Why IAF's Rafales give India an edge: all you need to know

Rahul M
·13 min read

The first five Rafale fighter jets were formally inducted into the Indian Air Force on Thursday at the Ambala air base.

A galaxy of dignitaries including Defence Minister Rajnath Singh, his French counterpart Florence Parly, Chief of Defence Staff Gen Bipin Rawat, Air Chief Marshal RKS Bhadauria and Defence Secretary Ajay Kumar attended the ceremony.

The first five French Rafale fighter jets had landed in Ambala on July 29, after their 7000-km long journey to India from the Merignac airbase in France’s Bordeaux, exponentially enhancing the Indian Air Force’s combat capabilities.

These five include three single-seater and two twin-seater aircraft.

The aircraft flew from France to India with air-to-air refuelling and a stop in the United Arba Emirates.

The weapon systems that give the Rafale an edge over other fighter aircraft in the region have already been delivered to India, ahead of the fighters.

Of the 10 Rafale jets handed over to India, five have landed in India, while the other five will stay back for a training mission.

The Rafale has been termed as the game changer as it alters the balance of power in the region, giving India an edge over its enemies.

The Rafale is one of the world’s best fighter planes and is an ‘omnirole’ fighter that can carry out multiple missions in one flight.

The timing of the arrival of these 4.5 Generation, highly advanced Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft is extremely critical in light of the border standoff with China along the Line of Actual Control and the constant hostility of Pakistan.

How many Rafale fighter jets will India get?

These Rafale fighter jets resurrect the Number 17 Golden Arrows squadron of the Indian Air Force, taking the IAF’s squadron strength to 31.

When all the 36 Rafale jets are delivered by 2022, it will take it to 32 squadrons, still well below the 42 squadrons of the sanctioned strength.

India has contracted 36 Rafale multi-role fighter jets from France in fly-away condition with 13 India Specific Enhancements (ISE) under a Euro 7.87 billion Inter-Governmental Agreement signed in September 2016.

Out of the 36 Rafale jets, 30 will be fighter jets and six will be trainers. The trainer jets will be twin-seater and they will have almost all the features of the fighter jets.

How much does the Rafale cost?

India had signed an agreement with France for the procurement of 36 Rafale jets at a cost of about Rs 59,000 crore, which is approximately Rs 1,639 crore per jet.

What is special about the Rafale jet?

The Rafale is a modern fighter jet known for its agility, speed, weapon holding capacity and attack capability. The Dassault Rafale has a delta wing design and is capable of G-forces as high as 11G (in case of emergency).

The Rafale is available in both single and dual seating cabin (India ordered 28 single and 8 dual seater Rafale).

Equipped with a wide range of weapons, the Rafale is intended to perform air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, ground support, in-depth strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions, reports say.

Details that make Rafale deadly

Rafale is a Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) that is said to boost India’s air dominance exponentially, currently safeguarded by fighter jets like Russia made Sukhoi Su-30MKI and MiG 29, along with French Mirage-2000 and indigenously built HAL Tejas.

Rafale’s weapon systems

  • Each aircraft has 14 storage stations for weapons, The Indian Express reported.

  • The Rafale fighter jets come with Meteor, highly advanced air-to-air missiles. The 190-kg missile has a Beyond Visual Range of more than 100 km and can travel at a top speed of Mach 4.

  • The F16 jets, used by Pakistan, carry the AMRAAM missile, which has a Beyond Visual Range of 75 km.

  • Rafale can also outperform F16 in dogfights.

  • The Rafale jets are equipped with SCALP, the air-to-ground long-range deep strike cruise missile with a range over 300 km.

  • The MICA air-to-air missile on Rafale is for close-quarter dogfights, and for Beyond Visual Range.

  • India’s Rafales also have HAMMER (Highly Agile and Manoeuvrable Munition Extended Range), which is an air-to-ground precision guided missile produced by France’s Safran. HAMMER can be used against bunker-type hardened targets within a range of 70 km.

Rafale Specifications:

  • Wing span: 10.90 mts

  • Length: 15.30 mts

  • Height: 5.30 mts

  • Overall empty weight: 10 tons

  • External load: 9.5 tons

  • Maximum take-off weight: 24.5 tons

  • Fuel (internal): 4.7 tons

  • Fuel (external): up to 6.7 tons

  • Ferry Range: 3,700 km

  • Top Speed: 1.8 Mach at high altitude

  • Landing ground run: 450 mts (1,500 ft)

  • Service ceiling: 50,000 ft

Where will the Rafale be based in India?

The first squadron of the Rafale aircraft will be deployed at Ambala air force station, considered one of the most strategically located bases of the IAF. The Indo-Pak border is around 220 km from there.

The second squadron of Rafale will be stationed at Hasimara base in West Bengal.

A formal induction ceremony of the aircraft will be held in mid-August.

Rafale jets are likely to be deployed in the Ladakh sector as part of the IAF’s efforts to enhance its operational capabilities along the Line of Actual Control with China in view of the border standoff.

What is Rafale’s cold-start engine?

Specially tailored for the IAF, the Rafale jets have cold engine start capability to operate from high-altitude bases including Leh, radar warning receivers, flight data recorders with storage for 10 hours of data, infrared search and track systems, low-band jammers, Israeli helmet-mounted displays and towed decoys to ward off incoming missiles, the Hindustan Times reported.

Rafale’s weapon systems

The 15.30 metre nose-to-tail long Rafale with a wing span of 10.9 metres each and a height of 5.3 meters is one of the sleekest mean machines.

According to Dassault, the maker of Rafale, the aircraft also possesses ‘close-coupled canards/delta wing configuration’.

The wing design, according to the company, makes it far superior and is a key to its combat performance even at ‘high angle-of-attack’.

Rafale can attain a maximum speed of Mach 1.8/750 kt (2,222.6 km per hour). The Rafale can climb up to 50,000 ft.

It can fly up to a spectacular range of 3,700 km, which could be further increased by refuelling it mid-air.

The Rafale can carry some of the most advanced weapons available on the planet, including MICA air-to-air ‘Beyond Visual Range’ interception, combat and self-defense missiles.

The METEOR very long-range air-to-air missile on board would be a game changer of sorts in the South-Asian skies. These missiles would not let enemy aircraft come near the machine or cross its path.

Another addition is the SCALP long-range air-to-land missile, which is a deadly deep strike weapon.

Beside these, Rafale could integrate the AM39 EXOCET anti-ship missile, non-guided as well as laser-guided bombs with different warheads from 500lbs to 2,000 lbs.

Rafale also has the best of its class ‘Active Electronically Scanned Array’ radar system. Rafale is the first operational – and so far, the only – European combat aircraft to use an electronic scanning radar.

With more than 30,000 flight hours in operations, Rafale has proven its worth in combat in Afghanistan, Libya, Mali, Iraq and Syria.

The METEOR missiles

The Rs 20-crore worth METEOR is the next generation of BVR air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) designed to revolutionise air-to-air combat. The weapon has been developed by MBDA to combat common threats facing the UK, Germany, Italy, France, Spain and Sweden.

The Meteor is powered by a unique rocket-ramjet motor that gives it far more engine power for much longer than any other missile, said an official.

Besides the missile systems, the Rafale jets will come with various India-specific modifications, including Israeli helmet-mounted displays, radar warning receivers, low-band jammers, 10-hour flight data recording, infra-red search and tracking systems, among others.

The HAMMER missiles

HAMMER (Highly Agile Modular Munition Extended Range) is a medium-range air-to-ground weapon designed and manufactured for the French Air Force and Navy initially. It has the capability to take out any types of targets at the range of around 60-70 km.

The Narendra Modi government has reportedly used ‘emergency powers’ to allow the Army to procure HAMMER missiles from France. The missiles will be used to further boost the capabilities of Rafale fighter jets.

The HAMMERs give India the capability to take out any bunkers or hardened shelters in any type of terrain, including the mountainous locations such as Eastern Ladakh, news agency ANI said.

Here’s what Meteor brings to air-to-air combat

The weapons it packs make the Rafale fighter the platform it has evolved into over the last two-and-a-half decades — most of all, MBDA’s Meteor beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile, India Today reported.

The propulsion system: The Meteor missile uses GmbH’s solid fuel, variable flow, ducted rocket system, also called ramjet.

The Ramjet propulsion system gives Meteor the ability to throttle its engine (control engine power) during the various stages of its flight towards its target. The propulsion system in a standard air-to-air missile does not give this option.

This gives the Meteor an edge over a standard air-to-air missile. ‘The ramjet motor [propulsion system] provides the [Meteor] missile with thrust all the way to target intercept, providing the largest No-Escape Zone of any air-to-air missile,’ the literature on the missile on MBAD website reads.

So, when a Meteor missile is fired, it is able to throttle its engine back while it is flying towards its target in the cruise phase. This saves a lot of its fuel. When the missile reaches close to its target, it throttles up its engine using the saved fuel and enters the terminal phase of its flight in a high-energy state.

In comparison, in a standard air-to-air missile, the propulsion system delivers energy in an unmodulated manner, providing the same amount of thrust over a certain period as it can’t be throttled. If the target is far, the missile will have less energy in the terminal phase of its flight than the one powered with a ramjet motor.

Being in a high-energy state in the terminal phase helps the missile maneuver easily to counter the evasive tactics of the target it is chasing. In short, the ramjet-equipped Meteor has greater chances of hitting a target at long ranges than an air-to-air missile using a typical rocket motor.

This capability gives Meteor the largest ‘no-escape zone’ — the area within which the target can’t kinetically avoid being hit or the kill probability is very high,’ India Today reported.

The communication system: To hit their targets accurately, missiles need mid-course updates to make corrections to their trajectory. If the missile has the latest data on the location of its target, the probability of it hitting the target is better than it would be otherwise.

Meteor missiles can receive such updates not only from the fighter it is fired from, but also from ‘third party’ sources like other friendly fighters in the battle zone, airborne early warning and control aircraft (AEW&C), and land and sea-based radars. This is especially useful when the missile is chasing a target at long range.

Once fired, the missile can depend on AEW&C aircraft or ground-based radar, which can track the target at greater ranges than the fighter which fired it.

The MICA missiles

The IAF’s Rafales will also carry the shorter-range MICA air-to-air missile, which is separately being fitted on to the IAF’s Mirage 2000 fighter aircraft fleet as part of its ongoing upgrade.

MBDA claims the MICA is the world’s only air-to-air missile that features two interoperable seekers (active radar and imaging infrared), allowing the missile to be used in close-in, fighter-to-fighter dogfights as well as in the BVR role.

One of the MICA’s key attributes is its ability, while in the BVR mode, to fly much of the distance to the enemy aircraft in passive mode – that is, without radiating radar waves, which alert the adversary.

When it approaches the target, the seeker starts radiating only in the final stages when the target has little time to take evasive manoeuvres or to deploy effective countermeasures, news reports state.

The SCALP deep-strike cruise missile

The over Rs 40-crore worth, 5.1 metre-long SCALP weighs 1,300 kg and can be carried in either one missile or two missiles configuration on the Rafale.

For striking ground targets, the IAF Rafales will carry the French SCALP deep-strike cruise missile.

This stealth weapon has the ability to strike hardened and protected targets deep inside hostile territory from stand-off ranges.

The missile has a 600-km range and is known for its precision. The Rafale will not have to cross the Indian airspace to hit a target that is about 600 km in enemy territory. It is a strategic weapon that can be used in penetration, impact or airburst modes, and can even strike deep even in anti-access and area-denial scenarios, said The Print.

The SCALP has the capability to create havoc at the target end due to its powerful tandem warhead and multiple detonation modes.

Rafale’s radars

IAF’s Rafales are equipped with Israeli Litening pods for sensor commonality across platforms in the Indian inventory and not the Thales TALIOS laser designator pod that France uses.

The Rafale comes with RBE2 Active Electronically Scanned Radar, which when compared to radars with conventional antennas, gives unprecedented levels of situational awareness with earlier detection and tracking of multiple targets.

Rafale also has the ‘Front Sector Optronics’ system, which is immune to radar jamming while operating in the optronic wavelengths.

It also comes with Spectra-integrated electronic warfare suite that provides long-range detection, identification and localisation of infrared, electromagnetic and laser threats.

The system incorporates radar, laser and missile warning receivers for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering, according to the MBDA, which had developed the system with defence contractor Thales, said The Print.

The ‘RB’ 001

The first Rafale, with tail number RB 001, which was handed over in France in October last year, will be the last one to arrive in India since all tests and integration would be tried out on it, reported The Print.

‘RB’ on the trainer aircraft’s tail stands for the initials of Air Chief Marshal Rakesh Bhadauria, the IAF chief. It is a tribute to Bhadauria for working out the Rafale deal as the force’s deputy chief earlier.

The single-seater comes with initials of BS, which stands for former IAF chief Air Chief Marshal BS Dhanoa.