A month after the successful airstrike in Balakot, where Mirage 2000 fighters were used to bomb a JeM terror camp in Pakistan, the then IAF chief B.S. Dhanoa remarked that “the results would have been further skewed in our favour had we inducted the Rafale aircraft in time.”
Now, the Indian Air Force has finally inducted five Rafale jets into its fleet, ending a wait of over two decades to have a medium-weight multi-role air superiority aircraft.
As five Rafale jets landed at the Ambala air force station in Haryana on Wednesday afternoon, there was a sense of elation in the military establishment amidst tensions along the border with China. The last time that India had acquired a new type of foreign-made fighter jet was in 1997, with the Russian Sukhoi-30. Since then, India's indigenous LCA Tejas joined the fleet but has yet to prove its combat ability.
Touted as an "omnirole" fighter, the 4.5 generation Rafale can take up several missions during a single flight including air-defence, air-superiority, anti-access and area-denial, recon, close-air support, dynamic targeting, air-to-ground precision strikes, anti-ship attacks, nuclear deterrence and buddy-to-buddy refuelling. The Rafale can reach almost twice the speed of sound with a top speed of 1.8 Mach.
Its weapon package, radars and avionics make it a “game-changer" in the region if pitted against China’s J-20 and Pakistan’s F-16. While the Rafale has already proven its combat potential in missions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya and Mali, the J-20 has not experienced any combat mission so far.
The missiles that make the Rafale as game-changer
The Rafales have arrived at a critical time, as India and China have been at odds along the border for the last three months. Aiming to deploy the Rafale along the border with China, the IAF has also made a last-minute purchase of HAMMER (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range) missiles in a bid to add to the fighter jet’s lethality. HAMMER is an air-to-ground precision missile that has a range of 60 km—perfectly suited for high-altitude operations.
The Rafale’s cold engine start capability allows it to operate from high-altitude airbases including Leh. Its weapons package, provided by MBDA, is what makes it a "game-changer" in the region—Meteo BVR air-to-air missiles, SCALP cruise missiles and MICA will together give India an edge India over its adversaries.
The Meteor beyond visual range air-to-air missile, which is widely recognised as a game-changer for air combat, is the Rafale’s most critical weapon. The Meteor is powered by a unique rocket-ramjet motor that gives it more engine power that also lasts much longer than any other missile. It can fly faster, fly longer and manoeuvre more than any other missile—giving the Meteor the ability to chase down and destroy agile hostile fighters at the farthest of ranges. As a result, the Meteor has a no-escape zone many times greater than any other air-to-air missile.
Explaining about the SCALP deep-strike cruise missile, MBDA claims the stealthy weapon has proven repeatedly in combat its unerring ability to strike hardened and protected targets deep within 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," MBDA says.
Its MICA missile 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. 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.
An Indian name for the French aircraft?
With the Rafale to be inducted into the Ambala-based No 17 Squadron, the ‘Golden Arrows’, discussions are on in the corridors of Vayu Bhawan, Air Force Headquarters, over christening the French-origin aircraft with an Indian name.
India has a tradition of giving Indian names to its foreign platforms after induction, both its fighter jets and for its foreign-made naval warships. In 1953, the Dassault Ouragan was christened the ‘Toofani’ in India—Ouragan and Toofani meaning hurricane in French and Hindi respectively.
In 1979, when the twin-engine, single-seater Jaguar—jointly developed by the British Royal Air Force and the French Air Force—was inducted into the IAF, it was called ‘Shamsher’ (Sword of Justice).
The Mirage-2000, the IAF's most versatile and deadliest aircraft, was named Vajra—meaning thunderbolt in Sanskrit, after its induction in 1985. The Soviet-era MiG-27 is known as ‘Bahadur’ (valiant) in India while the MiG-29 is known as Baaz (Hindi for Hawk).
However, the Su-30 MKI has not been given an Indian name.
How the Rafale was acquired by India
Indian finalised the order of 36 Rafale jets from France, with India-specific enhancements, at a cost of Rs. 59,000 crore in September 2017 as an emergency purchase given the declining combat strength of the IAF. The IAF is down with 31 squadrons against the sanctioned strength of 43—the number deemed sufficient to meet a two-front (China and Pakistan) challenge.
The delivery of 36 Rafale jets is expected to be completed by May 2022.
But, soon after inking, the deal was mired with allegations of corruption and crony-capitalism. Opposition parties targeted Prime Minister Narendra Modi's government for paying a higher cost than what was discussed by the Congress-led UPA government. The deal became a controversial issue during the first tenure of the Modi government—and the Congress tried to make it an election issue. But, in 2019, when the Modi government returned to power with a huge mandate, the controversy subsided.
Soon after the Rafales landed in India, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh issued a statement saying the jets were purchased when they fully met the operational requirements of the IAF. "The baseless allegations against this procurement have already been answered and settled," Singh said, adding that “if anyone should be worried about or critical about this new capability of the Indian Air Force, it should be those who want to threaten our territorial integrity."