As perhaps his last action as the air force chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha did two things to ensure that in retirement he will not face the opprobrium of his colleagues in service. One, he drew back from the position he had taken about ACM SP Tyagi (Retd) despoiling IAF’s reputation to say that as a member of the service the fraternity stood behind him. This may have been prompted by the op-ed pieces by former Chief of Air Staff AY Tipnis and the former navy chief, Admiral Arun Prakash, criticizing the government for, in essence, treating Tyagi in a manner not befitting the high military post he had occupied.
And two, more importantly, Raha revealed the real reason for the IAF enthusiastically backing prime minister Narendra Modi’s unexpected announcement in Paris in April 2015 of the purchase of 36 French Rafale combat aircraft without an iota of technology transfer, which this analyst had deduced then, namely, that this small number of Rafales while useless by itself as a fighting force, would work nicely as leverage with the Modi government to buy an additional 200-250 of the same aircraft.
By way of rationalization, Raha dredged up the spurious notion of the Rafale’s “medium” weight as its main selling point and how this plane in the fleet would “balance out” the force. He expressly ruled out the augmentation of the Su-30 fleet as an alternative, saying India had enough of this latter “heavy” aircraft. The IAF presently has some 272 Su-30MKIs.
As has been pointed out by this analyst, a separate “medium” category of fighter aircraft is uniquely an IAF invention and springs out of the notion of “Hi-Lo” mix of weapons platforms that force designers have cottoned on to ever since the US Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Elmo Zumwalt originally conceived it in the early 1970s as the template for a naval force of a small number of expensive, high-value, nuclear-powered boats and the far more numerous, cheaper, lower technology, ships, resulting in a sufficiently large force to maintain a wide, global, naval presence. The “hi-lo” concept was introduced keeping in mind (1) the exponential growth in the price of major weapons platforms, with a direct relationship between unit cost and high-technology content — the more advanced the platform and onboard weapons the costlier the total item, and (2) the rather severe consequences (in terms of force attrition) owing to loss in hostilities of the necessarily fewer high priced platforms in service compared to the loss of the cheaper, more expendable, fighting systems and, the enforced caution therefore in actually deploying the former, thereby rendering them mere showpieces in time of war.
In this context, let’s briefly consider IAF’s hi-medium-lo force mix ideas. Raha has conceded the low end to the indigenous Tejas LCA (presumably the 1A and eventually Mk-II variants), and the high-end to the Su-30MKIs already in the fleet. With defence minister Manohar Parrikar pushing the Tejas, the IAF brass, in its ever fluid, expedient, thinking decided to humour the Modi regime by assigning the air defence role exclusively to the Indian-designed and developed LCA while using its short range to bolster the service’s demand for the medium weight “multi-role” Rafale for extended air defence as also for aerial (including nuclear) strike operations and for air superiority purposes. The Su-30, in the mean time, fills the air dominance need. So, what’s wrong with this solution, especially when Raha deems 200 of additional Rafales (or F-16s or F-18s for which, he said, the competition is still open) a “must have” for IAF? (See http://economictimes.indiatimes.com/news/defence/india-needs-about-200-250-rafales-to-maintain-edge-iaf-chief-arup-raha/articleshow/56220622.cms)
Great many things. The reason no major air force thinks in other than than “hi-lo” terms is because there’s very little substantive differentiation in capability between the hi-end and medium fighter aircraft. But, cost-wise, as Parrikar himself once stated, India can buy THREE Su-30s of the upgraded “Super Sukhoi” variety (with Active Electronically Scanned Array radar for switching missions mid-flight between Air-to-air and Air-to-ground) for the cost of a single Rafale, which quality-wise is also manifestly inferior. Moreover, Rafale is 4.5 generation, exactly the same as an AESA radar equipped Tejas and no match whatsoever for the 4.75-5 generation ‘super sukhoi’ Su-30. If the threats are taken into consideration, Rafale is viable only against Pakistan but in the quality-quantity matrix, will find itself swamped by huge numbers of low-cost Chinese built J-17s with the PAF. The paper performance of one Rafale taking out three or five J-17s is the kind of nonsense no self-respecting airman believes in (with the Beyond Visual Range ordnance brought into the reckoning, except that the hit rate of the BVR missile averages around 30% in any realistic scenario)!
Further, Su-30 is for air dominance but can pull air superiority (another name for air dominance and air defence) and nuclear strike roles more effectively than Rafale whose only advantage — if it can be called that — is that it is range optimized for Pakistan — a lowly Pakistan for God’s sake. So just to tackle Pakistan IAF is acquiring an entirely new type of fighter aircraft to worsen the already nightmare situation of logistical diversity owing to improbably disparate kinds of aircraft in IAF’s employ. So, Rafale and F-16/F-18 are being added to this melange just so the country’s sources of military supply are diversified, even as the existing logistics and operational problems multiply manifold! Can anyone credibly argue that a Super Sukhoi Su-30 that can reach deep inside China cannot reach the next door Pakistani targets? But such is the IAF’s pitch the Modi government has bought into. Now make sense of that.
And, finally, how about this aspect — the down payment on the deal for 36 Rafales is a whopping Rs 9,700 crores — a sum the Indian government is unable so far to come up with. France will, of course, not countenance a barter arrangement, something Russia may agree to if IAF goes in for another 200 of the Su-30s, with the side benefit of recovering the lost ground in Indo-Russian relations, and regaining the geopolitical leverage prospectively with Trump’s America, which leverage is eroding with New Delhi’s growing tilt to the US and the West.
Have maintained from the start that the Rafale deal in its entirety (costing upwards, inflation- and average weapons price annual increases- indexed, of $70-80 billion) will end up bankrupting the nation. But the IAF will have a fleet of 236 shiny Rafales to show off. GOI and IAF apparently think this is not such a bad trade-off.