Rafale induction: Five new birds fly into Golden Arrows' quiver

There will be a ceremonial unveiling of the Rafale, a traditional all-faith service, and flying displays by the Rafale and Tejas fighters
With much of the Indian Air Force (IAF) deployed for possible combat against the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) following its intrusions into Ladakh, the IAF will on Thursday see the addition of a significant new arrow in its quiver.

Four years after the IAF signed a contract with French company, Dassault Aviation, for 36 Rafale fighters, the IAF will formally induct the first five Rafale’s into service. These aircraft, along with the next 13 that will arrive in batches over the next eight months, will join the IAF’s 17 Squadron, also called the Golden Arrows, stationed in Ambala.

The Golden Arrows came into being at Air Force Station, Ambala on October 1, 1951 and has many firsts to its credit. In 1955 it became the IAF’s first squadron that flew jet fighters, the legendary De Havilland Vampire. In August 1957, the Squadron became the first to convert on to a swept wing fighter, the Hawker Hunter. Its last aircraft, which was retired in 2016, was the MiG-21, which it flew with distinction in the 1999 Kargil War.

Signalling how important the Rafale deal is for India and France, both countries’ defence ministers — Rajnath Singh and Florence Parly — will be chief guests for the event. Also in attendance will be Chief of Defence Staff General Bipin Rawat, IAF chief, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria, Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar and Secretary of Defence R&D, Satheesh Reddy.

Officials from France will include Dassault chief, Eric Trappier, and Eric Beranger, the chief of MBDA, which supplied the weaponry for the Rafale.

The ceremonies at Ambala will include a ceremonial unveiling of the Rafale, a traditional sarva dharma puja (all-faith service), flying displays by the Rafale and Tejas fighters and by the Sarang helicopter display team that flies three indigenous Dhruv helicopters. Afterwards, a traditional water cannon salute will be given to the Rafale aircraft.

The purchase of 36 Rafales was concluded in September 2016, when the IAF signed a 7.8 billion euros contract with French aerospace firm Dassault, with delivery to commence in September 2019. With the first five Rafale’s arriving from France in July, the delivery began nine months late.

However, with the IAF pressing Dassault to deliver fighters at an accelerated rate to make up for lost time, one-to-two more Rafales are expected to join the fleet every month. At that rate, both Rafale squadrons could be delivered and operational by late 2022.

The contract includes 3.3 billion euros for the “bare bones” aircraft, 1.7 billion euros for India-specific enhancements (a set of additional capabilities, demanded by the IAF to enhance the fighter’s combat capability), 1.8 billion euros for spare parts, 700 million euros for the weaponry the fighter will carry, and 350 million euros for a “performance based logistics” guarantee that 75 per cent of the Rafale fleet will be operationally available at all times.

However, Dassault is delivering the Rafale without its so-called “India specific enhancements”. These include helmet-mounted sights, radar warning receiver, radio altimeter, Doppler radar and the ability to start up the fighter without assistance in extremely cold areas such as Ladakh. These capability enhancements, which Dassault is still developing, will be retro-fitted onto the IAF’s Rafale fleet later.

The weapons that give the Rafale its combat edge over all other fighters in the region have already been delivered by MBDA, ahead of the arrival of the fighters.

These include the Meteor beyond visual range (BVR), air-to-air missile, regarded as the world’s most formidable. With a range estimated at over 120 kilometres, the Meteor allows a Rafale pilot to shoot down an adversary before coming into the range of the enemy’s missiles.

The IAF’s Rafales also carry the shorter-range MICA missile, which is the world’s only air-to-air missile that features two interoperable seekers (active radar and imaging infrared). This allows the MICA to be used in close-in, fighter-to-fighter dogfights as well as in the BVR role.

The MICA’s deadliest feature is its ability, while engaging a target in BVR mode, to approach the enemy aircraft in passive mode, i.e. without radiating radar waves, which alert the adversary. When it approaches the target, the seeker starts radiating only in the final stages when the target has little time to deploy countermeasures.

The IAF’s Rafales will also carry the French SCALP deep-strike cruise missile to strike ground targets. This can strike hardened and protected targets deep inside hostile territory from stand-off ranges, i.e. without requiring the Rafale to enter hostile airspace that would be heavily defended with air defence missiles. The SCALP’s immense destructive ability comes from a powerful tandem warhead and multiple detonation modes.

More Rafale fighters could follow the 36 already contracted. Last November, the Supreme Court dismissed a bunch of petitions against the Rafale contract, clearing the decks for Dassault to compete with other global vendors in a separate Indian tender for the purchase of 114 more medium fighters. Industry analysts believe that, having already sold 36 fighters, paid for the development of India-specific enhancements and created the infrastructure for supporting the Rafale, Dassault would be at an advantage in any future competitive tender.

The IAF’s 114-fighter procurement follows the cancellation in 2015 of its 2007 tender for 126 Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA), which was won by the Rafale but never executed. With its fighter numbers depleted, the IAF has launched the procurement of 114 medium fighters in an exercise that closely mirrors the MMRCA tender.

The fighter manufacturers that appear likely to compete include: Boeing with its twin-engined F-15EX; Lockheed Martin, with its single-engined F-21; Saab with its single-engined Gripen E/F, Eurofighter GmbH with its twin-engined Typhoon; Russia with two twin-engined fighters, RAC MiG-35 and Sukhoi Su-35, and Dassault with the Rafale.

Dassault is also likely to offer the Rafale in response to a separate Request for Information, or RFI, the Indian Navy has floated for 57 fighters, to be flown off its aircraft carriers.

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