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Rafale will bridge the gap between the high-end Sukhois and the low-end Tejas aircraft

 By Syed Nazakat

It was called the mother of all defence deals.

From Washington to Moscow to London to Paris, the world powers waged diplomatic campaigns for their military aviation companies in one of the world’s biggest aircraft deals. President Barack Obama personally lobbied for the American contenders. But, in the dogfight of global aviation giants, it was the French fighter Rafale which emerged the winner. “It [Rafale] was the underdog,” a defence ministry official told THE WEEK, noting that before the trials for the fighters began in 2009, there had been doubts about Rafale’s ability to meet minimum technical requirement.

The Indian Air Force is going through an unprecedented modernisation of its fleet. The procurement of 126 medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) is a vital part of this modernisation programme. The MMRCA tender was floated in August 2007, aiming to replace the ageing MiG-21 fleet and to augment the depleting squadron strength of the IAF.

For Dassault, which manufactures the Rafale, theIndiadeal marks a major shift in its fortunes. It is the first foreign contract for Rafale jets. The shares of Dassault soared more than 20 per cent after it won the deal. The Rafale edged past its competitor, the Eurofighter Typhoon, on account of price—it costs Rs 25 crore less than the Typhoon—and India’s familiarity with French fighters like the Mirage.

The French government has cleared the decks for full technology transfer toIndia, including the radar systems technology. French President Nicolas Sarkozy was the first to celebrate. “We’ve been waiting for this day for 30 years,” Sarkozy told reporters inParis, referring to the start of the Rafale’s development programme. “The realisation of the Rafale project will illustrate the depth and scale of the strategic partnership betweenFranceandIndia.”

The decision was a major blow to countries likeBritainwhich had lobbied hard for the Typhoon, which was widely perceived to be the favourite. British Prime Minister David Cameron had met Indian leaders for the deal, which would have supported thousands of jobs in his country. “Indiatook the decision to select our competitor as the preferred bidder in the medium multi-role combat aircraft (MMRCA) tender. Although this is not yet a contract signature and contract negotiations are still ahead, we are disappointed,” said the Eurofighter company in a statement.

The purchase would bring in six squadrons of Rafale fighters. The IAF currently has 33 combat squadrons, well below the target of 39 squadrons. Officials say that even with the planned Rafale procurement, the IAF will reach sanctioned strength only by 2017. At present the Su-30 and the MiG-29 are the IAF’s primary air superiority fighters. Mirage 2000 plays the role of the multi-role aircraft. But the IAF currently operates only 51 Mirages, while the MiG-21s are being phased out. This creates a big gap betweenIndia’s high-end Su-30 MKIs and the low-end Tejas lightweight fighters.

The Rafale, which has been in service with the French Air Force since 2006, is expected to fill this crucial gap. It has demonstrated its air superiority inAfghanistan, and more recently inLibya. It is a delta-wing fighter, which makes it more manoeuvrable and also allows it to land at speeds as low as 200kmph. This makes it suitable for carrier operations, a key advantage over other multi-role aircraft. It is a fourth-generation aircraft with twin-engines, configured for air defence, ground attack and reconnaissance. It can take-off even from a 1500-ft runway, with full external weapon load, an advantage in operating from bases close to the border. One of the Rafale’s key systems is its Thales Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar. “The new MMRCA aircraft will be the mainstay of the IAF fleet for the next 40 years,” said a senior officer. He said that MMRCA competition was assessed by its air-to-air performance and its capacity to undertake precision strike missions.

As the Rafale is not a complete stealth aircraft likeChina’s fifth generation stealth aircraft, many doubt whether the deal is worth its cost. “I don’t agree with that assumption. It is a need-based procurement,” said Deba R. Mohanty, a senior fellow at the New Delhi-based Observer Research Foundation. “There is acute shortage of multi-role aircraft in the IAF. The MMRCA will fulfil that particular requirement.” He saidIndiawas already building a fifth-generation fighter aircraft withRussiaand the Tejas indigenously. “They address different requirements and offer no solution to the multi-role strike capability.”

Together with the Su-30 MKI, the Tejas and the fifth generation fighter, the Rafale will provide a versatile platform, capable of shifting flexibly from air combat to ground attack operations, during day and night, regardless of weather conditions. The defence ministry has allocated Rs 42,000 crore for the deal. However, sources in the ministry said the final cost was subject to negotiations, and could go up to Rs 75,000 crore. The ministry’s Contract Negotiation Committee will now work with Dassault to finalise the price before signing a contract. The purchase is only the tip of a lucrative iceberg, since a huge market for spare parts and maintenance contracts worth billions of dollars would follow the deal. The offset obligation for the contract is 50 per cent, which means the Dassault will be required to invest a whopping sum in India.

According to the Request for Proposal, the IAF will buy the first 18 aircraft off the shelf in the next 36 months, while the remaining 108 will be manufactured at  Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) inBangalore. Plans have already been discussed to base the first Rafale squadron at Ambala, with subsequent squadrons to be located both in the eastern and western and sectors. The Rafale is also a nuclear capable platform and may be used by the Joint Nuclear command, which expects to operate up to 40 aircraft to carry the nukes. 

IAF FIGHTERS AND BOMBERS

Strike aircraft (bombers)

Su-30: long range bomber-cum-versatile fighters—for nuclear or conventional bombing of strategic targets; also limited air superiority role

IAF operates 146 Su-30s

Jaguar: medium-range bomber for targeting railheads, bridges and bases deep inside enemy territory

IAF operates 139 Jaguars

MiG-27: medium-short range aircraft, for bombing enemy tank concentrations, tactical targets, etc.

IAF operates over 100 MiG-27s

Medium multi-role aircraft

Mirage-2000: versatile multi-role aircraft

IAF operates 51 Mirage 2000Hs

MiG-21: workhorse of the IAF

IAF has 125 MiG-21s; being phased out (Rafale will now replace this aircraft)

Light multi-role aircraft

Tejas: lightweight multi-role aircraft; yet to be inducted

Dedicated fighters

MiG-29: advanced air superiority fighter; being upgraded 

IAF has only 69 MiG-29s left

THE BIG RAFALE DEAL

The Rafale defeated American F-/A-18 and F-16, Russian MiG-35, Swedish Grippen and finally Eurofighter Typhoon, to win the MMRCA deal

Role: Multi-role fighter aircraft

Crew: 1-2

Length: 15.27m

Height: 5.34m

Maximum take-off weight: 24,500kg

Fuel capacity: 4,700kg

Maximum speed: 2,130+ kmph

Combat radius: 1,852km

Cost: Rs 42,000 crore (for 126 aircraft)

Armament: guns, air-to-air and air-to-ground missiles and nuclear warheads

(THE WEEK, Feb, 2012)

 

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