighter is western, Jaguar is air to ground that has less to do with air superiority. IAF has Beriev A-50 AEWACS which is Russian, but carries IAI (Israel Aerospace Industries) EL/W-2090 AESA Radar. Other AEWACS platform with IAF is the DRDO Netra AEWACS. IAF has a very wide spread network of assets to integrate and those assets vary in terms of origin that is the basic hurdle in integration. Network integration requires access which is usually prohibited for an asset to share same network with an asset of another origin. In case of India that remains a major hurdle to cover. IAF is facing huge problems in this domain, it is well evident from 27th February Fratricide of Mi-17. Without properly integrating the assets going into action exposes own assets to blue on blue. Thus network limitations can be exploited by enemy in tactical and strategic scenarios. Integration issues within the Su-30MKI airframe is what has made it just a flying bomb truck. The avionics are European, the Radar is Israeli and the EW suite is mix Indian and Israeli, the subsystems within the airframe are conflicting, that severely effects the performance of Su-30MKI and makes it almost a flying bomb truck. IAF is notorious for its integration.
Rafale’s weaponry and concepts are new to IAF but not to PAF, Where IAF is getting Meteor PAF has already integrated PL-15 BVR Missiles on JF-17. Rafale is brining Storm Shadow air launch cruise missile, PAF is already operating indigenous RA’AD ALCM on its Mirage and JF-17 fleet. Rafale has AESA Radar which PAF still don’t have on any of its fighter jets but has it on its AEWACS. Rafale has superior avionics and sensory suite that ensures its longer survivability in battle space but with little to no network accessibility Rafales would be doing all for themselves. 36 Rafales are not enough for entire Indian airspace as they would be deployed in limited sector, if any asset has an open network architecture other assets may avail advantage from its superior sensory suite with help of data link but Rafale can’t help other IAF assets due to limitations.
Rafales will change the way PLAAF and PAF see the Indian Airforce as an adversary. However the Rafale won’t draw any significant change in balance of air power in the region at least in these limited numbers. Moreover there is no other western type of fighter that may supplement it, Based on tactics IAF may play very well with Rafale but again integrity is a major issue. Some rumors are cooking that Rafales would be immediately put to operational duties in LAC region. We believe the news may be incorrect, because directly employing Rafale to the conflict zone is absolute stupidity. Rafales would need time to blend in the operational structure of IAF. We will be able to figure out what Rafale is doing in IAF in the near future. Similarly, other questions to be answered are what can it do for IAF, and most importantly does it affects the balance of air power in the region.