IAF’s Rafale, the gust of wind, holding China’s PLAAF in a spot of bother

Updated: Jul 28, 2020 11:34 AM

Though, in light of a fairly prolonged spell of no significant value additions to a fleet having to contend with, even sheer numbers well short of the sanctioned strength, the brouhaha about the Rafale isn't without a reason.

indian air force, rafale, IAF SU-30MKI, AIM-120 AMRAAMs , MiG-29, Sukhoi-27, PLAAF fleet, French Air Force, latest news on rafaleThe weapons package that accompanies the Rafale, beyond doubt, puts to rest debates on our capabilities against the PAF whose mainstay remains the US-made AIM-120 AMRAAMs with a range of about 100kms.

By Wing Commander Abhishek Matiman (Retd)

Though, in light of a fairly prolonged spell of no significant value additions to a fleet having to contend with, even sheer numbers well short of the sanctioned strength, the brouhaha about the Rafale isn’t without a reason. It would, however, be prudent at this juncture to make a realistic assessment of what they bring to the plate in terms of real deterrence, as regards our larger Northern neighbour in particular. The usual belligerence having now transcended into deceitful military action, China now is seen clearly as an enemy nation out to clip our wings in its own quest for supremacy. The clarity and sense of urgency that it lends to our resolve to claim our rightful place under the Sun is indeed welcome.

The weapons package that accompanies the Rafale, beyond doubt, puts to rest debates on our capabilities against the PAF whose mainstay remains the US-made AIM-120 AMRAAMs with a range of about 100kms.

The most significant advantage that accrues from the Meteor BVR air to air missile with a superior range of over 120kms is it’s ‘no escape zone’ that is the largest for any air to air missile in the world. The Meteor is a radar-guided missile whose construction was primarily driven by the need to counter the new generation of highly agile Russian fighter jets like the MiG-29 and Sukhoi-27 (the parent design of the IAF SU-30MKI).

It differs from others in its class like the Phoenix, R-33 & AMRAAM in its unique propulsion system. Most others are propelled by a rocket engine delivering a uniform thrust over a predetermined duration of flight before burning out before finally coasting/gliding to its target at reduced kinetic energy in the terminal phase. This leaves a larger scope for evasion by highly agile aircraft by extreme manoeuvring/deployment of countermeasures. The most recent case in point being Su-30MKI fighters of the IAF that successfully dodged AMRAAM missiles fired by Pakistan’s F-16s last February.

The Meteor missile has a miniature supersonic jet engine/ramjet which can throttle its engine back during cruise, thus saving fuel. Throttling up as it approaches the target, hitting up to Mach 4.5 in the terminal phase, even over long ranges. Experts opine that the No Escape Zone of the Meteor is roughly thrice that of the AIM-120 AMRAAM. Add to that its relatively low weight of 190kg enabling a single Rafale to carry four or more missiles at a time making it truly a lethal combination even the PLAAF would prefer to avoid confronting.

With media reports suggesting that the PLAAF currently operates over 500 units of the SU-27/30 class and their local derivatives like the J-11 & J-16, with plans to expand to up to 1000 units by 2050, the battle-tested Meteor gives the IAF a definite edge over a major chunk of the PLAAF fleet in aerial combat.

There have been reports that the PLAAF had begun deploying a new air-to-air missile on its fleet of J-11 fighters. This weapon, called the PL-15, is estimated to have a range over 200km but like the rest, employs rocket motor propulsion, hence as per experts the primary role of the PL-15 may be to destroy ‘high-value’ targets such as airborne early-warning aircraft and aerial refuelling aircraft.

As regards air to ground weaponry, the Scalp long-range, deep strike missiles with stated range of over 560kms would definitely have both the PLA and the PLAAF in a spot of serious bother. The missile can be fired from standoff ranges, striking most targets of concern across the LAC with pin-point accuracy whilst remaining within the safety of Indian airspace. With an unparalleled standoff range, low observability (due to its design and terrain hugging altitude in flight) the Scalp’s lethality is sure to cause deep concerns. The missile also has been battle-tested with great success by the French Air Force during operations in Libya & Syria.

Hammer air to ground precision munitions, the latest addition to the weapons package adds versatility in operations whilst minimizing the time for readiness to undertake operational missions post-arrival since the arriving aircraft are already capable of firing those. With a standoff range of 70kms, it falls in the category of the Israeli Spice2000 used to hit targets in Balakot last year. The Hammer can be used for both, close air support and ground attack missions.

The Mica of course already in operation with the IAF are BVRMs capable of both beyond visual range and close combat with telling effect.

Adding teeth to the best in class array of weapon systems onboard the Rafale is the SPECTRA, an integrated defensive-aids system which protects the aircraft against airborne and ground threats adding to its survivability in the most hostile environment. The system incorporates various types of detection, jamming, and decoying. It is designed to be highly versatile and easily reprogrammable to facilitate quick add-ons and modifications. The system was put to elaborate use during operations in Libya with spectacular success. The Spectra enabled Rafales to undertake missions independently with equal accuracy/lethality.

From the PLAAF inventory, it’s the Chengdu J-20 that is seen as the main contender and of course the Shenyang J-31 as and when produced and operationalised. While both these aircraft are pitched as fifth-generation stealth fighters while the Rafale admittedly/honestly belongs to the 4.5 generation, the capabilities of the Chinese aircraft as heralded by their own mouthpieces are mostly on paper, as is for most of the things Chinese. The Rafale, on the contrary, is a formidable battle-tested weapon platform.

Rafale doesn’t boast of stealth but is built around the low Radar Cross Section (RCS) philosophy. The J-20 in contrast that proclaims to be stealth has design features that defy the very basics of stealth construction like the canard and provision for external fuel tanks. It’s common knowledge of late that the IAF SU-30MKIs pick up the J-20s on their radars.

Overall – the low RCS, excellent weapons carriage capacity (over 09 tonnes, 14-hard points) and Supercruise combined with an array of battle-tested top of the line weapons package together pack a punch enough to keep at bay, the best that the PLAAF has.

As regards avionics, the PLAAF’s wares almost match up, but that again, solely based on their own claims. What’s yet to be seen is, if the Chinese have been able to integrate technologies well enough to be effective in real combat. The Spectra onboard Rafale, takes the cake on that front, guarantying superior survivability.

Given the proven capabilities of the Rafale, it is unlikely that China would risk bringing the J-20 face to face with it until self-assured of its capabilities.

The biggest advantage that the Rafale brings to the IAF vis a vis PLAAF is, it being a French aircraft, the Chinese have very limited insights into the technologies and capabilities it brings to the arena, unlike aircraft of Russian origin that they know all too well barring India specific enhancements and modifications. Of course, only the handful arriving shortly practically do not make up for much, going by sheer numbers that the PLAAF is in a position to deploy, nevertheless deter the Chinese – the Rafale most certainly would.

Going by reports, the French have expressed willingness to supply an additional 36 post-delivery of the first lot contracted, at a reduced cost. That definitely would go a long way in securing the frontiers, in the process making up for the shortfall that the IAF faces today. Upgradation and acquisition to reach optimum force levels must continue in the right earnest whilst concurrently pushing for indigenisation, especially in the tumultuous times that lie ahead.

(The author is a veteran IAF aviator & former spokesperson for the Ministry of Defence. He has regularly been writing for mainstream newspapers, and also appears on TV news channels in debates pertaining to Defence and Geopolitical affairs. Twitter: WingCoMats@AbhishekMatiman. Views expressed are personal.)

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