Amidst a tense standoff along the 3488-km long Line of Actual Control (LAC) with China, the first batch of five Rafale fighters of Indian Air Force (IAF) touched down at Air Force Station Ambala in northern India July 29. The fighters left Merignac in southern France on Jul 27 with single layover at a French airbase in UAE. On their maiden entry into Indian airspace, they were given a ceremonial welcome by two IAF Su-30 MKIs. Down at sea level, radio from Indian Navy warship INS Kolkata (D 63) reportedly crackled with “may you touch the skies with glory”. Twitter was afire with ‘avgeek’ hearts going all mushy!
Delivery of the first ten aircraft has been completed. Five have stayed back in France for training missions. Delivery of all 36 will be completed by end-2021 as per IAF sources. “IAF aircrew and ground crew have undergone comprehensive training on the aircraft, including its highly advanced weapons systems and are fully operational now. Post arrival, efforts will focus on operationalisation of the aircraft at the earliest“, an Indian MoD press release of 20 July stated.
For the IAF, this signals import of a new fighter jet in over two decades (Russian Su-30s inducted late 90s). On their first leg between Merignac in southern France & UAE, the boys had a ‘drink’ with a French Air Force Airbus A330 Multirole Tanker Transport (MRTT) refueler. The skies were clear — sparkling like the crew who, just after their training & few ‘on-type’ hours under the belt, undertook this intercontinental passage with typical fighter pilot panache.
The 7000-km deployment with air-to-air refueling support indicates a level of readiness and proficiency consonant with the MoD statement. Key weapons for these fighters have already arrived in India. It is learnt that initial consignments of MBDA ‘Scalp’ cruise missiles and ‘Meteor’ beyond visual range air-to-air missiles (BVRAAM) for the Rafale are already in IAF kitty. The Rafales are also planned to be equipped with Indian BrahMos NG supersonic cruise missile and indigenous Astra BVRAAM (first tested and qualified on IAF’s Su-30 MKI). When all this comes together, it will give IAF a unique stand-off capability sorely missing from the last skirmish with PAF in Feb 2019.
It is learnt that the IAF has also exercised emergency procurement powers vested by a recent government order to acquire Sagem’s HAMMER stand-off air to ground weaponry for the Rafale. The IAF had looked at HAMMER as part of Rafale’s weapons package initially, but opted for in-country integration of Israeli SPICE system at a later date – reportedly from cost considerations. The tense situation at the LAC with China may likely have forced IAF’s hand. The HAMMER gives IAF a readily available solution to strike bunkers or hardened shelters in any type of terrain, including the mountainous Ladakh region where Indian and Chinese forces are currently facing-off.
When delivery of all 36 Rafales are complete, a new normal could well be established in the sub-continent. India will be a step closer to reaching the required strength of 42 squadrons for the IAF. A long road lies ahead.
Fleet replacement and new induction is hard; especially for countries where budget constraints, convoluted procurement rules, and the scourge of corruption often derails programs. Every induction is a ‘new kid on the block’ till they settle down. Sections of media going gaga and calling arrival of five Rafales “game changer” is naive but par for course in India.
“Fully ops” status is earned in-country, in operational area, after flying hundreds of training & operational missions as per a rigorous syllabus that covers full-spectrum capabilities of aircraft. Himalayan challenges lie ahead. IAF has a plan and they are understandably tight-lipped about it.
In air forces, fighter inductions tend to hog all the limelight. Here too, the new fighters were refueled by a French tanker while the IAF’s small fleet of Russian IL-78M flight refuelers stood-by, flying tough missions with no augmentation or replacement in sight. IAF’s 14-year “case in progress” for a suitable tanker is still squinting between import, retrofit or lease.
Some light-hearted nostalgia is in order. Fighters are known for their exclusive clubs; the ‘9-g Club’ was one. In the 90s, MiG-29 and Mirage 2000 pilots — then toast of the town — wore Ray Ban aviator shades, strode with a swagger, and had an ‘air of superiority’ while unsung ground-attack Jaguar pilots stubbed out ‘Charms’ cigarettes with their flying boots before taking to the skies assisted by afterburners, willpower and the earth’s curvature! When the Su-30s came in (late 90s), all other genres were pushed into relative obscurity. The ‘9-g club’ was quietly ushered out of Lohegaon in Pune to faraway lands by “P staff” everyone in IAF loves to hate! IAF’s Ambala air base is home to 2 squadrons of Jaguars. It will be interesting to see the old blend with the new in these times of ‘social distancing’!
IAF’s ‘Golden Arrows’ squadron at Ambala is likely to be inaugurated with first lot of operational Rafales latest by September 2020. Thirty six Rafales will be split between the Golden Arrows and a second squadron at Hasimara in West Bengal. These bases will also house modern training facilities with flight and weapon simulators, mission planning systems and maintenance trainers.
IAF’s 126 Medium Multirole Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) program meandered without a contract for years, leading to a separate deal for 36 Rafales. A bigger program for 114 Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MRCA) could be met by buying a few fighters off the shelf and building the rest in India, possibly through private sector partnership. Or IAF could go for consolidating numbers on platforms (MiG 29, Mirage 2000, for eg) for which the force has already developed substantial expertise and infrastructure. An indigenous D&D program for Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft (AMCA), the LCA Mk-2, and Twin-Engine Deck Based Fighter (TEDBF) is also in the works. With government impetus rightfully shifting in favour of atma nirbharta (self-reliance) and purse strings tightening, IAF will have to make some tough choices in the coming years.
The IAF has already signalled intent to place orders for 83 indigenous LCA Mk1A fighters on HAL. During the recent commissioning of second LCA Mk 1 squadron, IAF Chief Bhadauria stated “in the long run, the IAF will have 40+83 Tejas (LCA) Mk I/IA and around six squadrons of Tejas Mk II. Eventually, we aim to boost our capabilities with the fifth generation plus AMCA (Advanced Medium Combat Aircraft)”. On repeated occasion, IAF has categorically asserted their requirement for these 114 fighters. Boeing recently decided to fly the latest F-15EX into this contest.
Amidst heightened tension with China along the LAC, Indian Defence Acquisition Council (DAC) cleared military procurement proposals worth about $5.2 billion on 2nd July. Defence Minister Rajnath Singh even made a whistlestop tour of Russia in June where decks were cleared, among others, for procuring 12 additional Su-30MKIs to be assembled and delivered by HAL, and 21 Mig-29s resurrected from old 1980s airframes from MiG’s Lukhovitsy facility near Moscow.
Going around the world with a shopping bag when the enemy knocks at the door is a poor example of defence preparedness and strategic thinking. So is buying disparate types that are low on numbers. If we don’t learn from history, it will repeat itself at great cost of money and body bags.
Indigenous programs are replete with newer and fancier acronyms, ambitious targets and unrealistic timelines even as technology leapfrogs antiquated program management systems of DPSUs and OFBs. Without disruptive thinking, firm leadership and resolute action, slow moving state-sponsored entities will increasingly find Indian defence customers difficult to satisfy.
HAL chairman stated in a recent interview to Livefist Defence: “It’s (MRCA) going to be much more complicated than the MMRCA. With the F-15 and Su-35, which are in a much higher weight category compared to the others. Their armament carrying capabilities change, manoeuvrability changes. It’s going to be difficult to cover both varieties with one SQR (staff qualitative requirement)”.
India’s first Chief of Defence Staff (CDS) Gen Bipin Rawat has, on the other hand, advocated a “realistic” approach to framing SQRs. To tweak an old proverb, the Rafale, like Rome, wasn’t built in a day. In India, we take years to finalise SQRs, grant orders to monopolistic regimes by nomination, and run each local or imported product through the paces believing we have the luxury of time. Recent experience along the LAC should inform us that expecting armed forces to fight with “what we have” or “throw out the aggressor” without getting own house in order will not be without its costs.
Dassault Aviation’s Rafale is also in the fray to meet Indian Navy’s (57) carrier-borne jets requirement alongside Boeing’s F/A-18 Super Hornet. With the navy practically ruling out single-engine fighters from future plans and IAF investing in deep training and infrastructure for the Rafale, some feel this bird could likely take up pole position going forward. But it is tricky to predict anything around here. Indian defence ‘acquisition’ policies can wreck the best-laid plans.
All eyes for now are on the IAF, Indian Navy and the CDS for blending, or untangling, the collective requirements for future MRCA. Nobody wants a repeat of the MMRCA that consumed over a decade and burnt million-dollar holes in many pockets before turning damp squib. “It all depends how the services write specifications and make limited monies work efficiently”, a senior IAF official told this author. The prudence of spreading meagre resources over a number of indigenous and foreign platforms with comparable goals has also been questioned by some observers.
For now, arrival of first five Rafales displays the contrast at many levels between India’s peculiar import-heavy situation and ‘atma nirbharta‘ aspiration. Young IAF air warriors, just out of type training overseas, inducting a new foreign jet after two decades, streaking across continents, sipping fuel enroute from a French tanker loaded with CoViD-19 equipment ‘gifted’ by France to India, entering Indian airspace with a bang, escorted by two Russian-origin Su-30MKIs, while an indigenous naval warship (D 63) stood vanguard below — all this amidst a global pandemic and an increasingly bipolar & belligerent world. Surely something to cheer about! It will be wonderful if we can have the next batch ushered in by our own beauty – LCA Tejas!
Good luck & godspeed, Golden Arrows! Sending you tons of cheers from beyond visual range!
© KP Sanjeev Kumar, 2020. All rights reserved. I can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. All image credits Indian Air Force.