The Coming of the Rafale to the Indian Air Force

By Air Marshal Anil Chopra (Retd)

New Delhi. India’s Defence Minister Rajnath Singh will formally receive the first of the 36 Rafale aircraft at a special ceremony in France on 8th October 2019, the day the Indian Air Force (IAF) marks its 87th Birthday.

Rafale’s induction and operationalisation process will begin thereafter to make it a strategic combat asset. IAF has inducted aircraft in the past from Russia, UK, and France, and procedures are well tuned. IAF had operated French Dassault fighters Ouragan (Toofani), and the Mystere IV in its initial years. Inducted in 1985, the Mirage 2000, now under upgrade, still continues to be the cutting-edge fleet of the IAF.

Mirages were the weapon platform of choice in operations in the Kargil War and were modified with Israeli Litening pods for laser guidance of dumb iron bombs to hit Pakistani soldiers occupying the Kargil heights in the 1999 War, and used again in 2019 in the recent Balakot strike to neutralise terrorist camps run by the Pakistani army.

The Contract

The 36 aircraft, €7.87 billion (Rs 58,891 crore) Rafale contract will give IAF 28 single-seat, and 8 twin-seat aircraft. The deal also includes tailor-made IAF specific enhancements (ISEs) including the integration of an Israeli helmet-mounted display (HMD), radar warning receivers and low-band jammers. It includes a weapons package and a performance-based logistics agreement. The weapons include MICA and Meteor Beyond Visual Range Air-to-Air Missiles (BVRAAM) and SCALP air-to-ground cruise missiles. The Indian Rafale will be a modified version of the F3R standard for missile applications.

The delivery of the jets is to be completed in 67 months of contract signing, by 2022.

The Project Team

As is traditional, a project monitoring team, called the Rafale Project Team (RPT) has been in place in France since 2017. The team is collocated and is working closely with Dassault Aviation at its Saint Cloud complex in Paris. RPT is responsible for monitoring contract execution and acting as an interface between India and France.

Acceptance of an aircraft from the manufacturer involves physical checks of ‘Standard of Preparation’, which includes check of all systems onboard, and supporting certification and maintenance documents. The aircraft is then subjected to a few flight tests. An Indian team of flight test pilots and engineers has been positioned in France for this purpose.

Training in France

The specially selected personnel who train in France will later become the nucleus for training others in flying training for IAF pilots and technical training for engineers and technicians. The flying training is planned at Mont-de-Marsan air base in South West France. Flying training for the IAF Mirage 2000 pilots was also done there. Normally, there should be 2 or 3 batches of Indian pilots to get training in France. These pilots will later fly the aircraft to India around April 2020, and later train other pilots in India.

A much larger number of engineers and technicians are also already in France, and some of them will specialize in different systems of the aircraft.

Ferry to India

The aircraft will be flown to India by IAF pilots. The first departure from Bordeaux Merignac airfield is expected in or around April 2020.

The initial lot of 6 to 8 aircraft will fly in formations accompanied by a large transport aircraft of C-17 or IL-76 class which would carry engineers, technicians and spare parts for technical support through the ferry. There would be technical halts at a couple of places for rest and refueling. In the case of Mirages, they had stopovers at Atehns, Cairo and Doha before touching the Indian shores and landing at Air Force Station (AFS) Jamnagar for routine Customs clearance.

Then of course, the happiest flight for the pilots to their home base of Gwalior.

Rafale could follow a similar route culminating at Ambala, where their first Squadron, Number 17, has just been reactivated and technical maintenance facilities have been set up by Dassault Aviation.

Dassault Aviation also has ground facilities at many places on the route, and has also set them up in India.

The First Squadron

The 17 Squadron, called Golden Arrows, was ‘number-plated’ in 2016 and was resurrected on 10 September 2019 at Ambala. This will be the first Rafale squadron. Interestingly, Air Chief BS Dhanoa had commanded this squadron during the Kargil war.

The pilots trained abroad will be the core group to formulate Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs), tactics and weapon system exploitation for fleet operations in India. Engineers and technicians will formulate maintenance SOPs. This core group would also split into two to form the second Rafale squadron at Hashmira in the east a year later.

Airbase Infrastructure

Ambala was the mother base to the initial induction of Jaguars and MiG 21 Bison aircraft, among others. The airbase is nearly 200 km from India’s Western and northern border. By distance it mirrors Pakistan’s most important airbase of Sargoda.

This distance gives enough depth and yet is near enough to launch offensive missions. Specific-to-type infrastructure for Rafale has been coming up for some time. It includes technical infrastructure for avionics and optical/IR pods, electronic warfare systems, and weapon preparation areas. The Rafale simulator and the type-training TETTRA school would have to be set up. Facilities for engine test-bench may be required.

Later similar infrastructure will come up at Hashimara.

Commonality with Mirage 2000 upgrade of some of the airframe systems, aircraft instrumentation, MFDs and MICA missiles would be of help for inventory management and make it easier for IAF to absorb the new generation technologies. Some of these systems are to be made in India in collaboration with French companies.

Besides Dassault, there are three other major partners in the Indian Rafale programme, Thales for electronics, Safran for engines and MBDA for missiles.

The Weapon Platform

Rafale is capable of simultaneously packaging air superiority, interdiction, reconnaissance, and airborne nuclear deterrent missions.

The aircraft is designed for reduced radar cross-section (RCS) and infra-red signature. The glass cockpit is designed around the principle of data fusion. Rafale also features an advanced avionics suite.

The RBE2 AA active electronically scanned array (AESA) radar has been tested operationally. It has a field of regard of 70° on either side of the aircraft axis, and extended range capabilities supporting low-observable target detection. It has SAR (Synthetic Aperture Radar) imaging capability and improved resistance to jamming.

The SPECTRA integrated electronic warfare suite provides long-range detection, identification and localization of infrared homing, radio-frequency and laser threats. The system incorporates radar warning receiver, laser-warning, Missile Approach Warning (MAW) for threat detection plus a phased array radar jammer and a decoy dispenser for threat countering. The Thales/SAGEM Optronique Secteur Frontal Infra Red Search and Track (IRST) system uses a narrow field for tracking air targets up to 100 kilometers.

A TV/IR sensor for target identification includes laser rangefinder is also there, and the aircraft are capable of midair refueling by Refuellers or buddy aircraft.

Notably, AESA, IRST and the other equipment on board meets the IAF demands set in the 2007 tender for the tender for 126 aircraft (later aborted).

The Rafale has 14 hard points to carry up to 9,500 kg external loads. The air-to-air missiles include Magic II, MBDA MICA IR or EM, and MBDA Meteor. Meteor is an active radar guided, BVRAAM, offering multi-shot capability against long range manoeuvring jets, UAVs and cruise missiles in a heavy electronic countermeasures (ECM) environment with range well in excess of 150 km.

The no-escape zone of over 60 km is the largest among air-to-air missiles according to the manufacturer.

MBDA’s Storm Shadow/SCALP-EG cruise missile has 450 kg warhead and 560 km range.

Integration and Operationalisation

IAF is already in the process to make its new, and most potent combat aircraft yet, fully operational as fast as possible.

Flying training covers operational missions along with the radar controllers to quickly hone pilots’ weapon delivery skills. They will begin evolving dissimilar air engagement tactics with other fleets. The Rafales will fly in packages with other fleets in different roles, in network-centric missions in different roles, including air superiority, air strikes, and air defence.

There will be joint inter-Services exercises, involving not only IAF’s strategic assets like midair refuellers and AWACS but also those of the Indian Navy.

For training there will be Sogitec synthetic collective training centers as flying simulators at Ambala and Hasimara. A squadron will have two Unit Level Instruction System (ULIS) self-service trainers and one Part Task Trainer (PTT) for procedures.

Both the Ambala and Hasimara bases will be fully integrated with Mirage 2000 base at Gwalior for operations and cooperative training. The collective training and synthetic learning architecture will be linked directly to the similar module in Gwalior, being set up for the IAF’s upgraded Mirage 2000-5 fleet.

This will allow pilots at the three bases to fly cooperative simulated missions. The experience of the Gwalior squadrons, coupled with the new Rafale technologies will be mutually beneficial.

The Ambala airbase will additionally have Rafale Maintenance Trainer. And reportedly coming with it is the virtual/augmented reality hands-on documentation and training system (HADOC).

The Game Changer

Equipped with a wide range of weapons, the Rafale would perform air supremacy, interdiction, aerial reconnaissance, deep ground strike, anti-ship strike and nuclear deterrence missions. The Omnirole Rafale, as the manufacturer calls it, will be the strategic delivery platform for air delivered nuclear missiles.

Rafales are later planned to have the lighter BrahMos NG supersonic variant. Periodic upgrades are included in the agreement with the French, who are offering another batch of 36 aircraft to make the numbers viable. The 50 per cent offsets could in a way support the Make-in-India requirements as well.

Howsoever, the Rafale is the Game Changer for IAF for the country’s defence.

The author is a pioneer pilot of IAF’s Mirage 2000 fleet, and has closely been associated with its induction and operationalisation.

This article was first published by India Strategic in October 2019.