Rafale aircraft
A Rafale fighter aircraft | Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images
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The revelation that Pakistani pilots reportedly trained on Qatar’s Rafale fighter jets with a configuration similar to our own represents a major security breach, in that it significantly compromises a weapons system even before it has entered service with the Indian Air Force, if proven true.

The question is, what is the nature of the breach, the possible damage, the legal implications and how is it different from other such cases (for example, both China and India operate the Sukhoi Su-30, and both Israel and Egypt operate the F-16).

The Qatari Rafales share several similarities with the Indian aircraft, notably the RBE 2 active radar, the Spectra electronic warfare (EW) system, and the vaunted long-range Meteor air-to-air and SCALP ground attack missiles. Now, while pilots are not taught the complete physics of jamming that the Spectra system would use, trained pilots would know what modes to use and how. This would allow the pilot to extrapolate the full range of the jet’s passive and active capabilities. Given the state of ongoing tension between Qatar and its neighbours, these Pakistani pilots will also possibly have the opportunity to size up the Rafale against the F-16 of the UAE’s air force. Tellingly, this F-16 versus Rafale combo is exactly the combat scenario on the India-Pakistan front as well. So, while the EW systems won’t be compromised, the Rafale’s capabilities will become known to the Pakistan Air Force.


Also read: IAF wants fresh info from France as concern rises over reports of Pakistani pilots’ Rafale training


The radar, however, is a different story altogether, and it is safe to say that it now stands almost entirely compromised, not in that it can be jammed, but rather in what it can do. Any training will explore the maximum possible capacities of all systems including radars. This would include the maximum range, the resolution, the nature and calibre of information and data sharing between Rafales, the tactical tricks it uses in the radar spectrum and its strengths and weaknesses. They will also learn what the maximum flight covers, and the tracking and detection capabilities of a whole host of mated missiles such as the Meteor, SCALP and Mica as well as the tricks associated with their launch.

For example, the Rafale’s RBE 2 radar does not have a two-way link with the Meteor (that is to say, the Rafale can feed information to the missile, but the missile cannot feed information back to the plane). This means that even after firing the missile, the Rafale jet has to keep flying and track the target till the much smaller radar on the missile’s nose detects the target. Knowledge of the time and distance gap between how far the Rafale has to follow the Meteor before it can break off the attack and allow the missile to take over is critical information that could help evolve a set of viable tactics to counter the Meteor-Rafale combination.

Given that India’s purchase of the Rafale was to overcome the shortcomings of the Sukhoi, specifically the range required to reach the Chinese Eastern Seaboard, it is safe to assume that the range of the Rafale, in all possible configurations, is now known to the Pakistanis who will duly pass it on to the Chinese.


Also read: Modi govt’s ‘main concern’ in Rafale case — sensitive information coming out in public


The French ambassador to India has now dismissed the report that Pakistan pilots flew the Rafale as “fake news”. He has, however, not provided any further clarifications as to what exactly is fake about the report. After all, why would a disinterested reporter, clearly working off an official Qatari and Dassault Aviation briefing in February, well before the current India-Pakistan tensions, simply drag ‘Pakistani pilots’ into his story?

The truth is easy to corroborate, all the ambassador needs to do now is show us the CCTV footage of the pilots involved in training, passports and the training logbooks. Yet, these reports are not new. We have a report from as early as 2016 stating that Qatar would send Pakistani pilots to train in Paris. Merely stating “this is fake news” is not going to fly as supplementary details have to be provided.

How is this any different from other cases where adversaries fly the same planes? In the case of the Indian and Chinese Sukhois, the Indian ones have a different radar, jamming system, radar-warning receiver, engine and completely different avionics. In essence, these are two completely different planes with a superficial external similarity at best. In the case of Egyptian and Israeli F-16s, unlike Egypt, Israel is allowed to install a variety of electronics including the all-important electronic warfare systems to give it an advantage. In the case of Greece and Turkey, both NATO allies with access to the same systems, Greece opted to buy the Mirage 2000 to counter the Turkish F-16s rather than wager on it winning an all F-16 combat.


Also read: Wing Commander Abhinandan being shot down is the real Rafale scandal


Should these reports turn out to be true, Pakistan would in all likelihood know what the Rafale can see, what it cannot, how the Rafale hides, what tricks it can use in combat, how far its missiles fly, and how it manoeuvres to avoid incoming missiles. More importantly, Pakistan would know what Rafale pilots are instructed not to do. This is particularly potent because using these tactics, they can now force the Rafale into situations where Indian pilots are at a disadvantage. To sum up, the most dangerous aspect of this is not the fact that specific electronic frequencies are compromised (they aren’t), but rather the knowledge of how the Rafale and its pilot see, evade, think and fight.

At face value, the initial French denial is weak given that news sources seem to have reported on this intermittently since 2016 at least. This, if proven, would be a serious violation of the India-France secrecy pact, whether by intent or by default remains to be seen. Irrespective of that, I would be most glad if proven wrong.

The author is a senior fellow at the Institute of Peace and Conflict Studies. He tweets @iyervval

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13 Comments Share Your Views

13 COMMENTS

  1. India regularly trains against F-16 and Indian pilots have flew F-16 as well during evaluation of F-16. It is safe to say, by the same logic, that Indian pilots have full knowledge of F-16 radar. Did that prevent Pakistan from shooting down Indian Jet? Nope.

  2. Leftist media only finds truth in the statements of khangress pakistan & its allies .When france is itself saying that no such thing happened..this stupid page writes this much of garbage…Did this editor was on the back seat of the plane wen pak pilots were being trained…he is taking pak ppl statements as truth while raising doubts over france statements…Such a biased writer..

  3. A cricket bat and ball are the same for all players. Important thing is WHO wields it. Not every batter is Sachin Tendulkar and not every bowler is Shane Warn.

    I don’t remember the full details now, in 1965 war Pakistan had very impressive paraphernalia – – Paton tanks, and Sabre jet fighters supplied by the USA. (Or was it in 1971?). But we all know the results.

    But still one question remains : when Eurofighter was offering a technically acceptable fighter which was also 20% cheaper, then why…

    But let us stop fretting about these things now. I am so happy that the big boy the Supreme Court has stepped into the arena. Count down has begun for Mr Modi personally.

  4. Several middle eastern countries including Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, etc. and China have strong military and strategic relations with Pakistan, PAF pilots train with several countries that operate all kinds of aircrafts including F-16, F-15, Tornado, EUROFIGHTER TYPHOON, Turkey is getting the F-35, China has the Sukhois and their duplicates, so what aircraft is left for India to buy ‘safely’?

  5. Not very long ago Modi govt was talking about taking on China & Pakistan together in a two front war. Now after losing only one air battle to PAF an air force having 1/20th budget compared IAF, there seems to be absolute paranoia. Time to Grow Up !!!!

  6. Is this a serious article?

    There are levels to secrecy and there is a price to be paid for that. If we dont want anything about our aircrafts being openly known, we better start building our own aircrafts and develop the capabilities for that. Knowledge about engines, radars etc. is basic information that is widely available online. Forget the high level quality attributes, the Chinese could get detailed fingerprints of Americab stealth bombers by constant snooping and spying (and more importantly, copy it). So u don’t get the point of the article.

    No amount of agreements, will allow secrecy that the author is hinting at. If we want that, we better create private enterprises that will develop aircrafts in India. Unfortunately, with all the Rafael “manufactured crisis”, politics has destroyed any further scope of building an ecosystem of private defense manufacturing in India. When a 200 crore contract to Reliance (right or wrong is another thing) is labeled as 40,000 crore scam and copied verbatim in the media, you cannot hope for any future government to go beyond using HAL who are not even competent enough to assemble 8 aircrafts in an year, forget building anything new.

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