The Supreme Court’s verdict on Thursday has dispelled a major cloud over the purchase of 36 Rafale fighter jets by the Indian Air Force (IAF) that has been looking forward to inducting the French-made planes to bolster its fast-depleting fleet. It caps a 12-year-long process to add the aircraft to the IAF and gives a massive fillip to the force’s air deterrence capabilities vis-à-vis Pakistan and China.
Understandably, the IAF did not issue any statement on the verdict, but former air force chief Birender Singh Dhanoa hailed the apex court verdict. “I think we have been vindicated," Dhanoa was cited as saying by news agency ANI. “I hope the matter is now laid to rest. Raking up such issues to get political gains, putting the interest of your armed forces behind, I think is not right."
India is the fourth country after France, Egypt and Qatar to fly the Rafale produced by Dassault Aviation SA. Defence minister Rajnath Singh was in France last month for the official handover of the aircraft to the IAF.
Both Dhanoa and his successor, R.K.S. Bhadauria, have described the Rafale as a “game changer".
Most of the aircraft in the IAF’s inventory, including the Dassault-made Mirage 2000 and the Russian-built Su-30MKI, are classified as either third- or fourth-generation fighters. The Rafale is categorized as fourth generation-plus fighter thanks to its radar-evading stealth capability, according to defence analysts.
Together with the S-400 anti-aircraft missile system that India has ordered from Russia, it tilts the conventional balance of power in the subcontinent towards the IAF.
The Rafale’s strength lies in its advanced radar and an array of Meteor, Scalp and Mica missiles, besides 13 India-specific enhancements, the analysts said.
The Rafale’s electronically scanned array radar allows for early detection and tracking of multiple air targets and generates three-dimensional maps of the terrain over which the jet is flying in real time. The Meteor is a next-generation beyond-visual-range air-to-air missile (BVRAAM) that can hit a wide range of targets with pinpoint accuracy. The Scalp is a long-range (300km), air-launched, stand-off attack missile aimed at stationary targets such as airbases, radar installations, communications hubs. The Mica is also a BVRAAM with unique stealth interception capability.
The India-specific enhancements include modifications in the fuel starter system that will enable the aircraft’s engine to operate at optimum levels even at high-altitude air bases such as Leh.
With the cloud lifting over one of the most significant acquisitions for the IAF, it can now focus on other deals in the pipeline—two more Phalcon airborne warning and control systems from Israel, tankers from French manufacturer Airbus, and range of missiles from Israel and other countries.
The IAF has also issued a request for information (RFI) for 114 medium multi-role combat planes that are to be made in India through the strategic partnership route—i.e. between an Indian company partnering with a foreign original equipment manufacturer.
“The response to this RFI was received in July last year but further progress for issuance of request for proposal to kickstart the procurement process has not yet commenced," said Kishore Kumar Khera, a former IAF group captain. “One of the reasons could be this case in the Supreme Court about Rafale deal with all stakeholders awaiting the judgement. With Thursday’s judgement, hopefully, all energies will be focused on equipping Indian Armed Forces with requisite hardware for them to be ready for present and future threats."