Why a merit-less Rafale buy can’t be justified

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.

About Bharat Karnad

Senior Fellow in National Security Studies at the Centre for Policy Research, New Delhi, he was Member of the (1st) National Security Advisory Board and the Nuclear Doctrine-drafting Group, and author, among other books of, 'Nuclear Weapons and Indian Security: The Realist Foundations of Strategy', 'India's Nuclear Policy' and most recently, 'Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet)'. Educated at the University of California (undergrad and grad), he was Visiting Scholar at Princeton University, University of Pennsylvania, the Shanghai Institutes of International Studies, and Henry L. Stimson Center, Washington, DC.
This entry was posted in Asian geopolitics, China, China military, Geopolitics, Great Power imperatives, India's China Policy, India's Pakistan Policy, India's strategic thinking and policy, Indian Air Force, Military Acquisitions, Missiles, Nuclear Policy & Strategy, Nuclear Weapons, Relations with Russia, Russia, russian assistance, society, South Asia, Strategic Relations with the US & West, Technology transfer, United States, US., Weapons, Western militaries. Bookmark the permalink.

26 Responses to Why a merit-less Rafale buy can’t be justified

  1. Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:


    An extremely pertinent point made about Rafale deal bleeding Indian exchequer in near future. Personally I have serious doubts and reservations on further purchase ie after the 36 contracted.
    Few submissions:-
    Aeroplanes are not purchased keeping in view a particular country.
    JF 17 is in terrible shape, both in China and PAF. Aero-engines are a major stumbling block. No authentic record is available on major defence websites about so called PGMs married to JF 17 platgform.
    Tejas will be operationally available not before 2021, if at all. My fear is that it might meet the same fate as the HF 24, albeit without being inducted in IAF. Induction ceremony we saw was only cosmetic in nature. My definition of operationalisation of a weapon platform is if it can be flown by a rookie flying officer of a IAF fighter sqn and fire the weapons in anger, if need be.
    Your observation on comments by outgoing IAF chief are correct. Too little and too late. If the retired Chiefs had spoken 46 months back when Augusta Westland issue blew up, the nation may not have had to suffer the ignominy of suffering the humiliation of a Service Chief being arrested. By the way what is your take now in view of sessions judge comments about the incompetence of CBI in failing to produce any substantive evidence against ACM Tyagi?
    Would you, therefore, like to retract what you said earlier in a rather armature fashion?
    Gp Capt TP Srivastava

    • Gp Cptn Srivastava — I’ll gladly retract my comments re: Tyagi if you can prove that the Tyagi-led IAF brass’ role in changing the “technical specs” of the AW 101 was not critical to the shortlisting of this aircraft for purchase. It was this intervention opportunity that Tyagi, as I have argued, capitalized on.

      • Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:


        Firstly let me apologise for two spelling mistakes in my response.
        Now the issue; Sir argument is exchange of ignorance, arrogance and unbridled attempt to defend the indefensible. Hence I never argue. I merely discuss. I am nearly certain that you never had the opportunity to find out the ‘goings-on’ at the Price Negotiation Committee meetings. Since I happen to be present at few such meetings nearly two decades back I know what goes on.
        Before commenting on platform capability, specially when comparing, intimate knowledge of technical and operational parameters is mandatory and not hearsay as you have while commenting about Masand’s MiG-29 and Alu’s M-2000. Incidentally I too happened to be in a MiG 29 COCKPIT, SAME TIME, SAME PLACE. I am responding as a professional and not as a fairy tale teller.
        Our north-west centricity has made us blind to our southern borders. Continued comparison with Pakistan is a slur on our actual capability in all spheres. Pakistani DA in India told me that they need not publicise their capability; Indian military strategists do it for free.
        One needs to do digital appreciation rather than base the findings on inaccurate and incomplete analogous appreciation as you seem to do.

        Gp Capt TP Srivastava

      • &^%$#@! says:

        @Gp Capt TP Srivastava: In your post you state: “…Our north-west centricity has made us blind to our southern borders.”. The first portion (north west centricity) is readily recognizable – Pakistan. I’d like to add that even at an individual level. the average Indian is obsessed with just 2 countries – the US and Pakistan. The rest of the world does not matter.(sic)! What intrigues me is the second portion of your statement about being blind to southern borders. Could you please expand on this part?. Thanks!

      • &^%$#@! says:

        @Gp Capt TP Srivastava: As an Addendum to my above query, there are a couple of queries I wanted to take the liberty of posing to you. As an ex-airman and a soldier, you are certainly aware that two very important words are: war hero and air ace, respectively. I notice in India, these titles are bestowed at the drop of a hat. For example, in the ongoing campaign in support of ACM S. P. Tyagi a Twitter post @supportacmtyagi refers to him as a “war hero”. He is/was clearly never one! Next, I find that every IAF Chief and brass is routinely referred to as an “ace pilot”, or an “ace fighter pilot”, or an “ace”. This is a blanket award given to ACM’s Raha, “Charlie Browne,……… As you are aware, the while the actual number of aerial victories required to officially qualify as an “ace” is usually considered to be 5+ enemy kills in combat. The IAF has never produced an “ace” by definition.

        Another “Indian tradition” I find quite unbearable is floppy and unfit politicians and other civilians clumsily saluting in civil clothes, when military drill mandates the soldier be in uniform and wearing a cap to salute. How do you feel about this distortion and do you feel that the IAF and the Services in general should formally educate the Indian people and the largely under-educated Indian press about fundamental military traditions and ethos?

      • &^%$#@! says:

        I personally believe that carting an IAF Chief to jail is a very serious matter. This could have been handled in a quieter and more judicious manner, which does not adversely affect the morale of the Indian Armed Services. Anyway. what has happened cannot be undone.

        If it can be established in a Court of Law under due process that the Tyagi-led IAF brass did indeed have a vested interest in shortlisting the AW 101, this could NOT have happened without the tacit instructions AND connivance of the leading politicians at that time.

        I do not see any of the powers-that-be in the UPA regime (or their family members) being carted off in full view of the press and public to jail for questioning. Why is that so? I still recall the “RSVP” talk in the run-up to the last elections. So why are these people still free? Are politicians more precious than the Armed Services who daily place their lives on the line to defend India’s Honor and Territorial Integrity?

    • raja says:

      Dear cap,
      What is that critical factor which separates rafale and the rest? (Technical factors).If not classified info can you share on broad headings?

  2. andy says:

    Re:”Have maintained from the start that the Rafale deal will in its entirety (costing upwards of $70-80 billion) end up bankrupting the nation. But the IAF will have a fleet of 236 Rafales to show off.”

    Yes 236 Rafales to show off is right,all lined up in their luxurious airconditioned hangers,since no one in their right mind would want to vector a $250 million aircraft against an infantry column, or logistics convoy ,or even some Al Khalid tanks( that would be like sending a Ferrari for a cross country car rally). Air to Ground strike role is the only one left for the Rafale,air superiority/dominance being taken by the SU30 and air defence by the LCA Tejas.With the Brahmos being integrated on the SU30 the Air to Ground role might be taken as well.

    If the IAF must have a A to G strike aircraft and also from a western origin why not ask Uncle Sam to let the IAF have a couple of hundred A10 Warthogs?At $20 million per piece the IAF could get a war proven Air to Ground platform and 200 A10s would cost just about $4 billion.With the $50 odd billions saved by not buying 200 more Rafales,GOI could procure 150 odd FGFAs and 200 Super Sukhoi with some money still left over.

    The biggest reason for opting for the Rafale over more SU30 was the poor servicability of the Sukhoi.Well this reasoning has gone for a toss now with reports emerging that the Rafale has a servicability of only 48.5%in the Armee de l’air compared to 60%for the SU30 in the IAF.Talk about a fool and his money being soon parted.

  3. Zainraw says:

    Rafale buy is expensive, but its a potent, capable and proven aircraft; its quality and reliability is definetly ahead of the Su 30mki; during a war these maintenance heavy Russian aircraft will not be available; which
    was proven during the kargil war; we won it because of the french mirage 2000

    • Zainraw@ — The only way this can be truly and easily settled once and for all is to have a Su-30 go up against a Rafale. Recall that in a full-fledged war-exercise Air Marshal Harish Masand’s MiG-29s ran circles around Air Marshal Ahluwalia’s Mirage 2000s, an ecounter from which the latter officer never recovered. And of course he lost the bet (of a bottle of Scotch) to Masand, which Ahluwlia, reportedly, never paid up! This will be the outcome of Su-30 Vs Rafale as well. But let’s make it easier for the French item. Parrikar should pit the Rafale against Rangachari’s “cosmetic” Tejas not only to prove just how agile the Indian LCA is but also how out-matched the Rafale really is. I’d urge the defmin to order such a faceoff/flyoff. Any bets in case this happens?

    • andy says:

      The following is what an American think tank Carnegie endowment paper ‘Air power at 18000 feet’ wrote about the MIG29s role during the Kargil air campaign,lest you might think its from Russian sources.

      “Throughout the campaign, whenever IAF reconnaissance or ground attack operations were under way in the immediate combat zone, Western Air Command ensured that MiG-29s or other air-to-air fighters were also airborne on combat air patrol stations over the ground fighting on India’s side of the LoC to provide top cover against any attempt by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) to enter the fray in a ground attack role. PAF F-16s to the west typically maintained a safe distance of 10 to 20 miles on the Pakistani side of the LoC, although they occasionally approached as close as 8 miles away from the ongoing ground engagements. The PAF’s director of operations during the Kargil War later reported that there had been isolated instances of IAF and PAF fighters locking on to each other with their onboard fire control radars, but that caution had prevailed on both sides and that “no close [air-to-air] encounters took place.”57

      Its quiet clear from this,Mirage and other fighters wouldn’t have been able to carry out their bombing runs without the fearsome MIG29s providing top cover with their combat air patrols

    • andy says:

      As for the SU30 being maintenance heavy,wonder why the Rafale has a servicability percentage of only 48.5%in the French air force if it is so light on maintenance?

    • &^%$#@! says:

      @Zainraw: WRT”…its quality and reliability is definetly ahead of the Su 30mki; during a war these maintenance heavy Russian aircraft will not be available; which was proven during the kargil war; we won it because of the french mirage 2000…”. This is utter nonsense. The Su-30 MKI was nowhere in the picture during Kargil. The IAF had only just recently acquired the Su- 30 K as a stop gap from Russia, and it was not completely inducted into the IAF. BTW, the MiG-23 BN delivered more payload than any other type in the IAF stables in the Drass-Kargil sector Initially, these were inaccurate against point targets because of their rudimentary bomb sights and unguided weapons. However, after fitting GPS in the a/c,the classic manual dive bombing by MiG-23 BNs (and MiG-27’s) were replaced with accurate level bombing from safer altitudes out of reach of Pak MANPADS.

      The IAF were limited in what it could use because of the altitude factor. The initial losses because of MANPAD’s forced the IAF to employ high altitude bombing by the M2K, which was the best option then. The IAF M2K’s were also the only a/c capable then of delivering LGB’s in the Kargil sector. The fighters first had to be configured to deliver the LGB’s which was done at Gwalior. Then ASTE fitted Litening pods onto the M2K’s, and configured them to carry Paveway-II’s instead of the French Matra PGM’s. The tactics were validated and fine-tuned by TACDE. The M2K’s went into action with (if I correctly recall) the Remora EW Pod. I believe only 9 LGB’s were dropped during the entire conflict, 8 by M2K’s and one by a Jaguar. Some of the most notable M2K strikes were on the Pak main supply depot at Muntho Dhalo in the Batalik sector (using dumb bombs), the Pak Battalion HQ on Tiger Hill top (2 M2K’s using LGB’s), which was again visited the same day by M2K’s using dumb bombs. If this was to occur today, the Su-30 MKI’s would most certainly be the major part of the Indian strike force.

      So kindly get your facts straight before you choose to “enrich” serious forums with your peculiar brand of “natural fertilizer”.

      • Gp Capt TP Srivastava says:


        I read some very pertinent observations made by you in response to my comments. As a matter of principle, I respond only to those, whose identity is known and visible. I am afraid your comments do not identify you viz your name etc.

        have a great 2017!
        Gp Capt TP Srivastava

  4. Avtar Singh says:

    It is so sad that these IAF jet jocks have so little understanding of; money, cost, balance of payments, technology, engineering, development, history.. I could go on with an endless list to describe their vacuous ambitions to buy latest shiny and bright foreign toys.

    Let us start with history…
    The french, british and germans started with biplanes.. through WW1/2 they have got where they are today. IAF should be told NO NO NO as Thatcher would say.

    The GOI should tell all these jet jocks to go to HAL (pun intended) and other Indian industrialists and start working on said biplanes because that is the only way they might get shiny new equipment in the future.. Work up to it with other Indians..just like the british, french and germans have worked up to it.

    Much like Demon is moving rapidly towards digital money..
    Forget about this old IAF dead wood and fund missiles and UAVs…
    Stop them from being another branch of Indian elites taking the food out of the mouths of the poor, ie spend the money elsewhere.

    Hopefully the Modi government will see sense…. MAKE IN INDIA
    Having been up close and personal with a lot of this shiny foreign aviation stuff, India could do a lot better with great ease.

    But there is no hope with these incumbents, not completely their fault, it is all part of that Indian self loathing syndrome. Imbued over 1300 years of subjugation.
    All the above is pretty strong stuff for the Indian palate and I can appreciate you may not want it on your blog.

  5. andy says:

    As for the argument that the A10 is a low flying aircraft the following should be an eye opener.

    “Today, most A-10 operations are flown at medium to high altitudes, but the “Hawgs” still go low when needed. On the deck, pilots say the airplane is rock steady.”
    see more:

  6. devraj says:

    Chinese trick is to cover its techniqal inferiority with western and russian jets of india by simply engaging three four jets against indian jets in war as we have limted jets avail and in dogfight or any other air collision there numerical advantge cause suffer to india.Only indian cheap fighters in vast numbers cheque them. So we should promote tejas production line in vast number like china to fill up numerical gap.As chinese logic is quantity rather then quality.Indian highly expensive fighters will be harmed by chines huge number less costly jets

  7. Venkat says:

    The article focuses on fighter jets alone. The Air Force seems to be ignoring its other arms and is very biased. These are the backbone to support offensive operations on ground and act as force multipliers on ground.
    The current light helicopters (Chetak/cheetah) needed replacements 10 years back.
    The air transport needs to begin planning AN-32 replacement now. (We are so shameless in stating AN-32 is not the right solution to support Andamans) .
    The high altitude attack helicopter force build up should have begun yesterday.
    Compared to 1971 wars we have built up,force multipliers like AWACS, refuellers, Brahmos, SAaW, Sudharshan LGB, long range rocker artillery…….
    We need cheap single engine fighter bombers to replace around MiG27/23Jaguars.
    The nation has only so much money to spend on these jocks. Maybe we need next 2 air chiefs from helicopters & transport wings to ram down a new way of thinking.
    Bharat you need to provide an overall analysis, not write an agony aunt column.

    • andy says:

      The IAF can buy a whole bunch of helicopters,transport planes and force multipliers with the money saved by not procuring 200 more Rafale at a cost of more than $50 billion.If the IAF insists on getting more Rafale theres going to be nothing left for other procurements, its as simple as this.If the demerits of buying more Rafale are pointed out where is the question of being an ‘agony aunt’?

    • Venkat@ — “over all analysis” on this subject may be found, appropriately, in a book — my latest, Why India is Not a Great Power (Yet).

  8. Email from Satish Borkar (tulipfl2000@yahoo.com):

    As a regular reader of your blog, I am a bit surprised at your dismissive approach to the Pak problem, while solely focusing on India’s rivalry with China. I would appreciate if you could give use some more tips on how to eliminate the Pakistan threat.

    Personally, I feel that India has missed another golden opportunity to forge a higher level of strategic partnership with Russia. India should have actively participated in Syria. The times are gone where we can think that we will import the latest technology from Europe or America and sit cosy and meditate on world peace. Today in the name of leverage we are being trapped into just being a market for rival defence blocs. The Russian bloc thinks that we should buy their weapons while the American bloc thinks that we should buy theirs and the jedis of the Indian establishment are just happy to play the safest game ever.

    We could still change things around by being a little proactive. The conquest of Aleppo has shown that the Russian gains in Syria still are meagre. Assad has a long way to go before he controls the whole of Syria. Now, if we sent in 10,000 troops as a peacekeeping force, Assad will be able to mobilise his militia for aggressive attacks against the other rebel areas. This would add to Russia’s influence in global politics and Putin would very much appreciate that, but in return we could ask Putin to do a quid pro quo by giving us some S-400 batteries on lease urgently to take down PAF and his submarines to hunt down Pakistani fleet. If he agrees then we can send more troops to Syria so that a surge of upto 1,50,000 troops in six months could stabilize Syria and a rapid withdrawal by 1 year or so provided the Russians honor their part of the deal.

    Russia is making some overtures to Pakistan but the China-Pak axis is so strong that ultimately the Russia-Pak relationship cannot be a substitute for Russia-India relationship. With a strong paramour like China, both US and Russia will have to settle for a few coy glances from the Pak prostitute.

    On the other hand, raising the level of partnership between Russia and India to a new level can create a Russia-India axis which with the help of Afghanistan and Iran can neutralize Chinese meddling in Central Asia and with a new Trump administration willing to try out new ideas can completely change the anti-terror global model into a cooperative one rather than one of economic competition.

    Some may say that Americans will totally oppose this dalliance with Russia. I would say that we also can offer another plan for Trump. Instead of Obama’s Look East approach, the best way to counter China is to split it from its ally Pakistan. The US on the pretext of anti-terror strikes inside Pakistan can enforce a no-fly zone in Pakistan. India would be very much interested in joint naval operations against the Chinese built port of Gwadar. Instead of weak feinting maneuvers in the South China Sea, we would definitely put up a better fireworks display in the Arabian Sea. Declaring a no-fly zone in Pakistan would be the first step to make a bid to defang Pakistan’s nuclear assets. Syphilitic brains in the India bureaucracy still go into orgasms at the mention of global nuclear disarmament. Do these debauches even know which side our butter is on? What we should be aiming for his global jihadi nuclear disarmament. Mr. Trump should know that American troops in Afghanistan could be one of the targets of a nuclear strike by some Pakistani terrorist group with links to the establishment in the foreseeable future. To stabilize Pakistan induction of Indian troops on our own soil is inevitable after the attack on Pakistan’s nuclear assets. This will not be possible without a complete change in mindset which Trump could bring in. Israel can also influence Trump because they know what Pakistani nuclear cowboys are aiming for in the Middle east. So destroying Pakistan’s nuclear weapons is in their interest also.

    If the Chinese do not cooperate in reining terror, Mr. Trump who seems to have a relaxed attitude towards nuclear proliferation would not mind if India gives Taiwan a special gift package of ready to fire nuclear missiles up to 10-15 in number with Beijing and other Chinese cities fed into the computer program. That would deter China from intimidating Taiwan and drive a lot of sense into their Confused brains about arming Pakistan or North Korea for that matter.

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