As the Indian Air Force continues to work up its first five Dassault Rafale fighters, a US media article has warned the deal for the 36 French fighters won't change the "hard reality that, as an air power, India is falling far behind”.
Two Indian experts, Harsh V. Pant and Angad Singh, authored the article on Foreign Policy, which was published on Monday. Pant is director of research at the Observer Research Foundation think tank while Angad Singh is a project coordinator at the same institution.
Angad and Pant wrote in Foreign Policy that the deal for 36 Rafale jets will go "some way toward" filling the Indian Air Force's larger requirement of 126 fighter jets. The requirement for 126 jets was first mooted after the Kargil War in 1999. The Rafale was selected as the preferred bidder for a deal for 126 jets in 2012, but a contract could not be finalised. In 2015, the Narendra Modi government cancelled the tender as it announced its plan to buy 36 Rafale jets.
"The Indian Air Force has historically been one of the best-equipped air forces in the region, but it has seen its advantage, both qualitative and quantitative, against China and Pakistan narrow dramatically over the past two decades. Even worse, it now faces the challenge of mustering enough aircraft to tackle any possible collusion between the Pakistani and Chinese air forces," Angad and Pant write in Foreign Policy. They noted China appeared to be increasing deployments to airfields in Tibet, while Pakistan had conducted exercises at its airbase at Skardu in Pakistan-occupied Kashmir.
The Foreign Policy article acknowledges the Rafale " finally provides the Indian Air Force with a comprehensive combat craft that requires very little further tinkering", buts adds the limited order number is "a bow to fiscal realities". Foreign Policy cites the fall in squadron numbers in the Indian Air Force, which is expected to reach 30 squadrons by 2025, against a government-approved strength of 42 squadrons.
"No matter how advanced the Rafale or how effective its long-range weaponry, the addition of 36 jets will not dramatically alter the balance of power in the region," the Foreign Policy article argues. The authors support this argument by noting China's Western Theatre Command has deployed around 200 fighter jets on its border with India, while Pakistan has "350 fighters it can put up against India". Foreign Policy notes while China is hampered by lack of bases close to the border with India, "Pakistan has few operating restrictions relating to bases and aircraft performance". The Foreign Policy analysis notes "Taken together, as all worst-case Indian military planning scenarios do, the Pakistani and Chinese air forces far outnumber India’s and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future".
Angad and Pant also point to Pakistan and China having more aerial refuelling tankers and airborne early-warning aircraft than the Indian Air Force. "These so-called force multipliers dramatically increase the combat effectiveness of tactical fighters by extending their range or endurance and improving situational awareness in the aerial battlespace," Foreign Policy notes.
Tankers and eyes in the skies
While China operates at least two different indigenous airborne early-warning systems, Pakistan uses a Chinese platform mounted on the Shaanxi Y-8 aircraft and also a Swedish system called the Erieye, mounted on the Saab-2000 aircraft. According to reports, in 2019, Pakistan had three Saab-2000 and four Shanxi Y-8 platforms. In comparison at the same time, the Indian Air Force had three PHALCON systems from Israel, mounted on the Russian IL-76 aircraft, and two indigenously built Netra systems mounted on Embraer aircraft from Brazil. In 2018, US publication Defence News reported China had inducted around 15 airborne early-warning systems, split across two designs, since the mid-2000s.
The Indian Air Force had been seeking to buy two more PHALCON systems in a deal worth $2 billion. In addition, the Indian Air Force has been looking to develop a variant of the Netra mounted on the Airbus A330 aircraft, which would offer more endurance, power-generating capacity and operating altitude than the current Embraer aircraft.
Similarly, the Indian Air Force has not been able to complement its fleet of six Russian-supplied Il-78 aerial refuelling tankers. It had twice selected a A330-based tanker design in the past decade, but both contracts failed to materialise.
A report by US think tank RAND in 2018 estimated China had 12 H-6U aerial refuelling aircraft. The H-6U is based on the H-6 bomber and carries lesser fuel than the Il-78. China also acquired three Il-78 tankers from Ukraine.
The Pakistan Air Force is estimated to have four IL-78 tanker aircraft, acquired from Ukraine.