The Rafale has landed, five years after Prime Minister Narendra Modi, during a visit to France, announced an ‘emergency purchase’ of 36 Rafale combat aircraft from Dassault Aviation for a whopping Rs 58,000 crore, and kicked off a controversy.
The formal process to acquire a new generation of combat aircraft began in 2007 under the UPA government and the IAF and the government even selected the Rafale, after six competing combat aircraft were put through extensive tests by the IAF. But the deal — then for 126 aircraft — could not be signed under the UPA government as complex negotiations dragged on. Modi’s decision in 2015 changed the terms of the deal and was controversial because the Cabinet Committee on Security had not at the time approved those changes. The decision was rationalised post-facto.
What Modi’s deal kept from the UPA-era negotiations was the set of “13 India-specific enhancements” that the IAF had sought to the Rafale fighters. These enhancements, and the weapons complement, make the IAF’s Rafale among the most sophisticated and capable combat aircraft in the world.
The enhancements include advanced avionics and radars and electronic warfare capabilities. For instance, the Israeli helmet-mounted sight (HMS), which is to be integrated into the Rafale, displays the battlefield situation on the pilot’s helmet and allows him to fire at a target just by looking in its direction.
The Rafale will carry some of the most advanced stand-off missiles and precision bombs – the Meteor and Scalp cruise missiles and the Hammer precision-guided munitions. A Rafale with Scalp missiles can threaten most of Pakistan while staying in Indian air space.
That the aircraft have arrived in the midst of ongoing border tensions with China is significant. While the first Rafale squadron will be based at Ambala, the second will be based at Hasimara. With a combat radius of about 1,850 km, the IAF can quickly deploy these fighters against both Pakistan and China from these airbases. The IAF’s Rafale will also be able to start up in extreme cold and in high-altitude locations such as Leh. The Chinese will think twice before aggravating the situation.
As the Rafale jets flew 7,000 km from France to India, with a stop-over in the UAE, the IAF put some of its capabilities on display. The jets were refuelled twice in mid-air, once by the French air force and once by IAF tanker aircraft. They also relayed near real-time video of the fighters flying in formation, flanked by two Su-30 MKIs, demonstrating the Rafale’s datalink capability. And when an Indian Navy ship in the Arabian Sea greeted the Rafale pilots, it was a demonstration of joint presence and power projection over the Indian Ocean Region.
The remaining Rafales will come in over the next 2-3 years. The IAF is still on the lookout for another 114 multi-role combat aircraft to maintain its squadron strength.