Dassault Rafale – The Gust of Wind – Despite COVID – All Set to Arrive on Schedule

anil chopra. air power asia, Rafale

There will be no delay in delivery of 36 Rafale jets to India as the timeline finalised for the supply of the fighter jets will be strictly respected, French Ambassador Emmanuel Lenain has said. “The contractual delivery schedule of the Rafale jets has been perfectly respected till now, and, in fact, a new aircraft was handed over to the Indian Air Force (IAF) in end-April in France, in keeping with the contract,” Lenain told news agency PTI. France is reeling under swelling cases of Coronavirus and has emerged as one of the worst-hit in Europe. Over 1,45,000 people were infected in France by the virus while the death toll stood at 28,330. “We are helping the Indian Air Force in arranging for the ferry flight of their first four Rafale from France to India as soon as possible. So there’s no reason today to speculate that the schedule will not be maintained,” the envoy said. Out of 36 Rafale jets, 30 will be fighter jets and six will be trainers. The trainer jets will be twin-seat with almost all the features of the fighter jets.

Rafale. Picture Credit: Dassault Aviation

          Rafale, the Omni-role fighter  which literally means “gust of wind”, and a “burst of fire” in a more military sense, and the regional game-changer is all set to arrive. A good weapon platform which has been selected after a grueling technically sound selection process. This French twin-engine, canard delta-wing multi-role fighter aircraft built by Dassault Aviation is equipped with latest avionics and a wide range of weapons. Rafale is intended to perform air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, deep strikes, anti-shipping operations, and nuclear deterrence missions. It was chosen from among the best on offer then, which included stalwart contenders such as the American Boeing F-18 and Lockheed F-16, Eurofighter Typhoon, Russian Mikoyan MiG-35, and Swedish Saab JAS 39 Gripen.

Picture Credit: Pinterest

How The Aircraft Evolved

          The Rafale Technology demonstrator first flew in July 1986 and thereafter followed an eight-year flight-test program before a full go-ahead. Unlike other European fighters of its era, it is almost entirely built by a single country, in which French defence companies Dassault, Thales and Safran participated. The weapons integrated are from MBDA, which is European developer and manufacturer of missiles. MBDA was formed as a joint venture by a merger of the guided missile divisions of EADS (now Airbus), Finmeccanica (now Leonardo), and BAE Systems in December 2001. The company name is an initials of the names of the companies that came together to form it: Matra, BAe Dynamics and Alenia. Many of the aircraft’s critical avionics and features, such as direct voice input, the RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar and the infra-red search and tracking (IRST) sensor were domestically developed and produced. The aircraft is available in three main variants, Rafale C single-seat land-based version, Rafale B twin-seat land-based version, and Rafale M single-seat carrier-based version. It was introduced into service in 2001, and is in operations with the French Air Force and the French Navy. The current Rafale foreign customers are the Indian Air Force (IAF), and Egyptian and Qatari air forces.  Rafale has been operationally tested in combat in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria. Several upgrades to the weapons and avionics of the Rafale are under testing and planned to be introduced in steps this year onwards.

Aircraft Special Operational Features

          The Rafale is an aerodynamically unstable aircraft flown with digital fly-by-wire controls that gives it very high level of agility. Although not a full-aspect stealth, it is designed with reduced radar cross section through wing body shaping and extensive use of composite materials. The glass-cockpit is designed around the principle of data-fusion. The primary flight controls are arranged in a hands-on-throttle-and-stick (HOTAS) arrangement. The direct voice input (DVI) reduces pilot workload across all operations. The Helmet Mounted Display (HMD) is integrated with weapons. The cockpit is fully compatible with night vision goggles. Rafale has an on-board oxygen generation system that eliminates the need to carry bulky oxygen canisters. The integrated electronic defence suite SPECTRA protects the aircraft against airborne and ground threats. It incorporates various methods of detection, jamming and decoying, allowing independent missions for Suppression of Enemy air Defences (SEAD). Rafale’s ground attack capability is heavily reliant upon targeting pods, such as Thales Optronic’s Reco New Generation/Areos reconnaissance pod and Damocles  electro-optical/laser designation pod. The Thales RBE2 AA AESA multi-mode radar allows increased levels of situational awareness, multiple air target tracking, long-range interception, as well as real-time generation of three-dimensional terrain maps. In the air supremacy role, it has passive electro-optical sensors which will allow infrared missiles such as the MICA fired silently at beyond visual ranges.  The Rafale is typically outfitted with 14 hard-points and can carry maximum external load of nine tons. The aircraft is nuclear capable. The aircraft’s typical mission load could be two 2,000-litre (530 US gal) external tanks, two Scalp cruise missiles in addition to four air-to-air missiles.  The two, time-tested, Snecma M88 engines are modular in design allowing quicker turnaround servicing and maintenance. The engines  enables super-cruise while carrying four missiles and one drop tank.

Rafale-with-Meteor. Picture Credit: sirfnews.com

          The Rafale is planned to be the French Air Force’s primary combat aircraft until 2040 or later. The Rafale will be India’s most capable fighter aircraft with major capability enhancements vis-a-vis the current best platform – the Su 30 MKI. It will have nearly 1.5 times greater loiter time and unrefueled range; it will generate five sorties every 24 hours compared to three 3 by Su 30, and it well maintain 75% availability against current 60 % of Su 30.

The India Deal Specifics

          The 7.87 billion Euro (US$ 9.1billion) deal for 36 Rafale aircraft (28 single seat and 8 twin seat) was inked in September 2016 and includes weapon systems, five year logistics support, training, infrastructure and warranties. When costs for weapons, training etc are removed, the per unit price of single seat Rafale is 91.7 million Euros ($ 99 million). All 36 aircraft are to be delivered within 67 months of contract signing. The first one was handed over within stipulated 36 months in October 2019. 50 percent of the deal amount is to be plowed back as offsets. Nearly 328 million Euros was reportedly saved during the final pre-contract negotiations. All allegations of higher cost of contract were cleared by India’s highest court. Egypt & Qatar ordered the Rafale around the same time. Egypt has paid Euro 5.2 billion for 24 fighters, and Qatar Euro 6.3 billion for 24 aircraft. Though the deals are quite different in overall package, but the ballpark figures are similar, if at all cheaper for India. It is a government-to-government (G2G) deal which was not only operationally better but also cheaper.

The India Specific Enhancements

          The IAF specific enhancements included, Helmet mounted sights and targeting system to allow quicker radar and weapon slewing and save crucial time in combat conditions; ability to start aircraft engine and take-off from high altitude airfields like Leh (over 10,000 ft altitude); an upgraded variant of the radar warning receiver to identify hostile tracking systems; low band jammers: a towed decoy system to deceive and thwart incoming missiles; the inclusion of Meteor missile;  10-hour flight data recording; French industrial support for maintenance of the fleet for 50 years; ground and technical support for two fighter airbases instead of one; and penalty-linked assured fleet serviceability/availability of 75 percent. Its weapon package, especially the newly added,  will give a quantum jump in operational capability. The SCALP is a high-precision long-range, low-observable, air launched ground attack cruise missile with special anti-runway features that can take out targets with extreme accuracy. It has a range of 300 km, which is capped by the missile technology control regime. Meteor is an active radar-guided beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) developed by MBDA. It offers multi-shot capability against long range maneuvering targets in a heavy electronic counter measures (ECM) environment with range well in excess of 100 km. The aircraft will have an infra-red search and tracking system. These enhancements are very significant for operations of the fleet against India’s northern and western adversaries. 

Picture Credit: Twitter

G2G Deals

          India has signed G2G weapon system deals with Soviet Union and Russia for decades. Similarly the P-8I, C-17, C-130J, Chinook and Apache helicopters with US companies were all under Foreign Military Sales (FMS) route which in some ways is akin to G2G. The recent S-400 air defence missile system deal with Russia is also G2G. Such deals get sovereign backing of the government and are invariably cheaper. Some have questioned why only two squadrons were bought. It is not the first time only two squadrons were bought. The MiG-23, MiG-27, MiG 29 and Mirage 2000 were all bought in small numbers initially. Also since the Make-in-India element was still required in national interest, the process for the 114 MMRCA-2 was immediately initiated. 

Offsets Benefits

          To promote indigenization a robust offsets clause is there in the Defence Production Policy (DPP). The ‘Offsets’ were to ensure that for every dollar that went to a foreign arms supplier, 30 to 50 percent of the same got infused back into India in any aviation or security related industry or items of that worth are sourced from within India. Aim of offsets is to leverage capital acquisitions to develop Indian defence industry, improve defence research and encourage development of synergistic sectors like civil aerospace and internal security. Defence offsets have been part of regulations of many countries around the world including the major arms suppliers. In the Rafale deal 50 percent of the deal amount has to be spent on defence offsets. French companies Dassault, Thales, MBDA and Safran among others have to invest the deal amount. To achieve that the French companies have to select the areas of offsets and the Indian partners through which these will be executed. The Government will monitoring that offsets are as per DPP. For Rafale deal, there are reportedly as many as 70 plus Indian offsets partners/agencies both from private and public sector. This would give Indian industry a major boost for ‘Make-in-India’ and also technology transfer. Indian partners would have been finalised by now. Physical execution will be during the period of deliveries and payments.

Picture Credit: Twitter

Securing the Security

          The IAF has already completed preparations, including readying required infrastructure and training of pilots, to welcome the fighter aircraft. The first squadron of the aircraft will be stationed at Ambala air force station, considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF. The Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from there. The second squadron of Rafale will be stationed at Hashimara base, in the strategically crucial narrow Indian stretch near Bhutan and Sikkim in West Bengal. The IAF reportedly spent around Rs 400 Crore to develop required infrastructure like shelters, hangars and maintenance facilities at the two bases.

METEOR on RAFALE Picture Credit: air force technology

          Rafale is not only a great aircraft urgently required by the IAF but will be a game-changer in the region. It will greatly add punch to the IAF’s Op capability desperately needed when combat squadrons are depleting. It will help India dominate the Indian AOR (Area of Responsibility) in the South Asian and Indian Ocean regions. Just 36 aircraft will not be a viable number. There is also need to cater for War Wastage Reserve (WWR). With LCA production still to ramp up, IAF also needs numbers. As per media reports, the MMRCA 2 RFP is now being linked to significant transfer of Technology. That could mean further delays of the process. Considering two airbases will have full infrastructure, at least two more squadrons should be acquired.

Rafale Picture Credit: Dassault Aviation

Published by Anil Chopra

I am the founder of Air Power Asia and a retired Air Marshal from the Indian Air Force.

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