Defence Minister Rajnath Singh received the first Rafale Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) in Paris on October 8, the foundation day of the Indian Air Force. The loyal mass media is eulogising it as a “game changer” as Pakistan has no fighter aircraft comparable to Rafale. However, none of them are saying that the first four Rafales, including the one which Defence Minister Rajnath Singh worshipped as a part of the RSS’ ‘Shastra Puja” tradition on Dussehra, will only arrive in India in May, 2020. They were scheduled to be delivered last month, i.e September, 2019. What also has not come out is that these first four and tens more that will follow will not have the “India Specific Enhancements” (ISEs) that the Indian Air Force has paid an extra Euro 1.7 billion for.
The Comptroller and auditor General (CAG) report of February, 2019 shows that India will receive Rafales sans ISEs till December 2021. After that Dassault and its partners will retrofit the base variants already in service till August, 2022. There is no clarity as to a final timeline when the full two squadrons of 36 fighters with ISEs will be delivered.
It should be borne in mind that Rafale was selected by the Congress-led UPA Government as far back as January, 2012. The contract was for 126 aircraft. Behind the whole media build-up over Rafale now, there is a not-so-subtle attempt at giving all the credit to the Modi government, while the truth is that the decision to acquire Rafale was taken by the UPA.
In 2014, after the BJP came to power, Prime Minister Narendra Modi air-dashed to Paris and arbitrarily, on his own, changed the contract from 126 to 36 aircraft, that is, 96 less than what was originally contracted for. There was some controversy over the new price fixed per aircraft and the way the new contract was entered into.
Also Reliance Defence, an Anil Ambani Company, with no prior experience in any defence manufacturing process, was selected by Dassault as its Indian partner, allegedly at the instance of the Indian government.This cancelled out the original contract with the public sector Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL) which has been manufacturing warplanes for decades.
But nothing is known about the progress, if any, made by the company for building the “make-in-India” Rafale. The acquisition of Rafale has gained urgency because the IAF intends to de-commission its entire fleet of Russian MiG 21s and MiG 27s latest by 2022.
As far as Rafale being a “game changer” is concerned, with whom does the “game” change? Pakistan is no match for India in a conventional war – Rafale or no Rafale. The training of the IAF pilots is of such quality that in the 1965 Indo-Pak war, IAF Gnats made a mincemeat of the then famous and formidable US-made Sabre jets flown by the PAF. Let Pakistan not forget that.
But what about our larger northern neighbour? Does the acquisition of Rafale aircraft give India air-superiority over China? Rafale has anti-ship strike capability and can be used for nuclear deterrence missions. It has a speed of Mach 2 and a ceiling of 42,000 feet. The high quality radar-absorbing material Rafale is painted with makes it a partially “stealth” aircraft. The fact that ISEs will be add-ons only after 2021 should be noted.
As far as its superiority over comparable aircraft in Chinese Air Force (People’s Liberation Army Airforce or PLAAF) is concerned, it is worth remembering that Alexander Kadakin, former Russian ambassador in India, (2009 to 2017) was quoted as saying: “Rafale can be shot down like mosquitoes by the Chinese-made Sukhoi.”
China has made the J-16 fighter aircraft which has a “camouflaged” colouring that makes it easy to escape radar detection. According to a Chinese defence expert, the colouring “makes the aircraft blend into the sky and sea so that the enemy will recognize it only at close quarters, giving it a huge advantage in combat.” The J-16 has a range of 3000 kms and a ceiling of 56,800 feet. Also China has a huge number of these aircraft.
China also has in service about 20 J-20 fully stealth combat aircraft and more are rolling out of the plant. The Shenyang FC-31 stealth fighter project is in full steam. As of now, China’s PLAAF is the only air force other than the USAF to have inducted its own built 5thGeneration stealth fighter aircraft in its regular flying inventory. The USAF of course has the F-22 and the F-35.
So, how is Rafale really a “game changer” as far as the Chinese are concerned?