Six Rafale are set to land on Indian soil at Indian Air Force’s (IAF) Ambala airbase in less than a month on 27 July 2020. Earlier India’s Defence Minister, Rajnath Singh had formally received the first of the 36 Rafale aircraft contracted at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore by India at a special ceremony in France on 08 October, 2019. Interestingly it happened to be the Air Force Day, and coincided with Dussehra, that marks the victory of God Rama over Ravan. All 36 jets are to be delivered by 2022. Ceremonials apart, fighter aircraft induction and operationalisation is a complex, albeit very fine tuned process.
In view of the continued stand-off with China in Ladakh there is an urgency to operationalise the fleet. The very expensive operational asset has to be not only professionally inducted but also made combat worthy quickly after arrival in the country. IAF having inducted fighter aircraft from many countries, including Russian, British, USA and France in the past, has bags of experience. IAF has inducted many French aircraft, all from Dassault Aviation. These including 104, MD 450 Ouragan (Indian name Toofani ‘Huricane’) in period 1953-1965, and 110, MD.454 Mystere IV in period 1957-1973. The Mirage 2000 inducted in 1985 is under upgrade and continues to be the cutting-edge fleet of the IAF. Mirages were the weapon platform of choice ever since induction including in Kargil war and recent Balakot strikes.
In September 2016, India and France signed an inter-governmental agreement (IGA) for the acquisition of 36 aircraft at a total cost of €7.87 billion (Rs 58,891 crore). It included 28 single-seat aircraft at a cost of €91.1 million (Rs 681.7 crore) each and 8 dual-seat aircraft at a cost of €94 million (Rs 703.4 crore) each. The deal also included tailor-made enhancements for the Indian Air Force at a cost of €1.8 billion (Rs 13,470 crore), a weapons package costing €710 million (Rs 5,313 crore) and a performance-based logistics agreement at a cost of €353 million (Rs 2,641 crore). The weaponry procured included missiles such as MICA and Meteor Beyond Visual Range (BVR) air-to-air missiles and SCALP air-to-ground cruise missiles. The nearly dozen India-specific enhancements included the integration of an Israeli helmet-mounted display (HMD), radar warning receivers and low-band jammers. The agreement included a 50% “offset clause”, which required the companies involved in the agreement—primarily Dassault, Thales, Safran and MBDA to invest 50% of the contract value (approximately €3.9 billion or Rs 30,000 crore) back into India, with 30% of the total (approximately €1.2 billion or Rs 9,000 Crore) reserved for the Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO). Of this 50%, 74% (approximately €2.9 billion or Rs 22,200 crore) was to come from purchase of goods and services from India, which was expected to bolster the government’s efforts to promote Indian defence equipment manufacturers. According to the deal, the delivery of the jets was to be completed in 67 months from the date the contract was inked.
Preparatory Work in France
As is traditional, a project monitoring team, called the ‘Rafale Project Team’ (RFT) had been in place in France since 2017. It is headed by an IAF Group Captain and has four other officers. The team is collocated and is working closely with the Dassault company at their Saint Cloud complex in Paris. They also visit the Dassault facility at the flight test centre at Istres, in southern France, and the aircraft manufacturing plant at Bordeaux–Mérignac. RPT is responsible for monitoring contract execution and acting as an interface between India and France.
As per schedule in the contract the first aircraft had to be delivered in September 2019. Even though the formal ceremony took place on 08 October due to administrative convenience of the Minister, the technical delivery of the first aircraft took place in France on 19 September with the handing over to IAF’s to the then IAF Deputy Chief, Air Marshal VR Chaudhary. Acceptance of an aircraft from the manufacturer involves physical check of ‘Standard of Preparation’, which includes every bit on board the aircraft, check of all supporting certification and maintenance documents, and flight test the aircraft. An Indian team of flight test pilots and engineers has been positioned in France for this purpose. This is a standard procedure followed around the world, including when IAF accepts aircraft from India’s own Hindustan Aeronautics (HAL). The rough schedule is to hand over one aircraft every month. This team will do the acceptance of all aircraft.
Training in France
Normally very professionally good personnel are chosen for training abroad. These personnel later become the nuclei for training the others in India. Training for IAF personnel includes, flying training for IAF pilots, and technical training for engineers and technicians. Pilots have gone through ground training on basic aircraft systems, the operational systems and weapons and for their exploitation. Before physically commencing flying, pilots would have flown a few missions on the simulator and under supervision of the French flying instructors. The flying training was done at Mont-de-Marsan air base in South West France. Even IAF Mirage 2000 flying training was done at this base. These pilots will now fly the aircraft to India in late July 2020. The engineers and technicians have had an overview training on the whole aircraft and later they branched out for sub-type specialization on their own systems. They train mostly with the manufacturers and also get exposure to the aircraft maintenance practices with French Air Force.
Ferry To India
The aircraft will be flown to India by IAF pilots. Before ferry out they would make one or two practice flights across airways within France to refresh civil procedures. The departure from Bordeaux Merignac airfield is expected around 25 July 2020. The 6 aircraft are most likely to fly in two formations of 3 aircraft each. The fighter formations will be accompanied by a large transport aircraft of C-70 or IL-76 class. This aircraft would carry engineers, technicians and spare parts for technical support through the ferry. A large aircraft is required because even a spare engine would have to be carried along with a special loading trolley. The aircraft could also be used for other contract related items to be transferred to India. The fighter aircraft will be unarmed as per international convention, and will carry external fuel tanks for longer range. The plan is to have a single stop enroute. During the first ferry “leg”, the French Air Force will provide the aerial refueling. Formations would have to fly around 4h at a stretch. Thereafter they will have technical halt of one-two days for refueling, aircraft turn-around, and crew rest and recuperation. During the second leg, the IAF IL-78 air reueller will do the refueling. In case of Mirage 2000, the halts were at Athens, Cairo, Doha, a landing at Jamnagar for custom clearance, and then finally to the home airbase. Rafale would land directly at Ambala after that one stop.
17 squadron ‘Golden Arrows’ which was ‘number-plated’ in 2016 has been resurrected on 10 September 2019 at Ambala. This will be the first Rafale squadron. Interestingly, Air Chief Dhanoa had commanded this squadron during Kargil war. The pilots trained abroad will be posted to this squadron. They will also be the core group to formulate Standard Operating Procedures (SOP), tactics and weapon system exploitation for fleet operations in India. Engineers and technicians will formulate maintenance SOPs. This core group would also split into two to form the second Rafale squadron at Hashmira in the east a year later.
Ambala was the mother base to the initial induction of Jaguars and MiG 21 Bison aircraft, among others. The airbase is nearly 200 km from India’s Western border, and by distance it mirrors Pakistan’s most important airbase Sargoda. This distance gives enough depth and yet is near enough to launch offensive missions across western border. Interestingly it is also just 200 km from the China border and the location supports missions against China. Chinese airbase at Ngari Gar Gunsa opposite Leh is a little over 300 km from Ambala. Infrastructure at Ambala airbase, to house the Rafale has been coming up for some time. Most of the existing infrastructure will be useable by the Rafale fleet. Specific-to-type blast pens, technical infrastructure including avionics and electronic warfare systems laboratories, weapon preparation areas etc have been built or re-appropriated. Specific flight safety requirements have been dove-tailed into the Station plan. The Rafale simulator and the type-training TETTRA school is coming up here. Facilities for engine test-bench may be required. Later similar infrastructure will come up at Hashimara, which is a base near critical Sikkim Bhutan and Arunachal.
Rafale – the Weapon Platform
Rafale DH (two-seater) and Rafale EH (Single-seat) variant, are twin-engine, delta-wing, 4th plus generation fighter with semi-stealth capabilities. It is an agile aircraft and capable of simultaneously packaging air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and airborne nuclear deterrent missions. The aerodynamically unstable aircraft uses digital fly-by-wire flight controls. The actively coupled canard wing allows high manoeuvrability. The aircraft is designed for reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and infra-red signature. There is extensive use of composite materials. The glass cockpit is designed around the principle of data fusion. A central computer prioritizes information to display to pilots for simpler command and control.
The Rafale is fitted with two Snecma M88 engines, each capable of providing up to 50 kilo-Newton (kN) of dry thrust and 75 kN with afterburners. The engines feature several advances, including a non-polluting combustion chamber, single-crystal turbine blades, and powder metallurgy disks, and technology to reduce radar and infrared signatures. The engine is of a modular design for ease of maintenance and upgrades. A thrust vectoring variant of the engine designated as M88-3D is also under development.
Rafale also features an advanced avionics suite. The total value of the radar, electronic communications and self-protection equipment is about 30% of the cost of the entire aircraft. The aircraft’s RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar has been fully tested operationally. It has a field of regard of 70° on either side of the aircraft axis, and extended range capabilities supporting low-observable target detection. Its SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) imaging and improved resistance to jamming. Rafale makes extensive use of radar-absorbent materials (RAM). The SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare suite provides long-range detection, identification and accurate localization of infrared homing, radio-frequency and laser threats. The system incorporates radar warning receiver, laser-warning, Missile Approach Warning (MAW) for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering. It also includes a dedicated management unit for data fusion and reaction decision. The Thales/SAGEM Optronique Secteur Frontal infra-red search and track (IRST) system uses a narrow field for tracking air targets at ranges up to 100 kilometers. A TV/IR sensor for target identification (40 km range) including laser rangefinder.
A host of latest weapons would also get inducted. Aircraft has a 30 mm cannon with 125 rounds. The 14 hard-points can carry 9,500 kg external loads. The air-to-air missiles include Magic II, MBDA MICA IR or EM, and MBDA Meteor. Meteor is an active radar guided, beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM). Meteor offers multi-shot capability against long range manoeuvring targets, jets, UAVs and cruise missiles in a heavy electronic countermeasures (ECM) environment with range well in excess of 150 kilometers. The no-escape zone of over 60 km is largest among air-to-air missiles according to the manufacturer. A solid-fueled ramjet motor allows the missile to cruise at a speed of over Mach 4. Among the host of air-to-ground weapons is MBDA Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missile with 450 kg warhead and 560 km range. Aircraft has been used in combat in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya, Mali and Syria. The aircraft will bring new levels of technology. It would help India dominate Indian Ocean Region (IOR). Based on Mirage-2000 experience it is likely to have a much higher serviceability, low turn-around time, and high mission accomplishment rate.
Operational Preparation and Deployment
It shall be the endeavour of the IAF to quickly make the fleet fully operational. They will start, flying operational missions along with the radar controllers. They will quickly hone their weapon delivery skills. They will begin evolving dissimilar air combat tactics (DACT) with other fleets. Rafale will fly mixed formation missions in realistic war-like scenarios. They will fly network-centric missions in different roles, including air strikes, air-defence and electronic support roles. They will also take part in inter-service joint exercises. They would also fly coordinated missions with strategic assets like air-refuelers and AWACS. In view of the stand-off with China, the normal time frame for fleet operationalisation of 4-6 months would now be compressed to maybe 1-2 months.
Compared To Other Aircraft in the Region
Among the main Chinese fighters are Chengdu J-10 which is essentially a modified Israeli “Lavi” aircraft which was derived from the American F-16 base model. It can best be considered equivalent to the F-16 A/B. China has over 400 of these. It can carry the PL 12 BVR missile with range of 70-100 km. The Shenyang J-11 is a Chinese copy of the Su 27. It also carries the PL 12 missile. It is much inferior to Indian Su 30 MKI. China developed the Shenyang J-16 fighter based on the J-11B airframe, with modifications from the Russian Sukhoi Su-33MKK that was sold to China in 2000. They have around 130 of them. They also carry the PL 12 and also may carry the longer range PL 15 missile. The PL 15 may have range of around 150 km, though Chinese propaganda claims it has range in excess of 200 km. China also has the Su 30 MKK which is similar to IAF’s Su-30 MKI. China also has just one squadron of Russian Su 35, which is a more advanced variant of the Su 30 MKK. Maybe they have bought it for reverse engineering China’s latest fifth generation fighter J 20 is just entering service in small numbers and will take some time to be operational. IAF’s combination of Rafale, Su 30 MKI, and upgraded Mirage 2000 and MiG 29 will be a formidable combination and challenge to PLAAF. In addition, the Jaguar, MiG 21 Bison and the indigenous LCA Mk1 make great fighter assets. Rafale will clear stand out to be much better and operationally tested fighter compared to all Chinese assets. The best aircraft with Pakistan is the F 16 Block 52 with its AMRAAM missile (120 km range). Most top end IAF fighters have an edge over this aircraft.
Rafale the Game Changer
Equipped with a wide range of weapons, the Rafale would perform air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, deep ground strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions. The Rafale is referred to as an “omnirole” aircraft by Dassault. The class and range of the AESA radar, IRST, avionics, fused data, stealth features, SPECTRA protection suit, and most importantly the weapons put it in a different class both on western and northern borders. Rafale is likely to maintain high availability and mission success rate. 36 is an odd figure that does not even make two full squadrons. Like India did in other fleets in the past, a follow-on order for another 36 could make viable operational numbers. The 50 percent offsets could in a way support Make-in-India requirements. As Prime Minister Modi said, Rafale will be a game changer in the region on many counts.
– The Author has been the Pioneer of Mirage 2000 fleet and has watched the induction and operationalisation of a French fighter fleet closely.
Picture Source: Wikipedia