India’s Rafale Story & Rumours: Be Realistic, Avoid Bluster

The two Rafale squadrons would just about fill part of the huge void left by the shortfall of 12 squadrons.

Updated28 Jul 2020, 03:41 PM IST
Opinion
4 min read

Finally, the long-awaited Rafale aircraft are on their way to India. Five Rafale aircraft (three trainers and two fighter aircraft), stationed in Dubai at the moment, will fly into Ambala airbase on 29 July. This 4.5 generation aircraft will, as the numbers increase, bring in a quantum change in IAF’s operational capability in the coming years. Arrival of these aircraft during this week brings to fruition decades long process of this procurement, the Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), to fruition albeit in a limited way.

MRCA to MMRCA: A Long Haul

The process began as a requirement of MRCA in late 1990s, which quickly narrowed down to a proposal of follow-on orders for the Mirage 2000 aircraft, to be manufactured by HAL under license. Extensive discussions and detailed project proposal had been developed by end 2003, and expected to be approved by the government. This is when the Defence Acquisition Council (DAC), chaired by Jaswant Singh, dismissed the proposal saying it would only be right for such a huge procurement to go through global tendering process.

This was a very correct decision, as the IAF needed to look at newer aircraft rather than 40 year old aircraft such as M 2000 and F-16.

A new RFI for MMRCA that focused on 4.5 generation aircraft was sent out in Oct 2004 under the signature of the author. The MMRCA process began and the rest is history. In 2004, the intention was that the first aircraft would arrive by 2010-11.

Snapshot
  • The procurement process, culminating in 5 Rafale jets reaching Ambala this week, began as a requirement of MRCA in late 1990s.
  • Rafale induction should bring about a shift from a defensive and reactive posture to one of active deterrent posture.
  • However, it is important for us to be realistic and avoid any bluster.
  • Two Rafale squadrons, yet to be ready, would just about fill part of the huge void left by the shortfall of 12 squadrons.
  • This gap in force strength would impose limitations on India’s options and strategies in the immediate future.
  • If rumours are true and India buys 44 more Rafles, it would be an irony of missed opportunities for India.

Ideal Timing of Rafale Delivery for India

True to Indian procurement traditions, it has taken a decade longer and significant reductions in terms of numbers and more importantly, the scrapping of industrial partnership for manufacture and technology transfer.

Despite these shortfalls, the Rafale comes at a critical time when India-China stand-off has been the worst since 1967.

Both sides have mobilised significant level of forces in the Ladakh region. Given the current scenario, India needs to focus on using air power to deter China from any misadventure.

Although five Rafales are too few a number in the immediate term, their induction should bring about a shift from a defensive and reactive posture to one of active deterrent posture. Fielding even four or five Rafales to augment the Sukhois and M 2000s in the Ladakh sector will bring significant capability boost in terms of BVR capability and flexible attack options in combination with other elements of airpower.

How Much Does Rafale Matter to the Indian Air Force?

The Rafale brings with it important capabilities in terms of its very advanced AESA radar in combination with the Meteor BVR missile with a range of 150 km, and a host of air-to-ground precision weapons including the SCALP cruise missile with exceptionally high accuracies.

However, it is important for us to be realistic and avoid any bluster. The first Rafale squadron, fully equipped, will not be ready before Feb/Mar 2021, and the second one not before April 2022. These two squadrons would just about fill part of the huge void left by the shortfall of 12 squadrons.

This gap in force strength would impose limitations on India’s options and strategies in the immediate future, which is fundamentally all about the need to avoid uncontrolled escalation. The IAF has its task cut out. Within the next decade it needs to take up modernisation on war footing. These involve Su-30 upgrade, completion of M2000 and MiG 29 upgrades, Tejas induction, air defence missile systems, and expansion and operationalisation of its current limited net-centric capabilities. These would be essential for us to tackle a two-front war.

Stationing Rafale at Ambala & Hasimara is Prudent

Ambala in the western sector and Hasimara in the eastern sector are air bases readied to host one Rafale squadron each. Modern fighter aircraft need huge maintenance support, servicing, electronics, and training infrastructure to be established in the selected mother bases for smooth and efficient operations. These are expensive and technology intensive. They enable the squadron to be deployed in two or three flights in different operational locations and ensure smooth and reliable operations.

The strategic advantages of Ambala and Hasimara as the main bases are obvious. The infrastructure at each of these bases is comprehensive enough to support two squadrons. Hence , it would have been economical if both squadrons had been based in one of these locations.

The two locations allow the government the option of procuring two more squadrons without any attendant expenditure on infrastructure. This remains to be seen.

However, it is no secret that two squadrons of MMRCA are hardly sufficient as against the requirement of 126 projected in 2004. The current requirement, despite the induction of Tejas, would have ballooned to over 200 aircraft.

Will India Procure More Rafales to Counter China?

In the aftermath of the Galwan clashes strong rumours are going around that India may procure a second batch of 44 Rafales, taking the total to 80 aircraft. While the IAF certainly needs more MMRCAs, a possible decision like this would be an irony of missed opportunities for India.

A consolidated contract as originally envisaged would have resulted in manufacture within the country, with huge benefits to the indigenous industry and our own programs. That we missed it reiterates our continued confusion in strategic decision making.

(Air Marshal M Matheswaran AVSM VM PhD (Retd) is a former Deputy Chief of Integrated Defence Staff. He is currently the President of ‘The Peninsula Foundation’, a Chennai-based policy think tank. This is an opinion piece and the views expressed above are the author’s own. The Quint neither endorses nor is responsible for them.)

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Published: 27 Jul 2020, 09:53 AM IST
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