A Liability Called Rafale

Illustration by Tanmoy Chakraborty

A fully loaded Rafale is only as capable as the Su-30, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000. The talk of Su-30/Rafale for distant nuclear delivery against China is a joke.

Per current plans, by 2025 and with the induction of the 36 Rafales bought in flyaway condition, the IAF will have between 272 and 312 Su-30MKIs or 17-20 squadrons upgraded to the ‘Super Sukhoi’ configuration, more than 90 Jaguars or five squadrons, more than 60 MiG-29s or four squadrons, and over 50 Mirage 2000s or three squadrons-totalling 34 squadrons of 4.5 generation aircraft. Seven squadrons of the indigenous Tejas Mk-1A and Mark-2-also 4.5 generation-replacing MiG-21 for short-range air defence means an IAF force profile of 41 squadrons (by mid-2030s).

So, what’s wrong with this force structure? Other than Jaguar for low-level strike and Tejas, the Rafale has, with full ordnance loading, the same operational range and capability as the Su-30, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000. These are all medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) which, given range constraints, can be optimally fielded against Pakistan alone and in border affrays against China, but have zero strategic reach and worth. So, the talk of Su-30/ Rafale for distant nuclear delivery against China is a joke. This fits in with the IAF’s thinking and conduct as a tactical adjunct in the region of superior extra-territorial air forces (Royal Air Force in colonial times and the US Air Force in the immediate post-1962 war period and, perhaps, in the future). Whence the service’s emphasis solely on short- to medium-legged aircraft with no interest whatsoever in acquiring long-range strategic bombers, such as the Tu-22 ‘Backfire’ (first offered in August 1971) or the more lethal Tu-160 ‘Blackjack’, either of which could long ago have been purchased or leased from Russia. It would have enlarged the IAF’s operational/ mission envelope and firmed up the manned, recallable vector for nuclear as well as conventional deterrence of China. The IAF has had no bomber after the phasing out of the medium-range Canberra.

Until the April 2015 Rafale announcement by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the erst­while defence minister, Manohar Parrikar, correctly favoured the option of quickly and economically augmenting the fleet of Su-30s-rated the best fighter aircraft in the world. It had several merits. For the price of one Rafale, the country would have had two Su-30s and Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd, Nashik, which assembles this aircraft, would have had a contract to produce more of them. The ‘Super Sukhoi’ version of the Su-30, more­over, meets the Rafale level of on-board data fusion capability. The upgrade of the Su-30 is, therefore, a critical need, except it is now imperilled by the Rs 59,000 crore down pay­ment for the Rafale, which leaves little funding for anything else.

The Rafale’s only other attribute is the exorbitantly priced Meteor air-to-air (A2A) missile, whose effectiveness is exaggerated. Even the most advanced A2A missiles have limited ‘kill zones’. The certainty of tracking, identifying, targeting and hitting enemy aircraft diminishes markedly beyond 50-80 miles. Worse, with so few Rafales and such high investment, the IAF will be loath to deploy them in war because every Rafale lost would mean over Rs 1,600 crore down the drain and, proportionately, a seriously attrited force.

Besotted by Western-origin aircraft, the IAF had hoped to use the initial order of 36 Rafales as a wedge to procure 90 more. That ruse being blown, it has indented for 114 new type single-engine MMRCA. With Donald Trump turning up the pressure, the 1960s vintage, museum-ready F-16 is likely to be the gap filler. It will pose no danger to the Pakistan Air Force that has been operating this plane for 30-odd years, but will fritter away resources and exacerbate an already hellish logistics problem for the IAF, created by the unmanageable diversity of aircraft in its inventory, each requiring its own expensive maintenance infrastructure.


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.
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17 Responses to A Liability Called Rafale

  1. Abhishek Cherath says:

    What’s the radar cross section of the J-31 and J-20 like? If it’s similar to the F35 (except better because they’re thinner), are air combat scenarios between the Sukhois and these aircraft going to end up with complete BVR annihilation? (as I hear happens to F16s all the time in exercises vs. the F22 and F35) Then the only reason to have the Rafale that I can see would be the fact that it’s more stealthy than other 4.5 gen aircraft, and would give the IAF at least some presence in enemy territory. Full disclosure, this is all based on hearsay, I haven’t done or seen any of the original research.

  2. Mongrel says:

    I would imagine that the RCS would mainly matter in the attack axis mostly the front side. This is the only side where IRSTs too can be forced to work at a somewhat disadvantage. These days with datalinks being what they are, how much of a difficulty it will remain needs to be seen.

    Moreover you can still focus on reducing the RCS of the AAM instead.

    Active interference has a chance against only the transmitter of the dumb and low output kind. This too is not difficult to address. Radars have been working with all sorts of jamming – smart or barrage.

    With rafale now in the inventory, we have got to pray for a wrong technology turn by the Chinese to get some advantage. Though with their full spectrum domination research, that too seems difficult. Pakistan doesn’t have to worry much, since they were already covered for good and they will get things filtered down to their level soon enough.

    Indian strategic community has truly reduced us to their own level.

  3. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatSir, if the IAF were to buy F-16, it’d be buying the latest version of F-16. Then, how will this pose no danger to the PAF?

    • Same old, very old, plane with new bells and whistles.

      • V.Ganesh says:

        1. Sir, but, even long-time users of Soviet/Russian military hardware like Croatia are trying to buy F-16s, albeit, unsuccessfully


        Even Bahrain bought the F-16s which India rejected when it was offered to it as the latest saying it was nothing but the same as offered to Bahrain?

        2. If India goes for F-16s, will the Israeli Air Force and the Republic of Singapore Air Force both of whom are F-16 users, help us beat PAF F-16s by sharing their knowledge and experience of F-16s?

        3. Is it true that to counter one F-16, IAF has to deploy two Su-30 MKIs?

        4. Since the IAF has been using Su-30 MKIs [with Russia being a good supplier of military hardware to India along with ToT, although spares and servicability concerns remain], should it buy Su-35? [which will not only beat PLAAF which too has this, but, also is equal to the F-35]

  4. No country comes to any other country’s help. However, enemy of the enemy can be formidably armed, as China has done by nuclear missile and conventional arming of Pakistan. Yes, Su-35 has long been on offer and would match up better against PLAAF than anything else IAF has in its fleet.

  5. V.Ganesh says:

    @BharatSir, Russia is now working on Tu-160M2 Blackjack [https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/tu-160m2-everything-we-know-about-russias-new-super-bomber-23183 & https://nationalinterest.org/blog/the-buzz/russia-testing-new-tu-160-blackjack-supersonic-bomber-24224%5D.

    1. Will Russia on it’s own offer to sell this to India?

    2. Will India try to buy this/be interested in buying this on it’s own even without any offer to sell this from Russia?

  6. Prithvi Patil says:

    You have lamented for a very long time about how the three services especially the Air force lack strategic outlook. This definitely is a systemic problem by all appearances.
    1)How do you propose the govt(any Indian Govt) fix this once and for all?
    a)Would having an all-powerful Chief of Defence staff help in this regard?
    2) Would it not be futile to buy Tu-160/Tu-22s, since the Chinese air defense capability is no joke, not to mention the new S-400s they have in place?

    • Have been advocating going “cold turkey” — no imports whatsoever! The conventional mil weakness in the interregnum to be made up with threat of first use of nuclear weapons — a strategy followed by China and its did its serious pupil, Pakistan.

  7. andy says:

    History, as the saying goes,repeats itself.In the eighties when GOI procured 40 Mirage 2000 off the shelf from France as an answer to the F16 inducted in the Pakistani airforce,it came with an offer of licensed production of a further 110 jets at HAL.The government of the day did not take up this offer, which stood till 2006 when it was finally withdrawn by the French with the closure of the M2K production line.The same has been repeated by the current government by purchasing just 36 Rafale off the shelf and not exercising the build option.

    No doubt M2K has proven itself to be a reliable,sturdy and competent performer .This gaffe by sucessive Indian governments of not exercising the option of licensed production of the M2K has excacerbated the falling squadron strength problem of the IAF.With 6 more squadrons of M2Ks the outlook for the IAF would be way better than it is now.Another goof up was not purchasing around 5 squadrons of used M2Ks from Qatar,UAE and Greece,which had been sparingly flown and had plenty of airframe life left.

    With the way things are and the IAFs fetish for exorbitantly priced French fighters, one feels that Rafale will be the winner once again in the IAFs 114 jet procurement program.And no govt will be able to overrule the services choice given the scope for political repercussions.But this time the unit cost will be upwards of Rs.2000 crores,so we’re looking at a tab of around $35 billion for the lot.And here we have MOD babus not finalizing the Tejas Mark1A contract because the Rs.463 crore per unit cost quoted by HAL seems too high.How silly is that?

    Its a sorry state of affairs brought about by the blinkered vision of GOI/MOD and IAF.

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