Why is Rafale seen as a game-changer in air warfare?

The most famous of Rafale's weapons is the METEOR - beyond visual range air-to-air missile - which is widely recognised as a game-changer for air combat, writes Anil Bhat for South Asia Monitor

Col Anil Bhat (retd) Jul 30, 2020
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Why is the Rafale fighter jet being seen as a game-changer by strategic analysts? It is because, apart from its cruising range, stealth and agility, it comes armed with a highly potent set of weapons considered to be unrivalled by any of India’s neighbours.

The first five Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) Rafale jets from France landed at Ambala airbase on July 29, 2020. Chief of Air Staff, Air Chief Marshal R K S Bhadauria, welcomed the crew of these aircraft, which are India's first major acquisition of fighter planes in over two decades. 

The most famous of Rafale's weapons is the METEOR - beyond visual range air-to-air missile - which is widely recognised as a game-changer for air combat. The Meteor is powered by a unique rocket-ramjet motor that gives Meteor far more engine power, for much longer, than any other missile. This means it can fly faster, fly longer, and manoeuvre more than any other missile – giving Meteor the ability to chase down and destroy agile hostile fighters at even the furthest of ranges. As a result, Meteor has a no-escape zone many times greater than any other air-to-air missile.

Second is the SCALP deep-strike cruise missile, a stealthy weapon that has been proven repeatedly in combat for its unerring ability to strike hardened and protected targets deep inside hostile territory – without the need for the Rafale to enter hostile airspace. 

Scalp’s operational effectiveness is the result of three key factors: its high survivability thanks to its long stand-off range, low observability and sophisticated mission planning system; its pinpoint terminal accuracy through its highly accurate seeker and target recognition system; and its terminal effectiveness provide by its powerful tandem warhead and multiple detonation modes.

Third is the MICA, a missile the IAF knows very well as it is also part of the upgrade package for the IAF’s Mirage 2000 aircraft. MICA is the only missile in the world featuring two interoperable seekers (active radar and imaging infrared) to cover the spectrum from close-in dogfight to long beyond visual range (BVR). Its ability to fly out to BVR in passive mode before the seeker locks on in the final stages of the end game has earned it the nickname “silent killer” as the target has little time to react or to deploy effective countermeasures.

A few days before the first five Rafale jets arrived in India IAF reportedly exercised emergency procurement powers to contract the French HAMMER (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range), a medium-range air-to-ground precision and  a tactical stand-off strike weapon system. This will be the fourth weapon added to IAF’s Rafales. With a range of 60-70 km, the Hammer missile lends India the capability to destroy bunkers, hardened shelters and other targets in all terrains including mountainous locations such as Eastern Ladakh. Reportedly, a single Rafale fighter jet can carry up to 6 HAMMER missiles to hit multiple targets simultaneously.

Jubilation at Ambala

While Prime Minister Narendra Modi and Defence Minister Rajnath Singh tweeted their congratulations, among many others, and complimented the crew, the security restrictions imposed in Ambala failed to dampen the enthusiasm of the people, many of whom took to streets in a celebratory mode, especially in the Ambala Cantonment area, to catch a glimpse of the France-manufactured jets. Some were also seen taking videos on their smartphones from rooftops. At the bazaars in Ambala Cantt area, traders and ex-servicemen released hundreds of tri-coloured balloons in the air and raised 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' slogans.

Three single and two double seater Rafales flown by IAF pilots took off from Dassault Aviation Mérignac airbase on July 27, had a halt in Abu Dhabi and after air to air refuelling, reached Ambala Air Force Station on July 29, after flying 7,000 km and became part of IAF’s No.17 Squadron codenamed “Golden Arrows”. This was after training of IAF aviators  and technicians by Dassault Aviation, with participation by the French Air Force (FAF).

Jawed Ashraf, India’s Ambassador to France, and Eric Trappier, Dassault Aviation Chairman and Chief Executive Officer, congratulated the IAF team that had been in France for almost three years for successful management of the program. He also complimented the trainees who joined for more than a year on their outstanding ability to master the aircraft. The whole attendance then saluted the departure of the Rafale. 

“I am strongly impressed by the amazing efficiency and determination of the Indian Air Force and Indian Ministry of Defense, despite this unprecedented world health crisis, to master rapidly all aspects of the Rafale for comforting Indian sovereignty and contributing to the protection and security of Indian people”, stated Trappier. “This new milestone illustrates once again the exemplary cooperation between Dassault Aviation and the Indian Air Force, started in 1953, and reasserts our total commitment to fulfil Indian Air Force requirements for the decades to come, and to be part of India’s ambitious vision for the future”. 

This first ferry testifies that the program is running smoothly and that deliveries are on time despite China-generated COVID-19 pandemic.

On 30 July 2015, as per the India-France Joint Statement issued by the two countries during Prime Minister Modi’s visit to France, India conveyed to France that in view of the critical operational necessity for Multirole Combat Aircraft for IAF, India would like to acquire 36 Rafale jets in a fly-away condition as quickly as possible.  The two leaders agreed to conclude an Inter-Governmental Agreement (IGA) for supply of the aircraft on terms that would be better than those conveyed by Dassault Aviation as part of a separate process underway. Also, the aircraft and associated systems and weapons would be delivered on the same configuration as had been tested and approved by IAF, and with   a longer maintenance responsibility by France.

News reports of 14 April 2015, cited late Defence Minister Manohar Parrikar stating that the decision to buy 126 fighter jets from France cleared by the previous Congress-led government was not thought through properly. The purchase, he said, should not have been made through a global tender, but through a government to government transaction, which makes it cheaper. On his predecessor,  A.K. Antony, he reportedly commented: "There was hardly any supervision or control. A Defence Minister needs to monitor but that was hardly the case." 

Parrikar informed that new acquisitions worth Rs. 5,40,000 crore cleared by the previous government would be reviewed. Another report stated  that the defence minister indicated the $25-billion Indian tender for buying 126 advanced combat aircraft had virtually been scrapped, with the government stressing that any future deal for Rafale fighter jets would be through direct negotiations with the French government.

That implied, as also stated by some IAF veterans, that the 126 jets may not all be Rafales. They may be a combo of Rafales and the HAL’s indigenously-made LCA Tejas, about which Parrikar is reported to have said "Today we have only 40 LCAs, why can't we have 100 of these?" 

The proportion of Rafale and Tejas fighters will depend on negotiations with the French government on any further purchase from Dassault, he said. Earlier, then  IAF Chief, Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha, had spoken about phasing-out of Mig 21s and Mig 27s, and being replaced by Indian LCAs and fifth-generation fighters from Russia.

It was under the ten-year tenure of the previous UPA government that the earlier initiative of 2002 to meet the requirements of the IAF for much-needed augmentation of its fighter strength ran aground.  In 2012, then Defence Minister A K Antony exercised an unprecedented personal veto on the laid down institutional process then underway for procurement of 126 MMRCA.  All this happened when there was an alarming decline in IAF’s fighter strength.

'Rafale is superior to China's J-20'

Air Marshal R Nambiar (retd), who flight-tested the Rafale fighter jets while in service, was reported to have stated to India Today: "Rafale is far superior to the J-20, the Chengdu fighter of China. Even though it’s believed to be a fifth-generation fighter, it is probably at best a 3.5- generation aircraft. It's got a third-generation engine as we have in the Sukhoi……Su35 is also no match to the Rafale with its weapons, superior sensors and fully integrated architecture. The capability to supercruise even with four missiles, stealth characteristics all put together make the Rafale far more potent than Su35," 

Reportedly, the stealth characteristics of the J-20 are also under suspicion, say experts based on assessments done by the IAF. Force. The J-20 was hyped to be a highly stealthy aircraft, that it could conceal itself in operations and not be easily detected. Experts also say if the J-20 was really the best in combat, why would the Chinese go for the Russian Su 35?

IAF is about 12 squadrons short of its sanctioned strength. Once all 36 Rafales come, they will amount to only two squadrons.

However, if China or even China and Pakistan decide on any offensive misadventures across their borders with India, they may have a lot to lose.

(The author, a strategic analyst and former spokesperson, Defence Ministry and Indian Army, can be contacted at wordsword02@gmail.com)