At present, the geopolitical situation of South Asia is different from what it was a year back. With ease in tensions between India, China and Pakistan, the ray of peace is now in sight. The ceasefire and disengagement treaties have been signed, and the international borders are going to be silent until a side decides to break it.
Major developments have taken place between 2019 and 2021. Indian Air Force and Pakistan Air Force fighters engaged themselves in first ever combat since 1971. PLA and India faced high number of casualties in a large scale standoff. And most importantly, the highly awaited fighter aircraft, Dassault Rafale finally inducted in Indian Air Force inventory.
The 36 Indian Rafale deal, signed in 2016, took a political shape only after the government was accused in a scam, where it was claimed that the deal is overpriced and the actual cost could be much less than the Indian government’s declaration. This lead to sudden speculations on whether these European fighters are any good and how their introduction in the inventory is going to affect or change the current air power scenario in the region, and especially against the China, that already operates a abundant amount of fighters of such class, precisely, the 4.5 generation.
Decoding Rafale F3R(I)
The Indian package involves the Rafale in F3R standard that is, at present, the most advanced platform of such type in operation. It comes with RBE-2AE (export designation of RBE-2AA) Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, customised SPECTRA EW suite, long range air-to-air and air-to-surface cruise missiles, and much more.
Developed by Thales, the RBE-2AA radar provides highly precise information of 5m2 RCS targets situated within a radius of 200 km, and marking/Tracking 40 targets and engaging 4 of them simultaneously. The SPECTRA EW suite is the main highlight, as it is presently one of the most advanced integrated EW suites with a complete package of 360° MAWS, RWR and LWR coverage, self-protection high band jammer and low band jammer, highly effective in SEAD missions. The compatibility with medium-to-long-range Meteor air-to-air missile also makes it a potent machine to attain air superiority in all weather conditions. Air-to-ground offence capability with its diverse weapon package is also splendid. The SCALP cruise missile, when launched at standoff, can easily avoid ground radar detection with its terrain hugging ability and precisely impact on the designated target situated beyond within or beyond 500km range.
Not only in Beyond Visual Range, but even in a close combat scenario, the aircraft will be lethal against the hostile due to its Thrust to Weight ratio of nearly 1 in combat configuration, InfraRed Search and Track unit and Israeli Helmet Mounted Display and Sight (Exclusive to Qatar and India) cued with MICA.
As all this equipments and weaponary, already procured under the package will provide overall edge over any other aircraft in posession of rival Air Forces of India.
Necessity of Rafale
While the actual tender was officially released in 2007 and the deal was signed after 9 years in 2016, the actual necessity of Rafale was first felt after the outcomes of 2-day skirmish between India and Pakistan, when various shortcomings were observed within IAF. The lack of secure data link and technical limitations of Russian AAMs are some of the examples. Both reasons were attributed to the loss of MiG-21 during the engagement.
Soon, IAF prepared to fix all these gaps. The first to be the integration of Israeli Rafael “Global link”, a tactical data link network system allowing secure communications between assets. Firing trials of advanced versions of R-77, alongside limited integration of indigenous Astra AAMs also took place to improve the Beyond Visual Range (BVR) offence ability of the Air Force.
Capabilities without Rafale
The Indian Air Force already owned the title to have 4th largest air force in terms of its total fleet strength before the induction of the Rafales, the majority of which are Russian origin platforms. In the fighter fleet, Su-30MKI is the most abundantly available aircraft in service, followed by MiG-29UPG and French origin Mirage 2000I/H. All these aircraft have served their purpose from time to time and also integrated with potent capabilities to achieve desired objectives even before the arrival of Rafale.
As we already mentioned, the necessity of Rafale was already noticed in the 2019 engagements as the shortcomings in IAF were quite visible. But is the induction of 36 Rafales completely and drastically going to tilt the airpower superiority towards IAF? According to the experts, the answer is a straight forward NO.
The reason cited is not the operational restriction, but the lack of airframe numbers. While these would significantly increase the operational capabilities of the service, but stating it to bring a ground-breaking development could be an injustice. However, the Air Force is moving at a slow pace towards modernization- with the induction of new Light Combat Aircraft Tejas Mk-1(FOC standard) and Mk-1A, and the Light Combat Helicopters. The major ‘breakthrough’ would be achieved with the introduction of the fifth-generation AMCA into service; but the present conditions require to carry forward with the ‘Super Sukhoi’ program and to beef up the “quality numbers” according to the expert.
The 36 airframes will form a total of 2 Rafale squadrons in the Indian Air Force, with one already placed under Western Air Command and other planned for Eastern Air Command. However, these will provide cover only against Pakistan in the west and some proportion of China in the east. The 114 units which were planned in the original MMRCA program were actually expected to meet the demand, but the deal met various hurdles regarding the price and operational ‘compromises’.
For Indian Air Force, depending on one platform may not be suitable. “There are already a quite good amount of aircraft in service with good amount of service life available that still can’t be replaced overnight,” the expert stated.
Here, we will look at the capabilities that the Indian Air Force already owns (and would own) without the Rafale and how this will gradually affect the air power balance in the region.
Su-30MKI and upgrade plans
The upgrade plan was introduced to carry out large scale modernistaion on Indian Su-30MKI fleet, dubbed as “Super Sukhoi”. Based on Su-35, the Super Sukhoi will be integrated with Irbis-E next-generation Phased Active Electronically Scanned Array (PESA) radar, AL-41F-1S Thrust Vectoring capable turbofan engines, a Su-35 based avionics suite and new RVV-SD and RVV-MD medium-range missiles.
Another upgrade plan is based on indigenous technology where DRDO developed Uttam Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) radar, new HAL configured cockpit upgradation and avionics suite, Astra family of air-to-air missiles will be integrated on the platform.
Both of these plans are presently on proposal stage and aircraft is yet to recieve any major upgrade.
At present, the Su-30MKI does provide numerical superiority at least over its arch-rival, the Pakistan Air Force. Infact, the total number of Su-30MKIs is more than the combined fleet of PAF JF-17 and F-16 fighter platforms. With N011M BARS PESA radar, it has max range of 200km to track 5m2 RCS targets. The weapon package includes R-77 and R-27 air-to-air missiles, with active radar and semi-active radar guidance respectively. However, these missiles are going to be replaced with indigenous and more capable DRDO “Astra” AAM. With a T/W ratio of more than 1, IRST system, high off-boresight R-73E missile cued with Sura-K HMS, it is highly effective in close-range combat. The aircraft was also the reason for the failure of PAF’s Operation ‘Swift Retort’, when the F-16s had to turn back as two Flankers dodged the AIM-120AMRAAMs and counterattacked on instead of retreating. Read here
With payload to carry high capacity dumb bombs, and precision-guided munitions like SPICE 2000 and Griffin, Kh-31A anti-ship missile, Kh-31P anti-radiation missile and most importantly, BrahMos supersonic cruise missile, it is versatile for strike roles and hence dubbed as a “bomb truck”.
While Chinese J-16 and new J-11BS fighters are indeed improved Flanker platforms, it is yet to know how reliable are those systems when compared to the original Su-30s and the improved Su-30MKIs. However, Pakistan gets out of the equation and is yet to field any fighter in heavyweight air superiority class.
Fast tracking Tejas development and procurement
The first batch of Tejas Mk1 does arrive late, but what still matters is its upcoming variants that will possess abilities to match and counter the present generation challenges. Tejas Mk1A will feature an AESA radar, along with new I-Derby ER BVR-AAMs, anti-ship missiles like BrahMos NG, compatibility to support external ECM pods, improved avionics suite and so on. Going further ahead in the indigenous development process, the Tejas Mk2 will come up with next-generation features including an integrated EW suite, IRST system and an enhanced cockpit. More Tejas derivatives are going be rolled out in upcoming years, that are Tejas LIFT/SPORT and OmniRole Fighter Aircraft (ORCA) (please note we are talking about Air Force variants and hence, LCA Navy is excluded).
Tejas Mk1A, being a 4th generation light fighter, is cheaper to operate than a Su-30MKI and features significant capability in a small package. As a point defence fighter or interceptor, it has a primary focus on air-to-air offence roles and hence, will field Israeli I-Derby ER medium-range air-to-air missiles, that can engage a fighter-sized target within 100km.
As the deal for 73 airframes of such type is already signed, the Tejas may be seen as a primary interceptor soon in the coming years.
Upgraded Mirage, MiG-29 and Jaguar fleet
There is no doubt that the Mirage-2000 is the most trustworthy fighter in IAF fleet. In the last two major combat operations, Mirage remained the primary contributor. Dropping PGMs against hostile fortifications is what this aircraft is known for in service with IAF. Survivability in extreme mission scenarios and utilisation of Precision Guided Munitions (PGMs) in combat made Mirage 2000 a battle proven strike fighter.
The last mid-life upgradation was carried out in 2011 when a Mirage 2000-5 Mk2 based modernisation carried out to integrate new RDY-2 radar, mission computer, MBDA MICA family of air-to-air missiles, cockpit upgradation and Israeli HMDS. These upgrades turned out to be highly effective in enhancing the capabilities and it was very well utilised during standoff against Pakistan and China in 2019 and 2020 respectively.
The MiG-29, on the other hand, remains underrated. The Fulcrum contribution in Indian Air Force is noteworthy. If Mirages and other bomber aircrafts were able to deploy their bombs succesfully over Kargil without any challenge, it was only because of the escort of the MiG-29Bs which made sure that no hostile aircraft would penetrate into Indian airspace and become a threat for Indian strike group. The R-27 BVR-AAMs were one of the very first medium range air-to-air missiles to be used by Indian Air Force and it was the main reason to keep the bandits at a safe distance.
The MiG-29s are still in service with the Air Force but now they are much improved and different, in the form of MiG-29UPG. The upgradation plan came into existence in 2005 after the Indian Air Force felt that the active MiG-29Bs are turning outdated. The operationalization of SMT standard MiG-29s in the Russian Air Force also gave a good base to start. In 2008, the contract was awarded to Mikoyan Gurevich which covered structural as well as avionics upgrade of the 60 airframes. The redesigned spine increased the overall fuel capacity of the aircraft, enhancing the range. The addition of Phazotron Zhuk-M2E pulse doppler radar, allowed integration of advanced RVV-AE and R-27T BVR air-to-air missiles, NIIPP OLS-UEM IRST sensor with the laser, thermal imaging, and television display. Another highlight is the integration of indigenous Electronic Warfare (EW) Suite, DRDO D-29. In fact, MiG-29UPG is the only Indian Air Force fighter (other than the newly-acquired Rafale) with a full package internal EW suite.
While Jaguar is a dedicated attack aircraft, the aircraft still holds a special place in the IAF inventory. The DARIN 3 standard, armed with Israeli origin EL/M-2052 AESA radar, new mission computer, and enhanced sensors suite, make it capable to carry new weapon systems including AIM-132 Advanced Short Range Air-to-Air Missile (ASRAAM) that is one of the most potent close combat missiles available globally. The Jaguar IM, a maritime strike variant, now has Harpoon Block 2 as its primary anti-ship armament. With a range exceeding 200km, the missile can be deployed at standoff ranges and makes it a formidable platform to conduct maritime security.
At present, the Pakistan Air Force Mirage ROSE fleet is yet to achieve the combat capability like upgraded Jaguars of the Indian Air Force.
Hawk: A formidable CAS platform
BAe Hawk Mk.132, originally an advanced jet trainer, is compatible to carry external munitions including gun and rocket pods. Along with it, the aircraft is now capable of deploying Smart Anti-Airfield Weapon (SAAW), a 100kg warhead carrying precision guided munition. The weapon package cued with its lightweight characteristics, the aircraft can be turned out into a very effective light attack aircraft that would be suitable to carry out close-air support missions. Unlike helicopters, the aircraft will be quicker in its insertion and extraction from combat zone. Such type of aircraft are also useful in COunter INsurgency ops of open stages (open terrain).
A strong economy and numerical superiority of the military is what makes India a regional power and possess a hardcore influence in South Asian affairs. Facing 2 arch-rivals, one in the west and one in the northeast, the armed forces need to be on combat-alert throughout the year. Along with the alertness, it needs to properly adapt to counter the challenges of the new world, including electronic warfare, proxy warfare, etc.. With the current modernization process of all three branches of military in progress, it can be assured that it will affect the regional power balance in the long term.
The Rafale remains the primary highlight in the case of the Air Force. It is necessary to note that it is not going to be the sole asset of the organisation. A modern Air Force capability depends on how effective is its utilisation in a conflict. The significance and effectiveness of interoperability is what defines the outcome of any skirmish or war. BrahMos equipped Su-30MKIs, when launched in a large formation, can deploy a swarm of supersonic cruise missiles. Similarly, other fighters in service with the Indian Air Force can be utilised according to their roles in various scenarios and already well proven in the past conflicts.