India’s defence preparedness with the addition of Rafale will provide confidence.
India finally received the first lot of five Rafale fighter jets out of 36 purchased from Dassault Aviation, France in a multi-billion dollar agreement. The induction of Rafale into the Indian Air Force (IAF) was very much needed and was long overdue. The timing of the arrival and induction of Rafale is very important because India has to get prepared for addressing the challenges emanating from Sino-Indian stand-off as well as Pakistan opening a second front for India. The reflection of defence preparedness will be pivotal to the maintenance of India’s national security. The induction of Rafale perhaps will change the technological imbalance India has been experiencing all these years, especially in comparison to the combat aircraft India’s neighbourhood has acquired. Pakistan acquired F-16 from the US and Chengdu JF-17 from China, which are fourth generation combat aircraft. Both these combat aircraft are central to Pakistan Air Force’s (PAF) modernisation plans.
The fleet of five Rafale comprises three single-seater and two main seater aircraft and these will be part of Squadron 17 of IAF, which is also known as “Golden Arrows”. There is no denying the fact that these fighter jets will significantly boost India’s combat capabilities. The IAF seems to have deployed all its frontline fighter jets in key airbases along the Line of Actual Control (LAC), which has been the de facto border between India and China. The dominance of air power will remain a decisive factor in shaping the course and outcome of any conflict. Over the years, India has witnessed the significant development of the IAF with multirole capability. The strategic reach of IAF has grown over the decades. India has already inducted a number of force multipliers including the Airborne Warning and Control System (AWACS), Flight Refuelling Aircraft (FRA), Remotely Piloted Vehicle (RPV), Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), and strategic lift capabilities. India has also concentrated on acquiring the modern relevant technology either through acquisition from elsewhere or keep doing the upgrade of the existing systems mainly to boost its air power capability.
The modernization of IAF has been continuing and this has enhanced its operational capabilities over the years. The IAF is very much capable of meeting the security challenges in the current context. A number of existing combat aircraft in IAF squadron are being upgraded. More particularly, the Jaguar series, Mirage-2000 and MiG series have been upgraded as modern weapon platforms. The IAF has been inducting Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) Tejas and MMRCA as well. The Tejas squadron, however, is yet to be fully operational.
IAF’s authorized strength is 42 squadrons. But, unfortunately, India has not been successful in addressing the requirements of these squadrons. A squadron is the basic fighting unit of IAF. Each fighter squadron is expected to hold 18 fully operational planes and it should have two trainers. Roughly, 10 squadrons of IAF are equipped with MiG 21 and MiG 27aircraft and are scheduled to retire by 2024 on completion of their total technical life. Hence, the requirements for the IAF will increase manifold. Right now, only 28 squadrons that are fully operational. India had reached a maximum number of fully operational squadrons of 39 in the early 1990s.
Rafale’s induction will add value to the existing capabilities of IAF. Rafale and China’s J-20 have got the capability of carrying more fuel and weapons per flight compared to Chengdu JF-17 supplied by China to Pakistan. It must be emphasised here that both Chinese JF-17 used by PAF and Chengdu J-20 used by China are categorised as multi-role combat aircraft. These can perform various day/night roles during combat. These could be effective during air-to-air attack, air-to-surface attack, aerial reconnaissance, interception and anti-ship strikes.
Rafale is categorised as a fifth generation aircraft. When Rafale was inducted for the first time by the French Air Force, it was announced that France will replace the seven types of combat aircraft in operation. Rafale and JF-17 are available in both single seat and double seat configuration. Chengdu J-20 has a single seat arrangement only. Rafale can attain a maximum speed of 2,200 km per hour. The speed of J-20 is estimated to be around 2,400 km per hour, whereas, JF-17 can hit a top speed of 2,000 km per hour.
The technical parameters are such that suggest that Rafale is superior than both J-20 and JF-17, when it comes to operational range. Rafale can travel a maximum distance from the operating base. Rafale can also cover more of the enemy’s area during a conflict. The veracity of the claims made by China with regard to J-20s’ “stealth” needs to be checked. India’s SU-30 MKIs have reportedly spotted their movement in the past because of the effectiveness of the radar mounted on the aircraft.
Rafale has also got a very effective radar system as well as smart weaponry. It can carry almost all the existing modern and advanced weapons. It uses electronic scanning radar which is distinct and can detect as well as track multiple targets simultaneously.
Rafale certainly will be a game changer during any eventuality India has to face. It has a proven track record on its effectiveness during combat. It has been used effectively in Afghanistan, Iraq and Syria. The effectiveness of both J-20 and JF-17 are yet to be witnessed. These have not been tested in any conflict or war like situations.
India’s defence preparedness with the addition of Rafale will provide confidence and an ability to become assertive. The geopolitical environment in South Asia will warrant India to keep itself alert and send messages to its adversaries about its preparedness for any eventuality.
Dr Arvind Kumar is Professor of Geopolitics and International Relations at Manipal Academy of Higher Education, Manipal. Seshadri Chari is a well known political commentator and strategic analyst.