An Update on the Indian Air Force: The Coming of Rafale


2014-08-20 By Gulshan Luthra and Air Marshal VK Jimmy Bhatia

New Delhi. India’s negotiations with French Dassault for the acquisition of 126 Rafale Medium Multi Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) “are progressing well” and the contract is likely “sooner than later in the current financial year 2014-15.”

This was stated by Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha in a comprehensive interview with India Strategic on the eve of the Farnborough Air Show, the first in fact after he assumed office about six months ago.

Indian Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha. Credit: India Strategic
Indian Chief of Air Staff Air Chief Marshal Arup Raha. Credit: India Strategic

He was candid to acknowledge that IAF will have to retire several legacy squadrons of MiG-21 and MiG-27 aircraft in the coming years but he was also confident that the planned induction of the Rafale, and HAL’s indigenous Tejas Light Combat Aircraft (LCA) will help “arrest the drawdown in the strength of the fighter squadrons.”

The number of Su-30MKI aircraft is also steadily increasing.

IAF has planned induction of 272 Su-30MKIs, periodically upgraded, and nearly 60 per cent of them have already been inducted.

IAF’s proposed strength for combat aircraft is 42, to be reached by 2022. Because of the phasing out of the old aircraft like MiG-21s and MiG-23s, the current squadron strength is reported to be 34.

Air Chief Marshal Raha expressed confidence and observed: “Early induction of LCA and MMRCA has been planned for arresting the drawdown in the strength of fighter squadrons…. IAF is likely to have its sanctioned strength of combat squadrons operational sooner than later.”

IAF’s MMRCA Rafale Program

On the urgent requirement of combat aircraft though, he pointed out: “The MMRCA CNC (Commercial Negotiations Committee) is presently negotiating various aspects of the contract with the L1 vendor, Dassault Aviation of France. The negotiations are progressing well. The contract for 126 MMRCA is expected to be signed sooner than later in the current FY 2014-15.”

He pointed out that as the Rafale induction was in accordance with the Defence Procurement Procedure (DPP) 2006, “Transfer of Technology (ToT) is not eligible towards discharge of ‘Offset’ obligations” but that the latest “revised offset guidelines permit greater flexibility for discharge of offset obligations.”

(Indian armed forces are hungry for ToT, and as the DPP has evolved, so is the clarity on how to get the best while buying expensive, modern defence systems.

The emphasis on ToT was also stated as a priority by India’s top scientist, Dr Avinash Chander, Scientific Adviser to the Defence Minister and Director General of Defence Research and Development Organisation (DRDO) in a separate interview with India Strategic.

He also mentioned that India’s focus now was on induction of the latest hi-tech systems to support the armed forces and that the time has come for a “performance audit” to compare what is made in India with equivalent imported systems).

As for the Rafale induction, there is progress towards early finalization in discussions.

According to Ministry of Defence (MoD) sources, a few subcommittees are working to fine tune details towards the contract, and this should not take very long.

The big issue was the agreement between the vendor, Dassault International, and HAL which is the prime integrator for the project. HAL has negotiated more than 70 per cent work share for itself although Dassault was initially hesitant to agree as there were doubts about the state-run company’s credentials in meeting production timelines.

Delays can result in penalties for the French vendor. Nonetheless, this issue is resolved.

Transport Aircraft

The Air Chief also disclosed that IAF’s newly acquired strategic transporter, Boeing C-17 Globemaster III, had been deployed to support UN missions in Congo as also to assist the Government of Tajikistan.

IAF had contracted for 10 C-17s.

Five of these are operational from their base near New Delhi while the remaining five are due to be delivered within 2014 as per the contract.

He was also upbeat on the paradigm shift that C-17 and the C-130J Super Hercules had brought about “in our airlift capabilities.”

IAF had inducted the first C-130J aircraft some three and half years ago and another six of these Special Operations aircraft are due to be added in 2016, he disclosed.

Air Chief Raha said:

The induction of C-17 and C-130J has brought about a paradigm shift in our airlift capabilities.

The exceptional capabilities of the C-17 aircraft have enhanced our strategic footprint which impacts the concept of Strategic Airlift Operations.

Though the process of operationalizing the fleet is still in progress, it has already displayed potential by undertaking operations in support of the UN Mission in Congo and the Government of Tajikistan.

The C-130 has flown with us for three and a half years and has emerged as a significant enabler for Special Operations, besides being extensively deployed for varied tasks.

More importantly, these platforms have significantly enhanced our responsiveness in carrying out HADR (Humanitarian and Disaster Relief) operations.

Force Multipliers

Air Chief Marshal Raha said the IAF is paying attention to all its assets, combat aircraft, transport aircraft, secure connectivity, reach of the assets, weapons and sensors, training and force multiplier aircraft like AWACS and Refuellers “to remain a contemporary aerospace power which possesses credible capability with a strategic footprint.”

Elaborating on some points, he said:

To ensure the requisite degree of air surveillance and achieve air dominance in future operations, IAF needs to have adequate on-station capability in its ‘Area of Interest’.

Towards this, IAF has already taken the first step of operationalizing three AWACS, procured from abroad.

Indigenous development of AEW&C by DRDO is in the developmental flight trials stage.

These would be inducted in IAF after the trials are successfully accomplished.

To leverage the experience and expertise gained in the Design & Development of AEW&C, a project for indigenous development of AWACS has been initiated.

The project is envisaged in two phases. Phase I involves development of a prototype, followed by a mid-term review by a National Review Committee.

Based on the success of Phase I of the indigenous AWACS, Phase II for production of additional AWACS will be initiated.

Incidentally, the AWACS development project, led by DRDO, is quite ambitious and envisages latest technology radars on big aircraft like the Airbus A330 or Boeing 767.

Notably, India has achieved significant milestones in radar technology.

Also, IAF has already decided to buy six A330 midair refuellers from Airbus Defence & Space, negotiations for which are in progress.

Sensor, Shooter Loop

Air Chief Marshal Raha said that the application of aerospace power would be decisive in winning the short and intense wars of the future, wherein the response would need to be prompt and precise.

Towards this, IAF envisages itself to be a multi-spectrum strategic force, a contemporary aerospace power which possesses credible capability with a strategic footprint.

The induction of state-of-the-art combat platforms like Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) – for which DRDO is working a co-development programme with Russia – and MMRCA as well as the ongoing upgradation of existing combat platforms would enable us to keep pace with the newer technologies which include long range multi-function radars, superior man-machine interface, high performance mission computers with data link, state-of-the-art electronic warfare systems, smart weapons and stealth capability.

The Air Chief pointed out:

IAF endeavours to seamlessly integrate maximum number of sensors, platforms and systems in the Integrated Air Command Control System (IACCS) network.

Coupled with space assets and RPAs, this network would afford us ‘High Situational Awareness’ in a ‘Network Centric’ environment.

Enabled by ICT (Information & Communication Technologies), the network would reduce the sensor to shooter time considerably.

IAF Transformation

About the ongoing Transformation of IAF, Air Chief Marshal Raha said that in accordance with IAF’s Long Term Integrated Perspective Plan (LTIPP), there is clear emphasis on force accretion in entire spectrum of IAF’s capability building including fighters, transport aircraft, helicopters, combat support assets and modernization of air defense network.

Net centricity, cyber security, and ensuring requisite communication bandwidth for seamless operations are also part of this capability.

Space is increasingly being integrated into our day-to-day operations to give us the winning edge in any contingency.

In order to absorb these new capabilities more efficiently, a time-bound and comprehensive infrastructure upgrade plan has been instituted.

The plan envisages “acquisitions, upgrades and efficient management of legacy systems.”

Jaguar Upgrade

On the Jaguar upgrade, which involves putting the much more powerful Honeywell F-125 IN engine in these aircraft, Air Chief Marshal Raha said that he expected the contract negotiations to begin soon, and sign the documents within the current fiscal (ending March 2015).

IAF has more than 100 of these Anglo-French jets, acquired from the late 1970s as Deep Penetration Strike Aircraft (DPSA). Their upgradation with new power plants in fact will give them capability to fly over the mountains also, which is not there at present.

Then, simultaneously, the aircraft would be equipped with newer systems and sensors.

Said the Air Chief:

Yes, a case for re-engining of the Jaguar aircraft with F-125 IN engine is being actively pursued.

Presently, the case is at Technical Oversight Stage, after which the contract negotiations will commence and we are hopeful of signing the contract in this financial year.

Re-engining and concurrent upgrade of the Jaguar fleet will ensure its operational relevance till 2035.

Training Aircraft

Air Chief Marshal Raha said that the induction of Pilatus PC-7 Mk II as a basic flying trainer has “met the long aspired requirements of the IAF.”

Its performance and average serviceability “has been exceptional and the OEM is providing proactive product support for maintaining enhanced serviceability of the fleet.” The fleet has flown more than 15,000 hours, executed over 25,000 landings” within a little more than one year.

Notably, the Air Chief visited the Air Force Academy in Hyderabad recently and also flew the aircraft himself. The young pilots there were happy at the induction of this aircraft from Switzerland.

Republished with permission of our partner India Strategic: