Of all the squadrons the IAF needs, not all must be for air superiority like the Sukhoi; an MMRCA is needed intermediately; Rafale fits the slot perfectly

In the world of defence equipment, where evolution rather than revolution is the accepted norm, the recent deal inked by India to acquire 36 Rafale “omni role” fighters, as the manufacturer calls it, is sure to raise some eyebrows. Self-professed experts and future defence analysts all over the country have been flushing the Internet with a staggering amount of expert information (like why the expensive Rafale when the MKI is already so good). This article offers a perspective of need for the nation’s security.

The depleting fleet of the Indian Air Force, a direct outcome of the lackadaisical attitude of the previous regime on defence procurements, is making news for quite some time now. Originally sanctioned by the government to have a fleet strength of 42 squadrons in the 1960s, the Air Force is down to around 32 now. Worse, the fleet strength is further expected to fall in the not-so-distant future as older aircrafts are retired — the reason being the fact that all military assets including fighter jets have a finite service life. Beyond that period, the equipment is deemed useless; for it is too risky to operate such equipment beyond their serviceable life. For most fighter aircrafts, this ‘golden period’ is about 30 years of operational use.

India has traditionally been a user of Soviet aircrafts; it moved to mostly Russian and some Ukrainian builds after the fall of the Soviet Union. The last deal that India signed for the acquisition of the latest and greatest in jet fighter technology was in the year 1996 when India inked the deal for 50 Sukhoi Su-30 MKI with Russia. In yet another deal, India procured from Russia 140 MKIs; this time, they were to be manufactured locally by HAL. Since then, the Sukhois have undergone several technological upgrades and fresh orders have been made to make sure that the IAF has 200+ Sukhois in service to date. With yet newer subsequent orders, it is estimated that IAF will finally have 300+ Sukhoi fighters in its fleet.

With such numbers in collar, why did the IAF need Rafales in the first place? Also, the Sukhois are known to hold their own against other fighters. In more than one instance of joint training with the USAF and with the RAF, the Indians are known to have “killed” the “enemies”. The Su-30 MKI of the Indian Air Force belongs to a class of fighters called “air superiority fighters”. These fighters are made to gain control of the air space, outmanoeuvre enemy aircraft and shoot them down. Their task is basically attacking other aircrafts. Though they can perform ground attacks, that role is secondary. When the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender to buy 126 multi-role aircraft was released back in 2007, the Air Force was desperately in need of “multi-role” fighters. These fighters, unlike their air superiority counterparts, are designed primarily to destroy strategic ground targets of the enemy, though they are very good at air-to-air combats as well. Hence the name “multi-role fighters”.

The fighter of choice that evolved in the MMRCA competition was the French Rafale, with a payload capacity second only to the Sukhoi. But because the Rafale is much smaller, chances of it getting detected by the radar or being shot down by a missile is considerably less than that in the case of Sukhoi. Due to several hoopla and bumps, the aircraft never made its way to the air force and the MMRCA tender was finally cancelled by the Narendra Modi regime in 2015. Instead, the Indian government decided to buy 36 Rafales directly from France through a government-to-government agreement in order to make up for the depleting fleet strength. After much negotiation, the deal was inked for € 7.8 billion (During the original 2007 tender, the price for 126 aircraft WAS never finalized, so it is unworthy of mention here).

French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian (left) & his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar exchange documents of the deal in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi [Photo courtesy: India Today]
French Defence Minister Jean-Yves le Drian (left) & his Indian counterpart Manohar Parrikar exchange documents of the deal in the presence of Prime Minister Narendra Modi [Photo courtesy: India Today]
Before jumping into the exorbitant price that India will be paying, let’s try to understand why Rafale emerged as the fighter of choice for our Air Force. It is said that the Rafale ticked in more than 590 of 600 criteria set by the Air Force. Further, the Indian Air Force already operates the French Mirage 2000 multi-role fighters. The upgraded Mirage 2000s that India has is said to be operationally very similar to the Rafale; so, transitions will be easier. The Mirage 2000 has an excellent operational history with the IAF, further during the Kargil War, when the Mirage was used extensively, the French were very reliable in providing spare parts and other consumables, without which the best of the best fighter would deem useless.

The Eurofighter Typhoon, which was another contender, is said to have come a close second, but the fact that buying Typhoons would require negotiations with four European nations — it is a joint venture between the UK, Germany, Italy and Spain — would have made the process complicated. American F-16s and F-18s were rejected because they were inferior to the Rafale. Further, with a less-than-optimistic record of American sanctions, India would never buy a frontline defence equipment from America. The Americans do a periodic check-ups of the equipment they sell in order to make sure if the host country is trying to reverse-engineer the product or not in order to steal the technology behind it. India would definitely not like such monitoring. MiG 35, which was the only Russian contender, was rejected on the ground of it being too similar to the MiG 29M (a modernized variant of MiG 29; all Indian MiG 29s will be subsequently upgraded to Mig 29M standard). The Saab-Gripen, yet another contender, was rather similar to the indigenous “light fighter” Tejas in capabilities and, therefore, did not make it. And thus the Rafale emerged.

The price for 36 Rafales that India will pay (€ 7.8 billion or about Rs 1,630 crore per plane) is all inclusive of the state-of-the-art, unmatched air-to-air and air-to-ground missile package, extra engines and other critical components. The French have also guaranteed that 75% of the fleet (28 out of 36 aircraft) will be available for flying at any time. On the contrary, the Sukhois’ availability rate is just 50%. Moreover, a part of the amount that India paid will be invested by the French back in India for our defence establishment. The Rafales are also extremely efficient aircraft; the lifetime cost of operating a Rafale is much less than any other aircraft, including the Sukhois. The Rafale also spends considerably less time in maintenance. All things taken into account, the Rafale has a considerable advantage over any other aircraft.

However, of late there have been some rogue reports of unnecessary complications in the IAF’s fleet. All such commentators miss one simple fact that by the time Rafales will be fully inducted, the bevy of aircrafts it is meant to replace — MiG 27, Jaguar and Mirage 2000 — will be well near their retirements. There have also been reports that Dassault Aviation is looking forward to the production of Rafales in India, should the order go through. India originally needed 126 multi-role aircrafts; after the deal of 36 aircrafts has been finalised, who knows what the Indian top brass has in their mind? As things stand now, by 2025 the Su-30MKI will be the unprecedented air superiority fighter of the Indian Air Force. Unless there is a miracle and serious work is done towards the development of FGFA based on Russian PAK TA 50, the Rafale will be the multi-role fighter of choice replacing the MiG 29, Mirage 2000, Jaguar, and the homegrown Tejas will take in the role of MiG 21 and MiG 27.