It was all about the aircraft itself, its much vaunted 4.5 generation capability, its weapons and how it would be a game changer.
By Group Captain Badhrish Narasimha Athreya (Retd)
There was an explosion of information, discussion and debates galore on the news channels and social media on and before 31 July this year as the Rafales set course from Merignac in France to their home in Ambala. It was all about the aircraft itself, its much vaunted 4.5 generation capability, its weapons and how it would be a game changer. There was a live coverage of events the whole day right from the time that they took off from the UAE till the time they reached Ambala. Come September 10th and the Rafale will be inducted into the IAF formally.
A much-bandied word by one and all, but what exactly does it mean? What it means is that it upsets a balance or changes the paradigm. It is unlike two fighters fighting with swords, one with a broadsword and the other with a curved one, one incrementally better than the other. A game changer would be like introducing a gun in a sword fight, it completely changes the rules.
So, let’s begin by studying the basics of air warfare a little bit. The medium of air allows you to be Offensive (to enter the enemy territory and destroy his assets) or Defensive (prevent the enemy’s air offensive). The former requires you to generally carry bombs / cruise missiles / rockets, etc., which would target his assets while the latter would require you to be armed with Air-Air missiles and guns to shoot down the intruding aircraft or Air Defence as it is called.
While the older generation aircraft were optimized for either a purely offensive or an Air Defence role, modern generation aircraft tend to be Multi Role, i.e. capable of both these and more, because of inherent superior characteristics. So what are the specific qualities of the aircraft, its sensors or its weapons which would give you an upper hand in an air battle?
The basic aero plane design itself. Modern generation aircraft (4 and above) due to superior aerodynamics and Fly by Wire flight controls makes them extremely maneuverable and very agile. This is also in a large part due to powerful yet efficient engines and hence they have excellent thrust to weight characteristics. Importantly, the 4.5 gen and above focus on Stealth (ability to hide its presence to enemy radar and infra-red sensors) and Super Cruise(ability to go supersonic for sustained time without afterburning which uses excess amounts of fuel). The Rafale is exceptionally maneuverable, has very powerful engines capable of super cruise and though not stealth, is fairly low on its radar signature (RCS).
The sensor suite onboard
These consist of its radar which is used to target airborne aircraft as well as for ground targets, like the eyes of a warrior, the farther it can see, the better. However, the use of own radar gives away your presence and hence one could rely on passive heat sensing devices called IRST (Infra Red Search and Track) which would hide your presence while letting you target the enemy. The self Defence capability consisting of its Electronic Warfare suite and associated systems (which will either prevent an enemy from spotting your aircraft or it could also jam and confuse an enemy radar and even weapons which have been launched, keeping you safe) is vital. Secure Data link and communications, which helps share information on a network, allows an aircraft today to be a part of a team of ground radars, the AWACS and every other friendly ac (including UAVs and drones) in the Area of Operations. Sensor Fusion is combining all of “their” information with your own, to form a composite picture of the Air Battle, presented to the pilot in an extremely user-friendly manner which improves his decision-making capability. The advances made in this facet are what have kept 1970s design fighters such as the F-16 and F-18 still at the forefront of aerial battle capability till date. The Rafale has an exceptional AESA radar with very long ranges and multi target track and firing capability, an extremely capable IRST and the SPECTRAself-defense suite is one of the most proficient and well integrated in the market today. So, it can see the battlefield earlier and faster or more stealthily, keep the aircraft safe while still targeting the enemy, both the ground target and adversary aircraft and do it with utmost efficiency.
The weapon capability and load out
Gone are the days where you sneaked up and flew right overhead the target to drop your dumb bombs and hoped like hell you hit the target. Look at St Paul’s church at Ambala. It’s probably less than 500m from the runway, but that’s what got damaged in a night attack by the PAF in 1965 and not the Runway. When you get closer to the target, be it ground or airborne you risk getting shot, many times over. Today’s smart weapons have sensors as advanced as the aircraft itself. They navigate to the target using GPS / INS, they may even have photo imagery stored within to identify their route and target, giving them accuracy of less than a metre. They fold out their wings to glide and increase range or have engines which propel them to distances of 300 kms and more. This is called Stand Off Capability. The more the standoff capability, the more it improves your survivability. This is true of Air-Ground and Air-Air weapons. If I can shoot the adversary before he can shoot me, I will be the winner. So longer the range, more lethal you will be, especially if your missile’s NEZ (No Escape Zone-the distance at which YOU WILL GET SHOT PERIOD) is larger. And the more weapons you can carry, the more lethal you will be, especially if it is a mix of Air-Air and Air-Ground, in which case not only are you offensive but you can threaten the enemy fighter as well.
The Rafale has 14 hardpoints on which it can carry a payload in excess of 9 tonnes. This is exponentially higher than the 4 tonne load that most of today’s equivalent fighters are capable of. And these can be a mix of the SCALP / STORM SHADOW CRUISE MISSILE which is an advanced air to ground missile with a range in excess of 300 Km, the shorter range (70 Kms+) HAMMER Air-Ground Smart weapon or a variety of Laser Guided, GPS guided bombs. With the SCALP, one could fire it from over Srinagar and not just hit Islamabad (170 Kms away) but even further upto Peshawar (300 Kms away) while being safe well within our own territory. In the Air-Air arsenal it carries the METEOR Radar guided missile which has a 100+ Km range and a NEZ of 70 kms+ due to its unique design. It also carries the shorter range (70 Kms+) MICA, which can be both a radar and IR guided version. There is no equivalent range or capability proven array of weapons in either the Pakistani or the Chinese arsenal today.
So if you were to measure the sum total of all of these capabilities, what you get is a state of the art aircraft, which can fly fast, fly farther, hide its presence from the enemy reasonably well, keep itself safe and while doing this, it can pick up its targets earlier, fire its weapons at a longer range and ensure the target, be it ground or airborne is destroyed before it even has a chance to retaliate or even realize that it is under threat. It can be neatly summed up as true “First Look, First Shoot and First Kill” capability.
Let me give you a real-life example. On 27 Feb 2019, PAF retaliated to the Balakot strike audaciously with their F-16s in broad daylight. Though our Sukhois, MiG-29s and Mirages held them at bay, they weren’t able to threaten the F-16s effectively, since the Falcons were armed with the AIM 120C5 Air-Air missile, the equivalent range of which the IAF fighters didn’t possess. Today, with the Rafale armed with the Meteor (far superior to the AIM 120C5) and Scalp, the PAF Falcons wouldn’t even dare to come close to their own border much less intrude across. And that is why it is a game changer…
(The author has served for 25 years in IAF as a fighter pilot and test pilot. He retired in 2019 as Chief Test Pilot of ASTE (Aircraft and Systems Testing Establishment ) IAF. He has flown 25 different types of aircraft, including all fighters of IAF. Project leader for the Indigenous AEW&C manufactured by DRDO commissioned in the IAF in 2017. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; www.linkedin.com/in/badhrishathreya. Views expressed are personal.)