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Indian Air Force Inducts First Five Dassault Rafale Fighters

On 30 July 2020, India took delivery of its first five Dassault Rafale combat aircraft from France. This is the first batch from an order of 36 aircraft, which India ordered under a €7.87 billion deal in 2016 ($8.85 billion US at the time). Roughly 50% of the contract went towards the aircraft and an assortment of air-to-ground and air-to-air munitions, while the rest is split between a maintenance package and customizations. The contract also includes an offset clause that would see Dassault spend 50% of the contract value in India.

The Indian Air Force (IAF) assigned its first Rafale aircraft to the No. 17 ‘Golden Arrows’ Squadron, which the IAF deployed at Ambala Air Force Station in Haryana, a state in northern India. The IAF is expected to station its second Rafale unit in West Bengal at Hasimara Air Force Station. Collectively, the IAF is staging its two Rafale units to cover India’s north/northwest and east/northeast sectors.

Though the scope of this Rafale contract is not as expansive as IAF’s original Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) tender, it still a significant program in its own right. Not only does the Rafale introduce a credible – if not qualitatively leading air warfare solution – to South Asia, but it also incorporates several tangible benefits to India’s economy, defence industry, and defence research and development (R&D).

Dassault partnered with Reliance Group to implement the bulk of the Rafale program’s offset package. In addition, Dassault has a chance at securing follow-on orders in India. The IAF is looking to acquire another 114 medium-weight multi-role fighters, while the Indian Navy is seeking a new carrier-borne platform. In other words, the Rafale is well positioned to form a sizable portion of India’s fighter fleets.

Overview of India’s Rafale Combat Aircraft

The IAF selected the Rafale F3R, but it got Dassault to incorporate a number of modifications. The bulk of these changes center on integration with third-party systems and weapons, notably from Israel. However, the core Rafale OEMs added a few of their own iterative improvements as well.

The IAF’s Rafale F3Rs use a newer version of the Front Sector Optronics (FSO) suite, which Thales markets as a “multi-sensor” system incorporating an infrared search-and-track (IRST) and forward-looking infrared (FLIR) system. Safran supplies the IRST and FLIR inputs. The end-user can use the FSO to track both air and surface targets, and across multiple modes (optical, infrared, and laser).[1]

The IAF is also using the active electronically scanned array (AESA) version of the Thales RBE2, but with a number of software modifications. In addition, the IAF got its Rafale fighters optimized for operations in high-altitude and mountainous environments via a modified radar altimeter and cold engine-start.[2]

In terms of custom subsystems, the IAF Rafale fighters use the Display and Sight Helmet System (DASH), a helmet-mounted display and sight (HMD/S) system from Israel’s Elbit. The IAF already uses Elbit HMD/S solutions in other fighters, such as the Tejas. The DASH may signal an intent to eventually add the Python 5 high off-boresight (HOBS) air-to-air missile (AAM), among other Israeli-origin munitions.

The IAF Rafale also incorporates a number of standard – but valuable – features, such as operability with the Thales TALIOS targeting pod and SPECTRA, an integrated suite comprising of both electronic warfare (EW) and electronic countermeasures (ECM) systems. Thales says that the SPECTRA offers both situational awareness building (the EW suite can detect radar, laser, and infrared-based threats) and radar jamming and spoofing. It also includes self-protection measures against infrared and radar-guided missiles.[3]

Optimized for Deterring Pakistan

Collectively, the standard features and custom additions of the IAF’s Rafale program show a focus on high-altitude take-off and mountainous flight operations. In addition, the Rafale is well-equipped for both long-range precision-strikes and interdicting aerial threats at beyond-visual-range (BVR).

The design of the configuration – such as cold engine-start and supporting flight over mountainous terrain – can enable the IAF to operate these fighters from high-altitude forward operating bases (FOB) and carry-out low-level flights over mountainous terrain. Combined with the Rafale’s low radar cross-section (RCS), leveraging clutter and other radar impediments in mountainous areas cuts the fighter’s observability.

The low-observability (LO) aspect is important. It is challenging enough that the Rafale is difficult to spot, but it can leverage a heavy payload as well. Thanks to the SPECTRA, there is no need to take up a hardpoint for an external ECM pod. Moreover, sustained super-cruising helps with fuel efficiency, thereby lessening the need for external fuel tanks. The net benefit is that the Rafale has more hardpoints available for heavy air-to-surface munitions, and each Rafale alone can, in theory, inflict extensive and far-reaching damage.

Based on these facts, the IAF Rafale configuration is evidently tailored to operate in the vicinity of Kashmir and the Line-of-Control (LoC). Not only that, but the Rafale can carry out precision long-range strikes both at stand-off range (i.e., from within India’s side of the LoC) and, potentially, on the Pakistani side proper.

Thus, the IAF has ‘optimized’ (so to speak) the Rafale for a specific set of operations against the Pakistani military in Kashmir. Yes, the Rafale is certainly difficult to interdict with other fighters, but one can argue that the real strategic value of the Rafale rests in its potential to neutralize targets across the LoC.

The IAF also went for a versatile air-to-surface package. The centerpiece of its inventory is the SCALP air-launched cruise missile (ALCM). Equipped with a 450 kg warhead, the SCALP can reach a range of 560 km (being a member of the Missile Technology Control Regime, India would have access to the full version).[4]

With the SCALP, the IAF Rafale can obviously strike deep within Pakistan while staying behind the border, but in the context of Kashmir, the SCALP can cover any part of the region. In fairness, Pakistan will have a directly analogous capability through the Ra’ad II, but the point about the Rafale’s versatility stands – one Rafale can deploy two SCALP ALCMs to any part of Kashmir from India’s side of the LoC.

However, the SCALP is an expensive system. The IAF is unlikely to dispose it for low-value targets, nor will it use it in a restrained skirmish akin to February 2019. To serve as a lower-cost complement, the IAF will be adding the Safran Armement Air-Sol Modulaire (AASM), also known as the ‘Hammer.’

The AASM is a precision-guidance and range-extension kit for general purpose bombs (GPB). The end-user can fit the AASM kit to 125 kg, 250 kg, 500 kg, and 1,000 kg GPBs. It can extend the range of the GBPs to 50-60 km (if launched at high altitude). The guidance element consists of INS/GPS and a terminal-stage imaging infrared or semi-active laser-homing (SALH) seeker.

The end-user can use the AASM to engage fixed and moving targets. It could also opt to deploy warheads of varying sizes or masses, i.e., as light as 125 kg or as heavy as 1,000 kg. The AASM would serve a similar role as the Rafael SPICE (Smart, Precise Impact, Cost-Effective). Thus, one can expect the Hammer to be a go-to option for the IAF in most undeclared confrontations with Pakistan.

In terms of the Rafale’s air-to-air capabilities, the inclusion of the DASH could point to the adoption of the Python 5 HOBS AAM. This combination basically means that the Rafale pilot can look outside of the cockpit and directly at the object for targeting, and the Python 5 can maneuver to the target after launching. The Rafale will certainly be a sizable close-range threat, but this capability is making its way to other IAF jets.

The marquee air-to-air weapon system of the Rafale is the MBDA Meteor. The Meteor uses a solid fuel-based ramjet engine. MBDA did not state an official range for the missile, but it did state that the Meteor delivers the “largest No Escape Zone (NEZ) of any air-to-air missile system.” Though official figures about its range and speed are not available, the widespread – and growing – adoption among the most advanced current and next-generation fighters indicates that it is an industry-leading solution.

Of the Rafale’s capabilities, the PAF likely considers the Meteor the greatest threat (or the most valuable gain afforded to the IAF). There is no way to conclusively prove whether a certain ECM solution can stop the Meteor (or, by the same logic, fail to stop it). The necessary details about the quality of the concerned seekers and ECM systems are not available to the public. One should simply consider it a valid threat, and ask what it would take to deter India. Thus, the only sure route of deprecating the Meteor (by deterring India) is to emulate an analogous capability through PAF fighters.

Currently, the IAF has a total of 36 Rafale fighters in the pipeline. This is a fraction of the 126 the IAF had intended to acquire in earlier years, but in the context of a localized conflict in Kashmir, 36 may be enough – if not an abundant – force. Yes, India’s ongoing tensions with China may require a split of resources, but this is a theoretical concern. Historically, Pakistan never moved to militarily open a front with India while India is engaged with China (and, interestingly, neither has China when India is confronting Pakistan). With the de-escalatory – and non-opportunistic – stance of Pakistan today, India may not split resources. The Pakistani and Chinese sides will have to demonstrate an actual combined threat – and they have not.

How Can Pakistan Counteract the Rafale?

The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) is aware of the capabilities the Rafale is bringing to South Asia. It affords India an edge, so the PAF will work to deprecate that edge to the best of its resources.

In an April 2020 interview, the PAF Chief of Air Staff (CAS), Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Mujahid Anwar Khan, said, “we have to be aware of modern technologies, and if the acquisition of a new fighter fits into our doctrine then we will try to acquire it. The balance has to be maintained.”[5] In other words, the PAF is not ruling out the acquisition of another fighter, especially if it allows the PAF to deprecate the Rafale’s impact.

However, the PAF will certainly explore its other options for lessening the Rafale threat. Adding another fighter type will draw significant fiscal and human resources. Moreover, considering Pakistan’s economic realities, such a purchase will likely mean diverting resources from the next-generation fighter program.

Ultimately, the point of procuring a new fighter platform is not to acquire an aircraft for its own sake, but to add new – or drastically improve existing – warfighting capabilities. For India, the Rafale will bolster its long-range, precision-strike capabilities and afford it an edge in air-to-air combat. Thus, the PAF will need to focus on either neutralizing the IAF’s new capabilities, or build equivalents.

The emphasis should be on capabilities. The PAF need not acquire those new capabilities through another fighter, but it can work to add them to its existing aircraft and aircraft types. To determine those necessary capabilities, the PAF will ‘unpack’ the outcome of India’s Rafale acquisition, and respond systematically.

Credible Long-Range/Stand-Off Range Strike

The PAF is not worried in this respect. It already possesses similar munitions to the SCALP in the form of the Ra’ad-series of ALCM. It does not have an exact match to the AASM, but it could potentially buy one off-the-shelf from South Africa, Turkey, and China. If anything, the PAF should move to integrate these new attack capabilities to the JF-17, and that may necessitate developing new variants of existing air-to-surface munitions, or acquiring new ones to supplement or supplant existing ones.

It may not be possible to directly neutralize an incoming strike package, especially one deployed at stand-off range (i.e., well behind India’s side of the LoC). Thus, to goal should be to deter India from such actions by showing that the PAF can inflict a similar strike impact using the same means as the IAF. In other words, a JF-17B that can carry two Ra’ad II should be no less of a ground-strike threat than the Rafale.

New Generation EW/ECM

The PAF can acquire new-generation electronics off-the-shelf. For example, Leonardo offered the gallium nitride (GaN)-based Grifo-E AESA radar with Skyward IRST for the JF-17. Likewise, China will likely add new solutions to its export product catalog, and some of these products may be based on the systems China is using onboard its fifth-generation fighter aircraft (FGFA) programs. Turkey is also emerging as an option.

Granted, there is no way to conclusively prove if any of these solutions will exactly match or exceed RBE2 or SPECTRA capabilities. However, the PAF can pursue contemporary or same-generation technologies as those used on the Rafale. The PAF can add these capabilities to the JF-17 and, in turn, lessen the edge of the Rafale so that the IAF does not maintain a decisive advantage (though it may still be ahead).

The PAF is likely open to upgrading its F-16s as well, but this may not be an option due to the current state of Pakistan’s security and defence relations with the United States. However, if the PAF can engage with Lockheed Martin et. al once again, it could pursue new-generation subsystems for the F-16s.

Range, Payload, Super-Cruising, and Low Observability

These attributes are inherent to the Rafale. So, to emulate and match them the PAF would need to acquire a new platform. Currently, the PAF is likely hoping to add these capabilities through its FGFA, i.e., a “twin-engine single-seater, boasting the likes of super-cruise and laser weapons (directed energy weapons).”[6]

However, the PAF can still leverage the benefits of these features in other ways. The PAF can, for example, enhance the JF-17’s strike capabilities by pairing the right type of munitions to it. Returning to an earlier example, the JF-17 can be a credible strike solution if the PAF succeeds in fitting it with two Ra’ad II ALCMs.

In practical terms, a single JF-17 could deploy two munitions with heavyweight warheads at ranges of up to 600 km. To offset the expensive nature of the Ra’ad-series, the PAF can also explore lower-cost options, such as adding a terminal-stage seeker to the Range Extension Kit (REK), or acquiring something similar to the AASM from South Africa (e.g., Denel Dynamics Tariq/Umbani).

In either of these scenarios, a JF-17 can deploy guided munitions at safe ranges against fixed and moving targets alike. Yes, the PAF may need more JF-17s to achieve the damage impact of a single Rafale, but it can still yield comparable results as the IAF with fewer Rafale fighters. It is not efficient, but as an interim development until the FGFA comes online, it is a serviceable solution.

MBDA Meteor

This will be the most challenging aspect of the IAF Rafale purchase to emulate, much less match or exceed. The PAF can invest in more types of ECM solutions, such as a chaff/flare-based miniature decoy equipped with a DRFM jammer. However, as with ECM products, there is no conclusive way of determining if these solutions (e.g., Leonardo BriteCloud) will work against the Meteor (absent of a real-world example).

There have been online rumours linking the PAF to the Chinese PL-15E. There is no official information on the PL-15E’s specifications and features, or whether the PAF is acquiring that specific model. A PAF official did tell Quwa that the Block-III will get a new BVRAAM to accompany its AESA radar. So, a new long-range AAM will enter the PAF’s inventory in the short-term, but its exact characteristics were not disclosed.

The CAS’ statement about potentially acquiring a new fighter is likely in reference to acquiring something analogous to the MBDA Meteor, if not the MBDA Meteor itself. Integrating the Meteor to the JF-17 is not tenable – otherwise, the PAF would have selected the Grifo-E instead of the KLJ-7A for the Block-III’s AESA radar requirement. Certainly, a new Chinese AAM will accompany the Block-III, but the CAS’ point in April 2020 may indicate that matching the Meteor necessitates a new fighter.

For the PAF, an ideal solution would be the Meteor. However, Pakistan’s sensitive financial situation and tenuous defence/security ties with the U.S. and Western Europe render getting the Meteor a non-factor. Thus, the new AAM will likely come from China. Moreover, securing that AAM is for one reason or another potentially contingent on acquiring a new fighter platform.

One can only speculate why this contingency exists, but the constraint is a reality (as evident in the CAS’ statements in April 2020). China is the only realistic avenue for a new fighter, and the PAF’s main options are the J-10CE and FC-31 — these are the only two modern Chinese combat aircraft (aside from the JF-17) available for export. One key difference between the two fighters is that one is in production today, and the other is, at best, a medium-to-long-term factor.

 

[1] Jaime Hunter. “India’s First French-Built Rafale Fighters Have Finally Arrived.” The Warzone. The Drive. 30 July 2020. URL: https://www.thedrive.com/the-war-zone/35236/indias-first-french-built-rafale-fighters-have-finally-arrived

[2] Ibid.

[3] Product Page. SPECTRA. MBDA. URL: https://www.mbda-systems.com/product/spectra/

[4] Product Page. Storm Shadow/SCALP. MBDA. URL: https://www.mbda-systems.com/product/storm-shadow-scalp/

[5] Alan Warnes. “Operation Swift Retort: One Year On.” Air Forces Monthly. April 2020. Page 35

[6] Alan Warnes. Interview with Air Chief Marshal Mujahid Anwar Khan. Jane’s defence Weekly. 22 May 2019.

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