New Delhi: Defence Minister Rajnath Singh is all set to formally receive the first Rafale fighter jet in France’s Merignac Tuesday, a delivery the Indian Air Force (IAF) has been eagerly waiting for nearly two decades now.
The first Rafale jet will come with tail number RB 001. ‘RB’ on the trainer aircraft’s tail stands for the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria, the new IAF chief. It is a tribute to Bhaduria for working out the Rafale deal as the force’s deputy chief earlier.
By the end of May 2020, the first four of the 36 Rafale jets ordered by the Narendra Modi government will take to the Indian skies. And by the end of next year, these Rafales would finally be integrated with advanced weapons package.
The first set of the aircraft will be commissioned into the 17 Squadron ‘Golden Arrows’ in Ambala and a second squadron will come up in Hasimara to secure the Eastern borders during peace times and war.
With this integration, the IAF will have the most potent 4.5 generation fighter aircraft.
In the backdrop of the 26 February dogfight between IAF and the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), PM Modi had earlier said the outcome of the aerial battle would have been “something different” if India had Rafale jets.
A package of 25 PAF fighters, including the American F-16s, had taken on the might of the IAF in a dramatic retaliation to the Balakot strike on 25 February. Two Sukhoi 30 MKIs, India’s frontline fighter aircraft and two Mirage 2000s that were on Combat Air Patrol, found themselves outnumbered and outranged by the F16s which were able to fire AIM-120, the Advanced Medium Range Air to Air Missile (AMRAAM) from a distance of at least 45 km in Pakistan territory.
The Sukhois had scrambled for cover and the Mirage could not do much from the location they were in. Finally, the ageing MiG 21 Bison jets could challenge PAF planes but in the process one of them was shot down, while PAF lost an F-16.
IAF sources insist Pakistan would not have even attempted such a strike had the Rafales been inducted earlier. “Right now, we have to deploy two Su30 MKI for one F-16 of the PAF. The tables will turn now. PAF will have to deploy two F16s to counter one Rafale. This is because the Rafale not only outguns them but also has amazing beyond the visual range air to capability,” said a source.
The Rafales meant for India are one of the most potent jets that have been made since it comes with 13 India specific enhancements, including Israeli helmet-mounted displays, radar warning receivers, low band jammers, 10-hour flight data recording, infra-red search and tracking systems among others.
What makes Rafale fighters so potent
Equipped with a wide range of weapons, the Rafale is designed to carry out air dominance, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions. The jets are referred to as an “omnirole” combat aircraft by Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer.
With its 10-tonne empty weight, the Rafale is fitted with 14 hardpoints and five of these are capable of drop tanks (external fuel) and heavy ordnance.
According to Dassault Aviation, the total external load capacity is more than 9 tonnes, which means the Rafale can lift the equivalent of its own empty weight in payloads.
Weapons on board
The biggest advantage of Rafale is that it is capable of delivering nuclear weapons. While the country has not bought the nuclear warhead delivery missile, sources said integration into the Indian system will not be an issue as and when India decides to.
The Mirages, currently, are the designated aircraft for nuclear weapons.
The game-changing missile on-board the Rafale is the Meteor. Manufactured by European firm MBDA, the Meteor is a very long-range rocket and ram-jet powered air-to-air missile. Its integration into the Rafale weapon system brings about a paradigm shift in air-to-air affairs since it has a range of over 120 km. It means an Indian Rafale jet will be able to shoot down an enemy aircraft over 100 km away without even crossing the Indian air space.
“There is no escape zone when a pilot looks at his radar and pull the kill switch,” an MBDA official explained, adding there is no air-to-air missile that can match Meteor at the moment.
Another key missile that is on-board the Rafale is the 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. It can even strike deep even in anti-access and area denial scenario,” the official added.
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.
The Indian Rafale comes with an Israeli Litening pod for sensor commonality across platforms in the Indian inventory than the Thales TALIOS laser designator pod that the French use. Also, instead of the standard Sagem’s AASM Hammer air-to-surface munition, the Indian Rafale would be integrated with the Spice guidance kits.
Radars and sensors
The Rafale comes with RBE2 Active Electronically Scanned Radar that, 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.
In 2011, Rafale fighters of the French Air Force (FAF) and French Navy were engaged in coalition operations over Libya. These were the first fighters to operate over Benghazi and Tripoli and were able to carry out the whole spectrum of missions the Rafale is designed for.
The FAF Rafales have also taken part in operations in Mali and helped destroy enemy infrastructure and support friendly troops in contact.
Four Rafales undertook the longest raid in French Air Force history, taking off Saint-Dizier, in eastern France, and landing in N’Djamena, in Chad, after hitting 21 targets and spending no less than 9 hours and 35 minutes airborne, which gives one an insight into the capabilities of the fighter aircraft.
The Rafale saga
It was in 2001 that the IAF had first moved a proposal to buy Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) — for which Rafales were eventually selected.
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 Rafale fighter jets.
By 2004, India had 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 (RFP) was issued, in which Rafale emerged as the winner in 2012.
The negotiations, however, went nowhere with the entire deal being stuck at pricing point as state-run HAL, which was to manufacture the aircraft locally, quoted 2.57 times more man-hours to build 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.
India approached France
By the time the Narendra Modi government came to power in 2014, negotiations for MMRCA was already stuck. Top sources told ThePrint that it was in January 2015 when India first approached the French side to know if a government-to-government deal could be worked out for a shorter 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 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 finally be sealed. Sources also said one of the primary concerns of the Modi government was the depleting strength of IAF squadrons.
While the IAF has a sanctioned squadron strength of 42, the number is down to a mere 30 now. This includes the ageing MiGs and the MiG 29s, Jaguars and Mirages which are being upgraded for longer life.
With the MMRCA negotiations not making any headway, it was finally decided that 36 Rafales will be bought in emergency.
A lot has been spoken and written about the pricing of the Rafale deal, struck at 7.878 billion euros. Immense political slug-fest 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 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.