New Delhi: The five Rafale combat jets that will arrive at the Ambala Air Station Wednesday, after flying about 7,000 km from France, are the first foreign induction by the Indian Air Force (IAF) in 23 years into its mind-boggling inventory of fighters.
Known as the 4.5 generation aircraft, the Rafale is considered to be one of the finest fighters in the world and is described as an ‘omnirole’ aircraft that can take up several missions on a single flight.
With its avionics, radars and weapon systems, the Rafale is the most potent aircraft in South Asia, much ahead of the F-16s that Pakistan uses or even the JF-20, the 5th generation stealth aircraft of China, which is yet to see combat.
Rafale are combat-proven having been inducted into conflicts in Afghanistan, Mali, Libya, Iraq and Syria.
While India had ordered 36 Rafale fighters in 2016, the numbers are just too small for the IAF.
Even though the IAF is supposed to come out with a Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) 2.0 for 114 fighters, work on it has been rather slow with a formal tender yet to be issued.
In between all these, talks of additional 36 Rafale fighters have been doing the rounds for long in the defence corridors.
The Rafale will also have 13 Indian specific enhancements, all of which will be integrated once the full delivery is done by 2022. These enhancements include Israeli helmet-mounted display, ability to start in very cold and high altitude areas like Leh, among others.
The first Rafale, with tail number RB 001, which was handed over in France in October last year, will be the last one to arrive in India since all tests and integration would be tried out on it.
‘RB’ on the trainer aircraft’s tail stands for the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria, the IAF chief. It is a tribute to Bhadauria for working out the Rafale deal as the force’s deputy chief earlier.
The single-seater comes with initials of BS, which stands for former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal B.S. Dhanoa.
Rafale to be 7th type of fighter in Indian inventory
The Rafale will be the 7th addition to the types of fighters that the IAF has — a feat very unique to the force in comparison to major air forces in the world.
It was in 2001 that the IAF had first moved a proposal to buy MMRCA — for which Rafales were eventually selected in 2012.
The IAF was keen on buying the Mirage 2000s and its French maker, Dassault Aviation, had offered to shift the assembly line of aircraft from France to India. It had, at the time, decided to shut down the aircraft line to pave way for the Rafale fighter jets.
But the Indian bureaucratic system delayed a formal decision in the matter and, in 2004, it was decided to float a global tender for the MMRCA rather than manufacture the Mirage 2000.
It was only in 2007 that a global Request for Proposal was issued, in which Rafale emerged as the winner in 2012.
PM Modi struck deal for 36 Rafale
Even though Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale, was shortlisted as the lowest bidder after having cleared all technical requirements along with the Eurofighter Typhoon, the negotiations went nowhere.
The entire deal was stuck at pricing point as state-run Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL), which was to manufacture the aircraft locally, quoted 2.57 times more man-hours to build the fighter jets. This meant the price of each aircraft was turning out to be much higher than what the French had quoted.
Also, the French refused to take guarantee for aircraft manufactured by HAL.
Another issue was that the quotes by Dassault Aviation did not carry all costs of the aircraft as against the Eurofighter, which had included the cost of even armaments.
By the time the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, negotiations for MMRCA were stuck with no headway.
ThePrint has learnt that it was in January 2015 that India first approached the French side to know if a government-to-government deal could be worked out for a smaller number of planes that would be bought off the shelf.
Hectic talks soon took place between the two governments and Dassault Aviation.
When Prime Minister Narendra Modi travelled to Paris in April 2015, he announced a mega plan to buy 36 Rafale jets in fly-away conditions. It took close to 18 months for the deal to be finally sealed.
With a range of 3,700 km, Rafale comes with its 10-tonne empty weight. It is fitted with 14 hard points. Five of these hard points are capable of drop tanks and heavy ordnance. Total external load capacity is 9.5 tonnes, which means that the Rafale can lift the equivalent of its own empty weight in payloads.
The maximum take off weight is 24.5 tonnes and the fighter can carry 4.7 tonnes of internal fuel and up to 6.6 tonnes external.
With a maximum speed of nearly twice the speed of sound, the landing ground run is 450 metres without drag-chute.
Weapons on board the Rafale are real game-changers
The biggest force-enabler for the IAF is the weapon-carrying capability of the Rafale, which can be tuned for delivering nuclear weapons too.
The game-changing missile on-board the Rafale is the over Rs 20-crore worth Meteor air-to-air missile.
Manufactured by European firm MBDA, the Meteor is a long-range rocket and ram-jet powered, and its integration into the Rafale weapon system brings about a paradigm shift in air-to-air affairs since it has a range of over 150 km with a zero escape kill distance of 120 km.
It means an Indian Rafale jet will be able to shoot down an enemy aircraft, even if over 100 km away, without even crossing the Indian air space.
Neither Pakistan nor China possess a weapon as deadly as the Meteor.
Another key missile on-board the Rafale is the over Rs 40-crore worth Scalp long-range air-to-ground stand-off cruise missile.
Weighing 1,300 kg, the 5.1 metre-long Scalp can be carried in either one missile or two missiles configuration on the Rafale.
The missile has a 600-km range and is known for its precision. The Rafale will not have to cross the Indian airspace to hit a target that is about 600 km in enemy territory.
It is a strategic weapon that can be used in penetration, impact or airburst modes, and can even strike deep even in anti-access and area-denial scenarios.
In a bid to deploy the new Rafale aircraft quickly amid tensions with China, the IAF has opted for the French HAMMER air-to-ground precision-guided weapon system under emergency procurement.
The IAF had rejected this system eight years ago in favour of the Israeli Spice 2000 used in the Balakot air strikes in 2019.
HAMMER, which stands for Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range, costing nearly Rs one crore, consists of a guidance kit and a range extension kit fitted on standard bombs of different makes.
The original plan was to equip the Rafale with Spice 2000 kits, which have already been integrated into the other French aircraft in the IAF inventory — the Mirage 2000.
The Spice 2000 needs to be integrated into the Rafale aircraft. Keeping the cost of Spice, integration and testing in mind along with the time that the whole process will take, the IAF went in for the HAMMER.
The Rafale will also be equipped with the Mica air-to-air missiles. The IAF plans to further integrate the BrahMos NG missiles with the Rafale when it is finally made by the Indo-Russian joint venture.
Radars and sensors
The Indian Rafale comes with an Israeli Litening pod for sensor commonality across platforms in the Indian inventory and not the Thales TALIOS laser designator pod that France uses.
The Rafale comes with RBE2 Active Electronically Scanned Radar, which when compared to radars with conventional antennas, gives unprecedented levels of situational awareness with earlier detection and tracking of multiple targets.
Rafale also has the ‘Front Sector Optronics’ (FSO) system, which is immune to radar jamming while operating in the optronic wavelengths.
It also comes with Spectra-integrated electronic warfare suite that provides long-range detection, identification and localisation of infrared, electromagnetic and laser threats.
The system incorporates radar, laser and missile warning receivers for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering, according to the MBDA, which had developed the system with defence contractor Thales.
The pricing of Rafale
A lot has been spoken and written about the pricing of the Rafale deal, struck at 7.878 billion euros.
Immense political slugfest had also ensued over the fighter jets’ pricing ahead of the 2019 general elections.
The vanilla price (basic aircraft) cost about 91 million euros each for a single-seater and about 94 million euros for a two-seater trainer aircraft, which works out to be about 3.42 billion euros. The weapons cost about 710 million euros, while Indian-specific changes are priced at approximately 1,700 million euros.
Associate supplies, including simulators, for the 36 fighter jets cost about 1,800 million euros while performance-based logistics cost about 353 million euros.
Under the performance-based logistics agreement, 75 per cent of the Rafale has to be available at all times for operation.