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August 12, 2020

Rafale jets won’t save India’s air force

National

August 12, 2020

The first five of India’s new Rafale fighter aircraft touched down in country on July 29. According to the terms of a 2016 contract with the French manufacturer Dassault, 31 more will follow. They will go some way toward filling India’s larger requirement of 126 such jets. The Indian Air Force has long needed refurbishing, but it has been perennially delayed both by New Delhi’s infamous bureaucratic red tape and by budgetary issues. Now, the arrival of the new fighters—the first in over 20 years—in the middle of an unprecedented border face-off against China, will be a boost for Indian military capability as well as morale. But it won’t do much to change the hard reality that, as an air power, India is falling far behind, foreign media report.

The Indian Air Force has historically been one of the best-equipped air forces in the region, but it has seen its advantage, both qualitative and quantitative, against China and Pakistan narrow dramatically over the past two decades. Even worse, it now faces the challenge of mustering enough aircraft to tackle any possible collusion between the Pakistani and Chinese air forces. Related to tensions in Ladakh, China seems to be activating air platforms in its Tibetan airfields. And along the border with Pakistan, the Pakistan Air Force recently conducted an air exercise out of the Skardu base in Gilgit-Baltistan. Taken together, those are tough challenges for an underequipped air force to take on.

The Rafale may help somewhat. After decades of fielding upgraded legacy fighters and struggling to develop contemporary jets, the Rafale finally provides the Indian Air Force with a comprehensive combat craft that requires very little further tinkering. Unlike any previous procurements, the Rafale fighters’ capabilities are already up to par, and small enhancements will be relatively easy and cheap via the so-called India-specific enhancements.

These India-specific changes are being carried out under a concurrent design, modification, testing, and certification program carried out by Dassault. The modifications involve a mix of hardware and software changes, including an improved infrared search-and-track capability, the addition of an Israeli helmet-mounted display and sight system, changes to the electronically scanned radar, a new device for jamming low-band radio frequencies, integration of an Israeli-created decoy system, an upgraded radar altimeter, expanded navigation aids, and a more robust cold start system for the engines to make them suitable for winter operations from the Air Force’s Himalayan bases. Once all changes are tested and certified in 2021, the entire Indian Rafale fleet will be updated. This allows Dassault to keep producing fighters at an economical rate and the Air Force to induct jets and train personnel in an organized manner, while still ensuring that the final aircraft does not compromise on the original capability requirements.