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.
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.
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.
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