A Rafale at Last
On October 8, Defence Minister Rajnath Singh received the first of the French-made Rafale fighter jets at the Merignac airbase near the city of Bordeaux in France. Seven more Rafale fighter jets will arrive in India by April or May next year. Altogether, France will deliver India 36 fighter planes within 67 months from September 2016, when the Government to Government (G2G) agreement was signed between the two countries at a cost of around Rs 58,000 crore.
The first squadron of the aircraft will be deployed at Ambala air force station, considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF. The Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from there. The second squadron of Rafale will be stationed at Hasimara base in West Bengal.
Dassault Aviation, the manufacturer of Rafale, has incorporated India-specific enhancements on-board the fighter aircraft. These include, among others, Israeli helmet-mounted displays, radar warning receivers, low band jammers, 10-hour flight data recording, infra-red search and tracking systems.
The Rafale contract has its genesis in the 2007 GoI(Government of India) request for proposal (RFP) to procure 126 Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) for the IAF. The RFP stipulated that 18 of the 126 MMRCAs were to be procured off the shelf and the remaining 108, to be license-produced in India by HAL.
Six contemporary fighters- Lockheed Martin F-16, Boeing F/A-18, SAAB JAS-37, Rosboronexport MiG-35, Dassault Rafale & Eurofighter Typhoon – were fielded against the RFP. In 2011, following exhaustive technical and flying evaluation, the Rafale and the Typhoon were down-selected as the only two aircraft that were fully compliant with the RFP.
In 2012, based on evaluation of the commercial bids submitted, the Rafale was declared the MMRCA of choice. It was said that the whole deal for the 126 planes would cost about Rs. 92,000 crore. However, during follow-up contract negotiations with Dassault differences arose over the scope of technology transfer for local production of the aircraft at HAL. Dassault also baulked over a clause that would make it liable for production delays at HAL. The French company expressed misgivings over HAL’s ability to imbibe the aircraft and manufacturing technology transferred under the contract and insisted that the MoD sign two separate contracts with Dassault and HAL.
The negotiations stretched for over two years. Despite sincere efforts from both sides, the difference between MoD and Dassault proved intractable. It was against this background that during PM Narendra Modi’s visit to Paris in April 2015, the two countries settled on a way out of the imbroglio through an executive agreement. They decided to drop the MMRCA negotiations altogether and instead negotiate a fresh contract under which India would purchase 36 Rafales off the shelf to meet the nation’s immediate operational requirements. Additional orders could follow.
The Modi government’s decision to purchase Rafale fighter jets from France was severely attacked by the political opponents, including Congress leader Rahul Gandhi, and so-called liberal activists. In fact, Rahul Gandhi fought the last general elections by coining slogans like “punish the Rafale chors”. According to him, the deal was marked by overpricing and crony capitalism. And it did the catch the imagination of many until late finance minister Arul Jaitley came to the government’s rescue by exposing the hollowness of the criticisms, something Modi government’s officials and the spokesmen of the ruling BJP failed utterly in doing.
The utter incompetence of the government and its spokespersons is all the more unfathomable when there have been articles, even though small in number, that were published to prove the spurious logic of the critics against the deal. The crucial question that the Modi government, before Jaitely intervened, was not asking its critics was: was there any “concluding deal” between the Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and the Rafale manufacturer Dassault Aviation, the L1 or lowest bidder, during the UPA raj? What was agreed between these two in 2012 was based on this L 1 provisions (which were offered sometime in 2007). But as mentioned, subsequently, the HAL and Dassault could not agree on the final deal that would have talked of the price and other terms and conditions.
In fact, Dassalut was not convinced of HAL’s competence to deal with the Rafale technologies and hence was not prepared for the responsibility of the quality of the 108 Rafales that were to be manufactured at HAL. Besides, Dassault could not agree to the astounding labour cost that the HAL quoted, which it thought was more than what it would cost in France. In fact, had Dassault agreed to the price the HAL demanded, it would have lost the L 1 status! So it was really absurd to hear Rahul Gandhi saying that prices decided upon under his government were much lower than what Modi agreed for. There was no agreement on final pricing of the aircraft under the Manmohan Singh government. So what is the basis of the comparison?
Another criticism against the deal seems to have been made that it was not to benefit the Indian Air Force (IAF) but the “crony capitalist” Anil Ambani’s Reliance Defence. Here, it is important to note that the decision was by two governments of India and France, which are to be accountable to this “inter-governmental” deal, whereas the earlier one in 2012 between the HAL and Dassault was a “commercial deal”. And when it is a government-to-government decision, there is no scope for any corruption or scam as such (it will be preposterous to say that the then French President Hollande bribed Modi to clinch the deal).
As regards the role of the Reliance Defence, the fact of the matter is that the latest deal has unusually(and it is to the great advantage of India) made the French vendor to invest in Indian defence industry as high as 50 percent of the deal-price as offset provisions as against the standard 30 percent requirement. And in this, Dassault itself is a partner of the Reliance to maintain the technological edge. The joint venture between Reliance Defence and Dassault is between two private entities and as Reliance Defence has said, the Modi government didn’t have a role. “Government policy issued on 24 June 2016 allows for 49% FDI in the Defence Sector under the automatic route, without any prior approval. No approvals from the Union Cabinet or CCS were required for the formation of the aforesaid Joint Venture Company under the automatic route.”
Now comes the crucial issue of pricing-difference between what was the case in 2012 and that in 2017. The latest one will cost India about Rs. 58000 crore or so (Euro 7.8 billion) for 36 off-the-shelf Dassault Rafale twin-engine, fourth generation multirole fighter aircraft, 15 percent of which will be paid in advance. MBDA Missile Systems of France will supply the weapons package, and that country’s Thales Group will be responsible for the fighter jet’s avionics. It is also understood that the first Rafale warplanes are slated to be delivered roughly within 18 months of the signing of the final contract, during which suggestions of the IAF for any customised version of the aircraft, including modifications and reconfigurations to allow the installation of Indian-made and commercial-off-the-shelf systems and weapons, will be taken into account.
The deal also envisages the conclusion of an accompanying offset clause, according to which France will invest 30 percent of the Euro 7.8 billion dollars in India’s military aeronautics-related research programmes and 20 percent into local production of Rafale components(along with its Indian partner). Besides, French defence contractors will supply radar and thrust vectoring for missiles technologies. In addition, the French are believed to be willing to invest 1 (one) billion Euros to revive the Kaveri engine project, according to media reports. They are also ready to share engine technology, by keeping Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” mission in mind. This will help enormously our indigenous LCA (Light Combat Aircraft) Tejas project. Dassault, the manufacturer of Rafale, has also shown its willingness to partner with a private Indian company to manufacture structural parts for its Falcon executive jets.
First Indian Air Force Rafale Handover to Government of India
The ceremony, 3 years after the signature of the contract in 2016 for the acquisition of 36 Rafale to equip the Indian Air Force, marks the concretization of the strategic relationship between India and France and the celebration of the history of mutual trust between India and Dassault Aviation for more than 65 years. The handover of the first IAF Rafale, materializes the determination of the French Authorities to fulfill the expectations and needs of the Government of India to comfort India’s protection and sovereignty and illustrates the exemplary cooperation between Dassault Aviation and the Indian Air Force, one of the most remarkable partner Dassault Aviation’s has ever worked with. The setup of the Dassault Reliance JV (DRAL) production facility in Nagpur as well as the significant support of the educational and scientific policy of the Indian Government through the establishing of an engineering center in Pune, the creation of the “Dassault Skill Academy“ and the implementation of a vocational training programme “Aeronautical Structure and Equipment Fitter“, demonstrate Dassault Aviation full commitment to the “Make in India“ and “Skill India“ initiatives in building the foundations for a national aerospace and defence ecosystem to become a worldwide reference of the sector.
Supported by Dassault Aviation partners, Thales already present in Nagpur, Safran to inaugurate its facility in Hyderabad as well as the French aeronautics and defence community among which twenty companies are already settled in India, this approach will mutually benefit both Indian and French industries and will contribute to guaranty both countries to meet tomorrow’s aeronautical challenges.
“I am particularly honored to host this ceremony today as India is part of Dassault Aviation’s DNA. The long and trustful relationship we share is an undeniable success and underpins my determination of establishing for the long term Dassault Aviation in India. We stand alongside the Indian Air Force since 1953, we are totally committed to fulfill its requirements for the decades to come and to be part of India’s ambitious vision for the future“, has declared EricTrappier, Chairman and CEO of Dassault Aviation.
In other words, the deal has to be seen as a package, not exactly on the basis of cost to a single aircraft per se. Though strangely the government has not yet given breakups of the cost, open military sources say that the latest cost includes not only the 5 percent inflation over the 2012 pricing but also additional programme costs of simulators, training, infrastructure and India-specific modifications in the aircraft(like Active Electronically Scanned Array or Aesa radar and helmet-mounted sight).
The 2102-price was based on the pricing of all the 126 aircraft, bulk of which was supposed to be produced in HAL (108); thus, the pricing per unit was bound to be lower at a first glance. On a close scrutiny, however, things were different. If the 2102-deal under the UPA government was not formally clinched by the time Modi assumed office in 2104, it was essentially because the deal was completely deadlocked with Dassault refusing to certify key components of the jet which were to be built at HAL unless a series of conditions were met. As mentioned above, the two fought also over the manpower costs. Reportedly, HAL said that manpower costs would be nearly three times higher in India and so it would cost more to build the Rafale jets here, which was disputed by the French company, which said it wouldn’t. They could not reach an agreement.
Against this background, did the Modi government have any option other than going for an intergovernmental deal with a smaller number of 36? We know the critical state of the IAF these days – “In Air (without) Force”. Given India’s geopolitical challenges, IAF would love to have 45 squadrons (each squadron usually has 12 to 18 aircraft); at least 42 squadrons. Presently, IAF has 35 squadrons, though, according to Parliamentary Standing Committee news on Defence, a tangible strength (implying fighting- conditions) might be down to 25 squadrons. As a result, the IAF has been heavily banking on the MMRCA deal, along with the indigenous production of Tejas – both Mark 1 and Mark 2 – in the Light Combat Category (LAC) and the Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA), to be co-developed with Russia(this proposal, since, has been abandoned and now there is a plan to produce them indigenously).
The IAF, at the moment, is heavily dependent on Su-30 MKI (from Russia). Unfortunately, the Su-30MKI has been plagued by multiple systems failures. Its capacity to air-deliver a nuclear payload deep inside China — has been in doubt.
It is true that 36 Rafale are not enough to feel the void. That was why the original requirement was 126. This is a powerful argument cited by the critics against Modi. But then the fact remains that 36 were the bare minimum that the IAF needed to keep its fighting edge for the moment. It needs more and that is why the Modi government has recently floated a new tender inviting vendor interest for supplying 110 MMRCA fighter aircraft. In other words, stage has already been set for MMRCA 2.0.
As has been already pointed out, the Rafale saga started in August 2007 when India floated its Request for Proposals (RFP) for the MMRCA. Over the next two years, six companies entered the race—the American Boeing F/A-18E/F Super Hornet and Lockheed Martin F-16IN Super Viper, the French Dassault Aviation Rafale, the Russian RSK MiGs MiG-35, the European Eurofighter Consortium’s Typhoon, and the Swedish Saab Gripen NG (Next Generation). In between 2009 and 2010, the Indian Air Force (IAF) supervised trials and demonstrations in the home countries of these manufacturers as well as in Indian locations such as Bengaluru, Jaisalmer, and Leh.
It is said that the IAF tested these aircraft by 660 technical benchmarks. It also took into account the RFP’s requirement that 60 per cent of the aircraft’s technology be transferred to India in four phases. Of the 126 aircraft, the first 18 were to be delivered in a flyaway form by the original equipment manufacturer, with the remaining 108 to be assembled in India through a combination of kits supplied by the foreign seller and indigenous Indian production. The idea was to ensure that 50 per cent of the foreign exchange component of the purchase costs was defrayed through direct of sets within the Indian aerospace sector. Finally, on the IAF’s feedback, the Ministry of Defence (MoD) opted for the Rafale in 2012. However, as has been explained, things did not simply work out.
All told, the IAF was deeply impressed with it during the trials for the bid. The Rafale’s greatest strength, especially in the air combat arena, is its ability to acquire, process and fuse information from multiple sensors and present it to the pilot in a single tactical display. During its trials, the IAF pilots were said to be greatly impressed by the aircraft’s remarkable cockpit ergonomics and human factors engineering as manifested in its sensors, controls, interfaces, and displays. In fact, the Rafale performed, and this factor might have tilted the scale in its favour, much better than the Eurofighter during the NATO-operations in Libya and Afghanistan. The second great advantage that it had over its rival was that it could be very well mastered by the pilots of the French Mirage 2000, which India already has. A pilot of a Mirage can very easily be trained to fly a Rafale.
Another factor in favour of the Rafale is that it could be the best platform for India in near future for delivering the nuclear weapons against the enemies. Of course, our nuclear doctrine (if at all there can be said to be one) is based on the concept of a triad – delivering weapons from air (aircraft), ground (missiles such as Prthivi and Agni) and water (submarines such as Arihant). Arihant, however, is not fully functional as yet. Our land-based launchers still need much more rigorous testing regimens to be hundred percent reliable. Therefore, it is an open secret that at the moment the best delivery platforms for nuclear weapons happen to be the French Mirages, which were modified by the Dassault (also manufacturer of Mirage) in the 1990s at India’s request by keeping nuclear weapons in mind.
According to noted defence analyst Rakesh Krishnan Simha, the Rafale’s greatest strength is that it introduces network-centric warfare capabilities and data-logistics similar to those on fifth generation stealth jets such as the American F-35, enabling the French jet on patrol to build a more accurate picture of the battle-space by pooling sensors over a secure network, and even exchange data using new satellite communications antenna. As Dassault claims, the Rafale’s “multi-sensor data fusion” provides a link between the battle-space surrounding the aircraft and the pilot with its unique ability to grasp the outcome of tactical situations and make sensible decisions.
Each Rafale will therefore act like a mini AWACS aircraft, passing on to other pilots data about the location of enemy aircraft, air defences and radar coverage, thereby greatly enhancing IAF pilots’ situational awareness.
Though Sukhoi (Su-30) happens to be the IAF’s air dominance fighter, the fact, however, remains that it has a drawback – it is an extremely large and heavy aircraft that will light up like a Christmas tree on enemy radars. The Su-30 was not built to be stealthy and that is the reason why India sent in the smaller Mirages to hit Balakot on February 26, 2019.
Simha explains that since the French will not have a fifth generation fighter for the next two decades, they have packed the Rafale with technologies that are capable of going head to head with the latest stealth jets. The Rafale, with its low radar profile and firepower (14 hard-points versus 12 on the Sukhoi) can now perform that role. According to military aviation writers such as Sebastien Roblin, the Rafale is much more agile than the F-35 stealth fighter, with superior climb rate, sustained turn performance and the ability to super-cruise (maintain supersonic flight without using fuel-gulping afterburners) at Mach 1.4 while carrying weapons.
Anti-aircraft defences consist of several links – command, control, communication, ground radar, missiles and airborne radar – in a long kill chain. Using its semi-stealthy profile, wide range of weapons, powerful jammers and 360-degree early-warning capability, the Rafale can snap one or more of these links, and thereby disrupt the enemy’s detection ability, argues Simha.
Once all 36 Rafales are inducted, they could well be the IAF’s interceptor of choice. This is, as Simha says, mainly due to its extreme quick readiness. The aircraft can take off in less than 500 metres (using afterburners) and even while the plane is taxing on the runway, the electronic data link can provide the pilot with all the information needed to intercept the target: the enemy’s aircraft’s position, course and speed. Once airborne, its AESA radar’s sensitivity makes it possible to detect smaller targets and detects them earlier. The Rafale’s SPECTRA radar provides a terrific enhancement to the IAF’s ability to operate in highly ‘dense’ hostile environments where there is a heavy presence of anti-aircraft radars and weapons. SPECTRA not only allows the Rafale to detect and localise a threat against the aircraft, but also selects the most effective countermeasures against it. The Rafale would thus also be the ideal aircraft to use against enemy radar networks, anti-aircraft missiles and gun batteries (which Wing Commander Abhinandan Varthaman’s MiG-21 was simply unable to detect with its rudimentary sensors).
The Rafale will also be equipped with the latest SCALP and Meteor missiles, which will outrange all known weapon systems in the region and will give India a definitive combat edge. The SCALP standoff missile has a range of over 300 km and is designed to hit high value, strongly protected targets deep inside enemy territory. The Rafale jets can carry two such missiles that will enable them to hit virtually any target within Pakistan.
Another system that will add to this capability will be the Meteor air to air missile. With a range of over 150 km, the Meteor will outclass all other systems in the region, including the AMRAAM missiles in service with Pakistani F 16 fighter jets.
The French fighter’s Mica air-to-air missile, which has a range of 79 km, can be launched without initially being locked and guided remotely by a data link on the fighter before engaging either an infrared or AESA radar seeker to close in for the kill, using a vector-thrust motor to pull off tight maneuvers. Because both the Rafale and the Mica missile can employ passive infrared targeting without using an indiscrete active-radar for guidance, the Mica can be launched with little warning for the target.
The Rafale fits perfectly into the Indian Air Force’s doctrine of building a multi-spectrum capability through the use of multi-role aircraft. ‘Multi-spectrum capability alludes to the varying nature of tasks that the IAF may be called upon to undertake such as
- Expeditionary interventions to protect island territories and overseas interests
- Protection of territorial waters and sea lanes
- Neutralising Mumbai type attacks by non state actors deep within Indian territory.
- Localised border wars such as the Kargil conflict of 1999
- Single front full scale conventional war with China or Pakistan
- Collusive two front war with China and Pakistan
- Nuclear war
To address multi-spectrum threats, the IAF wants to invest almost exclusively in long range aircraft that can effectively undertake varied roles – air-defence, tactical attack (interdiction and Close Air Support), and strategic bombing – without the need for any escort fighter or jammer. Based on its evaluation, the IAF believes the Rafale meets its requirement better than any other medium fighter on offer.
While considering all the aforesaid factors – performance, technology and prices – in choosing Rafale over other five contenders in 2012, the Indian government had also taken in to account the importance of France as a strategic partner of India. It is true of every major country that geopolitical factor plays an important role in big-ticket purchases. As it is, the IAF was a satisfied user of long standing of French fighters, going back to the 1950s. It was also particularly appreciative of the performance of French Mirages during the 1999 Kargil campaign against Pakistan, and of the support it then obtained from France. During that campaign, India , and this is extremely important to note, obtained French clearance – and possibly more – to urgently adapt Israeli and Russian-supplied laser-guided bombs to the Mirages, which were thus able to successfully engage high-altitude targets that Indian MiG-23s and MiG-27s had been unable to reach.
It is noteworthy that France’s steadfastness as a military ally contrasts strongly with that of the United States, which has never been a reliable supplier of military items and technologies not only to India but also to its traditional allies. It vetoed or slowed components for LCA that India is developing. It had imposed otherwise arms embargo on India following its nuclear tests in 1998. Similar geopolitical reasons went against the Eurofighter, jointly made by Germany, Italy, Britain and Spain. Not only these countries had reservations on the technology transfer, the fact also remained that their reliability during a War was a suspect. After all, if there is a war, German laws prohibit deliveries of weapons and spares. Italian and Spanish laws are not clear on the issue. France, on the other hand, is the only major Western nation (other than Russia) not to impose sanctions on India.
Viewed thus, Rafale has further cemented the growing Indo- French strategic relations. All told, France has been the first Western power to have supported India’s claim for a permanent membership of the UN Security Council. France, unlike its other partners in the Western Alliance, did not impose any sanctions on India after the latter went nuclear in 1998; in fact, it did not even “condemn” the nuclear tests. Besides, France was the first country with which India conducted a joint naval exercise called “Varun” after the 1998 nuclear tests; this exercise has become quite frequent over years. Similarly, the IAF’s first bilateral exercise in 2003 with a foreign counterpart—“the Garuda I”— was again the French Air Force.
India’s choice of Rafale has come at the top of three existing defence projects with France—the 50000 crore for six Scorpene submarines, nearly Rs 15000 crore upgrade for 51 Mirage-2000s and about Rs 10000-crore acquisition of 490 MICA missile systems. Additionally, France is all set to provide nuclear reactors for power generation. In short, the going is pretty good as far as the Indo-French friendship is concerned.
However, few lessons are derived from India’s Rafale saga. First, it is a long story which could have been shorter. The acquiring process has taken so long that it has adversely affected the Indian Air Force. French analyst Calude Arpi has a very valid point when he says that India is probably the only country in the world which has such a cumbersome system for defence procurement (incidentally it took three months for Egypt to buy 24 Rafales in 2015). While the initial Request for Information for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft was issued in 2001, the Request for Proposal was only publicised in 2007. This is when the ‘complications’ started. Eventually, in January 2012, after a long competitive process that lasted five years, Dassault and its partners Thales and Safran were selected to supply 126 planes to the IAF. But the subsequent negotiations were such stormy that Modi ended the agony by opting for the off the shelf G2G route in 2015. Even then, the current agreement took two more years – 2017, to be inked.
Secondly, the Rafale saga also exposed the limitations of our Hindustan Aeronautics Ltd (HAL). Many knew that it would be next to impossible for HAL to build 108 jets in Bengaluru in the required time delays. As a former HAL chairman explained to Arpi once : “HAL is a vertically integrated company. Practically every item is made in-house, ranging from accessories, avionics, and engines to aircraft. It is a management nightmare. No company in the world attempts such vertical integration. About 60 or 70 per cent of a Boeing aircraft is made by subcontractors. When I tried to get engine fuel pump components for the Jaguar made by MICO, Bengaluru (a Bosch subsidiary), it was a non-starter because we needed manufacturing tolerance of five microns and MICO had experience of working with 25 microns.”
The retired official added. “All of us are interested in indigenisation but there are difficulties to achieve it in high technology items.” Under the present DPP, it would have been a nightmare, and a long one, to build 108 Rafales in India, without a proper adaption and ‘indigenisation’ period. Though it is not often admitted in India, let alone the West (whether it is the US, Sweden, Germany or France), even China is years ahead of India in aviation technologies.
No wonder why Modi realised this and took the wise decision of G2G route in procuring Rafale , though it was a definite setback for his favourite ‘Make in India’ scheme.
By Prakash Nanda