India Today - - INSIDE - By Bharat Kar­nad

The French Rafale com­bat air­craft is a po­lit­i­cal em­bar­rass­ment and a mil­i­tary li­a­bil­ity. It’s an in­ap­pro­pri­ate, cost-in­ef­fec­tive buy that adds no real op­er­a­tional value to the In­dian Air Force (IAF) in terms of en­hanc­ing its reach, clout and mis­sion ver­sa­til­ity, but ad­versely im­pacts the air or­der-of-bat­tle.

Per cur­rent plans, by 2025 and with the in­duc­tion of the 36 Rafales bought in fly­away con­di­tion, the IAF will have be­tween 272 and 312 Su-30MKIs or 17-20 squadrons up­graded to the ‘Su­per Sukhoi’ con­fig­u­ra­tion, more than 90 Jaguars or five squadrons, more than 60 MiG-29s or four squadrons, and over 50 Mi­rage 2000s or three squadrons—to­talling 34 squadrons of 4.5 gen­er­a­tion air­craft. Seven squadrons of the indige­nous Te­jas Mk-1A and Mark-2—also 4.5 gen­er­a­tion—re­plac­ing MiG21 for short-range air de­fence means an IAF force pro­file of 41 squadrons (by mid-2030s).

So, what’s wrong with this force struc­ture? Other than Jaguar for low-level strike and Te­jas, the Rafale has, with full ord­nance load­ing, the same op­er­a­tional range and ca­pa­bil­ity as the Su-30, MiG-29 and Mi­rage 2000. These are all medium multi-role com­bat air­craft (MMRCA) which, given range con­straints, can be op­ti­mally fielded against Pak­istan alone and in bor­der af­frays against China, but have zero strate­gic reach and worth. So, the talk of Su-30/ Rafale for dis­tant nu­clear de­liv­ery against China is a joke. This fits in with the IAF’s think­ing and con­duct as a tac­ti­cal ad­junct in the re­gion of su­pe­rior ex­tra-ter­ri­to­rial air forces (Royal Air Force in colo­nial times and the US Air Force in the im­me­di­ate post-1962 war pe­riod and, per­haps, in the fu­ture). Whence the ser­vice’s em­pha­sis solely on short- to medium-legged air­craft with no in­ter­est what­so­ever in ac­quir­ing lon­grange strate­gic bombers, such as the Tu-22 ‘Back­fire’ (first of­fered in Au­gust 1971) or the more lethal Tu-160 ‘Black­jack’, ei­ther of which could long ago have been pur­chased or leased from Rus­sia. It would have en­larged the IAF’s op­er­a­tional/ mis­sion en­ve­lope and firmed up the manned, re­callable vec­tor for nu­clear as well as con­ven­tional de­ter­rence of China. The IAF has had no bomber after the phas­ing out of the medium-range Can­berra.

Un­til the April 2015 Rafale an­nounce­ment by Prime Min­is­ter Naren­dra Modi, the erst­while de­fence min­is­ter, Manohar Par­rikar, cor­rectly favoured the op­tion of quickly and eco­nom­i­cally aug­ment­ing the fleet of Su-30s—rated the best fighter air­craft in the world. It had sev­eral mer­its. For the price of one Rafale, the coun­try would have had two Su-30s and Hin­dus­tan Aero­nau­tics Ltd, Nashik, which as­sem­bles this air­craft, would have had a con­tract to pro­duce more of them. The ‘Su­per Sukhoi’ ver­sion of the Su-30, more­over, meets the Rafale level of on-board data fu­sion ca­pa­bil­ity. The up­grade of the Su-30 is, there­fore, a crit­i­cal need, ex­cept it is now im­per­illed by the Rs 59,000 crore down pay­ment for the Rafale, which leaves lit­tle fund­ing for any­thing else.

The Rafale’s only other at­tribute is the ex­or­bi­tantly priced Me­teor air-to-air (A2A) mis­sile, whose ef­fec­tive­ness is ex­ag­ger­ated. Even the most ad­vanced A2A mis­siles have lim­ited ‘kill zones’. The cer­tainty of track­ing, iden­ti­fy­ing, tar­get­ing and hit­ting en­emy air­craft di­min­ishes markedly be­yond 50-80 miles. Worse, with so few Rafales and such high in­vest­ment, the IAF will be loath to de­ploy them in war be­cause ev­ery Rafale lost would mean over Rs 1,600 crore down the drain and, pro­por­tion­ately, a se­ri­ously at­tr­ited force.

Be­sot­ted by Western-ori­gin air­craft, the IAF had hoped to use the ini­tial or­der of 36 Rafales as a wedge to pro­cure 90 more. That ruse be­ing blown, it has in­dented for 114 new type sin­gleengine MMRCA. With Don­ald Trump turn­ing up the pres­sure, the 1960s vin­tage, mu­se­um­ready F-16 is likely to be the gap filler. It will pose no dan­ger to the Pak­istan Air Force that has been op­er­at­ing this plane for 30-odd years, but will frit­ter away re­sources and ex­ac­er­bate an al­ready hellish lo­gis­tics prob­lem for the IAF, cre­ated by the un­man­age­able di­ver­sity of air­craft in its in­ven­tory, each re­quir­ing its own ex­pen­sive main­te­nance in­fra­struc­ture.

The writer is au­thor of Stag­ger­ing For­ward: Naren­dra Modi and In­dia’s Global Am­bi­tion

A fully loaded Rafale is only as ca­pa­ble as the Su-30, MiG29 and Mi­rage 2000. The talk of Su-30/ Rafale for dis­tant nu­clear de­liv­ery against China is a joke

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