India’s Choice: Rafale, Su-35 or HAL Tejas?


2015-08-18 By Zbigniew Mazurak

India has recently announced its decision not to buy 126 Rafale fighter jets and to reopen the competition to replace its aging fighter fleet, this time the scope being 90 aircraft as New Delhi has already ordered 36 Rafales from France.

So the whole replacement contract will be re-competed – but on a smaller scale (90 aircraft).

According to some sources, the Russians are trying to woo India into buying the Su-35 fighter, the newest variant of the Flanker family of air superiority fighters. (Russia is desperate to sell the Su-35, which, so far, has failed to obtain a single firm export order.)

This is supposed to be an alternative to the French Dassault Rafale, which the Indian defense minister called “too expensive” several months ago.

Meanwhile, India’s domestic aerospace industry is heavily lobbying the Indian government to extend the production of the lightweight HAL Tejas fighter instead.

Yet neither of these aircraft is comparable to the Dassault Rafale, and they are significantly inferior to the French fighter by virtually all metrics.

Comparing the Rafale to the Su-30/35

If we look at the two fighters’ aerodynamic and kinematic performance as well as their capabilities, it becomes evident that the Rafale is decisively superior to the Russian aircraft. Let’s look at following metrics.

PILOT VISION: The Rafale offers unobstructed, 360 degree, all around horizontal vision from its cockpit for its pilot. The same is not true for the Su-35, whose pilot’s rearward view from the cockpit is obstructed by elements in the aircraft’s rear (the pilot only has a 158-degree horizontal vision from the cockpit). Obstruction of view from the cockpit often causes a fighter pilot to be unaware of opposing aircraft and thus to be shot down by them – throughout the history of air combat, 80% of fighters shot down went down with their pilots not knowing what hit them. Advantage Rafale.

SUSCEPTIBILITY TO DETECTION: The Su-35 is far larger and far hotter, and thus far easier to detect both visually and with infrared sensors, than the Rafale – the fighter has significant infrared signature reduction measures. The French fighter is overwhelmingly superior on this criterion.

SENSORS: Both aircraft have Infra-Red Search and Tracking systems (the OSF and the OLS-35, respectively), but the Rafale’s is better, as it has a longer range (80/130 kms, versus 50/90 kms for the Su-35’s OLS-35 IRST) and a wider looking azimuth. In addition, the Rafale has an AESA radar (and a very good one at that – the RBE2), while the Su-35 does not. Points go to the Rafale, then.

WEAPONS: Both fighters carry missiles with a wide range of seekers (radar- and IR-guided), but the Rafale can carry more of them (14 for the C variant, 13 for the B and M variants) than the Su-35 (12). The two fighters’ guns have the same caliber – 30 mm. The Rafale thus has a slight advantage here. And Rafale is being upgraded with the latest MBDA missiles as well such as Meteor.

AGILITY AND MANEUVERABILITY: This is a completely different matter. On this score, the Rafale is unquestionably better. It has a wing loading ratio of only 328 kg/sq m (275 kg/sq m according to Picard) at 50% fuel – far, far lower than the Su-35’s 408 kg/sq m. In addition, at a full fuel and weapon load, the Rafale’s engines provide a 0.988:1 thrust/weight ratio – slightly better than the Su-35’s 0.92:1. Points go again to the Rafale.

CLIMBING RATE AND ACCELERATION: On this score, the Rafale also enjoys a clear advantage: its climbing rate is 305 m/s, versus only 280 m/s for the Su-35. This also shows that the Rafale accelerates better.

MAINTENANCE REQUIREMENTS: This characteristic is of utmost importance, yet it is hardly ever mentioned by those who write about combat aircraft. The Rafale has a lopsided advantage over the Su-35: it only needs 8 hours of maintenance for each hour flown, while its Russian competitor needs 32 hours for each hour flown, allowing it to fly for only 22 hours per month. The Su-30 and the Su-35 are veritable hangar queens.

UK tanker refuels Rafale during operation against ISIL. October 31, 2014. Credit: Air Tanker
UK tanker refuels Rafale during operation against ISIL. October 31, 2014. Credit: Air Tanker 

Moreover, the Rafale doesn’t need significant preventive maintenance and any damaged or worn-out component of it can be replaced in an hour. Replenishing fuel and ammunition takes just 20 minutes. Its maintenance and operational costs are lower than those of either the Su-27, Su-30, Su-35.

Of course, the Su-30 can’t even fly that often – it can’t fly more frequently than 22 hours per month, while the Rafale can fly for 80 hours per month – almost FOUR TIMES as much as the Su-30! Only the Rafale will allow IAF pilots to train frequently enough to shape real combat capabilities for the IAF.

This is not surprising at all. Even the earliest Flanker variants – the SU-27PU, Su-27UBK, and Su-30MKI – are very complex and very maintenance-heavy aircraft.

FUEL FRACTION: The Rafale engines’ fuel fraction, at 33%, is one of the most efficient among currently operating combat aircraft. greater

FUTURE UPGRADE COSTS: These will also be much lower for the Rafale than for the competition. For example, the Rafale already has an AESA radar; and the Flankers do not.

RUNWAY REQUIREMENTS: In a war, the IAF’s runways might be destroyed by the enemy. The IAF would then have to fly its aircraft from highways. The Rafale is capable of this – it only needs 400 m of runway and has an 11 meter wingspan. The Su-35 needs at least 450 meters and has a wingspan of 15 meters.

CARRIER ADAPTABILITY: The single-engine Tejas is unsuited for carrier operations. The Su-33, the Flanker’s carrier-based variant, is an obese, super-heavy, unmaneuverable, and underequipped. By contrast, the Rafale M is a very good carrier-based fighter in the world today. It has all the capabilities of other Rafale variants and has been operating off the Charles de Gaulle (R91) aircraft carrier since 2001.

Now, What of the Domestically-Produced HAL Tejas?

India produces domestically the HAL Tejas fighter. While ordering more such aircraft would be in line with PM Modi’s “Make in India” pledge, it would also be a costly in combat terms choice, notably because the HAL Tejasis notyet a fully capable fighter. Also, it can carry only 9 weapons (missiles and bombs), compared to 14 for the Rafale C and 13 for the Rafale B and M. And again Rafale is being upgraded with MBDA missiles as well which India can then adopt without further test costs.

The HAL Tejas also requires a long (1,7 km runway) to take off, while the Rafale only needs a 400 m runway.

As for the HAL Tejas’ maneuverability, acceleration, and combat persistence, the less is said about them, clealry Rafale is superior to this aircraft.

And the HAL Tejas offers very poor visibility (especially rearward visibility) to its pilot from the cockpit while lacking an infra-red search and tracking system and thus relying exclusively on an active sensor: radar. Thus, the HAL Tejas, despite its small size and thermal signature, is easier to detect for anyone with a Radar Warning Receiver and very easy to shoot down by surprise than is a Rafale.

Which Supplier Should India Choose?

Finally, let us consider one last important issue: dependence on foreign suppliers.

One of the purposes of PM Narendra Modi’s “Make in India” campaign is to make his country – currently the world’s largest importer of weapons – less dependent on foreign arms suppliers, and the overwhelming majority of these are imported from just one country: Russia. PM Modi certainly recognizes just how unhealthy and dangerous this dependence is.

But how is India supposed to wean itself off this dependence if it imports yet more Russian aircraft (thus greatly increasing its dependence on Moscow?

This would make India even more dependent on Russia when Russian behavior is creating clear challenges for the economic viability of Russia itself.

Editor’s Note: Having started with Rafale, the logical choice is to continue. 

As we argued earlier:

The IAF is going to be part of the transformation which the French forces have seen with Rafale, it is not simply about buying 36 planes.

The French will engaged in the maintenance of the Indian rafales which will make the French forces part of the Indian landscape as well for deterrence, not a bad idea in today’s uncertain world.

And as maintenance is stood up in India for Rafale and Indian firms become involved the foundation for building Rafale in India can be built. It is really up to the Indian government, the IAF and Indian industry to make this happen.

And in a recent report The Economic Times the initial Rafale deal is still being worked out.

India has tried to insert an offset deal, as well as modifications in the program which of course drive up cost and delivery time.

Even more interesting is that the Indian government wishes to add an additional base to the deal, which is amazing for it is clear this would drive up cost significantly.

Both Qatar and Egypt, which have struck similar deals with the French government, have gone in for one base only.

“Can understand that India’s strategic needs might be different but generally two bases are needed when one has more than just two squadrons of a particular aircraft. Setting up of two bases will also cost more,” the sources said.

“The benchmark for the prices are already there since the deals with Egypt and Qatar have been struck.

One might note that bureaucracies kill deals; they do not defend the country.