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Securitywise : Much Ado About Rafale

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Many combat aircraft — new to the air force — have entered service over the years. But I doubt whether the IAF has experienced any warplane being accorded the kind of hyperbolised welcome the five Rafales (2 two seat trainers, 3 single seaters) are getting. This small Rafale complement is flying in today from Merignac, France, to the IAF’s 1 Air Wing’s home base at Ambala. Trumpeted as a “game changer” — among the more restrained phrases for it being flung around alike by bemedalled Air Marshals, reporters who went up joy-riding on this plane only to return to earth singing its hosannas, and television news show hosts, makes one wonder if this aircraft can fly with the weight of so much exaggeration!

Predictably, the CAS who decided on converting the No. 17 squadron he commanded featuring the old warhorse, MiG-21 bis, to Rafales, Air Chief Marshal (Retd) BS Dhanoa took the lead in going overboard when talking up this aircraft to the Press. (https://www.hindustantimes.com/india-news/rafale-is-a-game-changer-chinese-j-20-does-not-even-come-close-says-former-air-chief-dhanoa/story-3UJINQ1r8cuGputdMeQpOJ.html) It appears that the IAF believes it has crossed some kind of threshold: A pre-Rafale IAF was in no position to handle the Chinese threat emanating from the Tibetan Plateau, post-Rafale induction the Chinese won’t be able to deal with the IAF! This is a lot of poppycock, of course.

It has long been known that the PLA Air Force (PLAAF) has a large inventory of mostly dated aircraft, and even the more modern ones in it — the J-10s (derived from the Lavi design and technology bought whole from Israel in the 1980s after the US pressured Tel Aviv to terminate this programme) and the J-20 air superiority fighter — a knock-off of the American J-35 Lightning-II cobbled together from designs and systems technologies purloined by cyber means from Lockheed and other sub-contractors working on that project, will be burdened by the same problem any aircraft taking off in the thin air from the high altitude Tibetan bases would face: Balancing the mix of fuel and the ordnance load, because one is at the expense of the other.

Or, put another way, a combat aircraft ex-Hotan and ex-Lhasa, can either have range or carry many weapons, it cannot do both. IAF planes taking off from the plains just across the Himalayan hump, on the other hand, are not so disadvantaged. Whence the concentration of Chinese short-range and medium-range ballistic missiles (SRBMs and MRBMs) in Tibet and the probability of the Chengdu combat zone command, on initiation of war, deciding to take out Indian air bases hosting IAF attack aircraft, with SRBM/MRBM strikes.

It is a danger Dhanoa did not address for the good reason that IAF has no credible plan for preemptively neutralizing these Chinese missiles. Instead, he hinted at the suppression of Chinese air defences role for the Rafales. Except, this mission can as easily and, perhaps, more effectively be performed by low flying Jaguars with the super-agile Su-30 MKIs providing protective cover.

Referring to the aircraft in Indian and Chinese air force inventories, he dismissed the danger posed by the J-20 saying the Rafale and the Su-30s will be able to counter it, if they can first avoid the surface-to-air missile (SAM) systems which, he claimed, constitutes the main “Chinese Air Threat”. What Dhanoa did not say is that both the IAF and the PLAAF will be operationally hampered by the small numbers of Rafales and J-20s available to the two air forces. However, while IAF will have to make do with just 36 Rafales — there’s too much controversy attending on the Rafale transaction for the government to risk an additional buy, the PLAAF currently boasting some 50-odd J-20s, will keep enlarging its J-20 fleet. It is a force imbalance that cannot be rectified even if the Indian government approves the purchase of another 90 Rafales as Vayu Bhavan desires (to bring the medium multi-role combat aircraft complement to planned strength) because the Chengdu Aerospace Corporation can keep rolling out the J-20s at will at progressively lower unit cost.

He then extolled “the advanced terrain following weapons and level II of Digital Terrain Elevation Data’ system onboard the Rafale, which he says will be particularly effective in the high altitude desert lacking tree cover for near zero-error kills. But it is a platform attribute that is also sported, it turns out, by the Su-30MKI with weapons that can be slaved to its terrain following radar in low altitude flight profile. 

It is not my case that the avionics on the Rafale and the weapons it carries (air-to-ground Scalp missile, air-to-air Meteor missile, and Hammer (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) for precision A2G targeting are not qualitatively superior to their Russian counterparts that the IAF uses. Rather, that the price differential between the French and the Russian ordnance is so great it is not matched by proportionate performance upgrade and, hence, that it makes no sense for the IAF not to massively augment its Su-30 fleet for the cost of a truckload of Meteors, for example! In exchange ratio terms, therefore, the value of numerous Su-30s made by HAL, Nashik, ensuring that a good part of the procurement cost remains in the country, for invariably far fewer Rafales bought at humungous cost, is really no contest. It does not help Rafale’s case that its all up cost is three times Su-30’s! Further, the Sukhoi by all accounts is the finest fighter-bomber now flying barring the supremely maneuverable MiG-29 (tipping the hat here to retired Air Marshal Harish Masand — the 29’s biggest promoter). And upgraded to the ‘super Sukhoi’ configuration the Su-30 will be well nigh unbeatable.

For all these reasons, the Modi government in the face of the border crisis in eastern Ladakh, has gone in for a speed buy of the more economical Su-30MKIs and MiG-29s!

I am reprising here the sort of arguments I made in my books and other writings for more Su-30s as alternative to the impossibly high-priced and hence fewer Rafales, in the lead up to Modi’s French deal in April 2015. They had found favour with the then defence minister Manohar Parrikar before he was shipped back to Goa.

Dhanoa then got round to the business of slamming Chinese aircraft and technology with the Pakistan Air Force, especially the JF-17 Thunder that flew combat air patrol for the F-16s retaliating for IAF’s Balakot strike, as an inferior product. Except, he did not factor in the more sophisticated Block 3 stealth version of this aircraft that China will soon be transferring to Pakistan and begin filling PAF squadrons. Then Dhanoa threw in a non sequiter. Why, he asked, “does Pakistan use Swedish early air warning platforms up north and keep Chinese AWACS in the south? Why is Pakistan mounting European radar (Selex Gallelio) and Turkish targeting pod” on the JF-17? The answer is quite evident.” The riposte to this would be that Pakistan did as he says for the same reasons that India has equipped its Russian aircraft, starting with the MiG-21, with Israeli avionics and French, British, and Swedish components, systems and sub-systems — to secure a hybrid weapons platform that in its totality promises a bigger bang for the buck!

That Dhanoa has overstated Rafale’s virtues is not a surprise. Service chiefs in retirement are often more voluble and unrestrained in their views than when in service.

Even so, the point made by many IAF officers to the Press that Chinese combat aircraft and related technologies cannot compare with like Western or even Russian items, is not much of a revelation. But when IAF officers begin dissing the Chinese for “reverse engineering Russian equipment” they fail to acknowledge just how far China has gone in becoming near self-sufficient in armaments using these means that they revile when the Indian military has essentially remained third-rate because it is satisfied with surviving, hand-to-mouth, on imported arms.

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